From Debra Rienstra
Through random book serendipity, I came across the 2009 book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and I’ve been reading about “talent hotbeds.” Coyle wanted to know why a certain Russian tennis academy produces a slew of champions, or the Dominican Republic a steady stream of baseball pros, or 1590s Elizabethan England an outpouring of great poets. He discovered that the answer is neither genetic mutations, nor climate, nor—I know this will come as a disappointment—aliens. The answer is practice.
Naturally, we are talking about a certain kind of practice in certain kinds of circumstances. The book is a pleasantly breathless study of what creates motivation, what constitutes great coaching or teaching, and how we learn complex skills most efficiently. If you can put together the right elements, you might just set off a bloom of talent. I found this book intriguing as a teacher, a musician, and an occasionally nagging parent (“Practice your horn!”)—and I’m sure that athletes, too, would find it useful and even inspiring.
What interested me most, though, was the idea of “deep practice” at the heart of the book. Efficient learning, the kind that results in exceptional talent, requires not just any practice, but deep practice. This is a focused, exacting form of skill-building, a kind of fierce meditation in action. Anyone can do it; you just have to learn how and then keep it up.
The reason deep practice is so effective, Coyle explains, is myelin. Myelin is a sheathing that your brain uses to coat and secure a neural pathway when you repeat a skill. The more you repeat something, the more myelin your brain creates and the greater “bandwidth” you develop for that skill. When you practice well, you build myelin quickly, and you retain and improve the skill you’re working on. So don’t practice something wrong! Then you’re just building myelin for the wrong pathway!