Professor Denise Comer
English Composition I: Achieving Expertise
15 April 2013
Review: Coyle, Daniel (2009). The Sweet Spot. The Talent Code. Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. New York: Bantam (Extract from Chapter I)
Greatness and its shortcomings
The human boundaries of excellence in various areas of expertise continue to stretch beyond our expectations. People nowadays are getting faster, stronger – perhaps even more intelligent – and overall better at what they are tasked to do. Given this context of continuous antagonism and effort, certain people always seem to stand out in the crowd: those who are actually better than average, the gifted ones. What makes them arise from mediocre state? One would assume innate, inexplicable “talent” is the first answer that comes to mind; judging by its title, Coyle begs to differ in his book The Sweet Spot. The Talent Code. Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.
In the first chapter of his book, based on his copious research along nine so called “talent hotbeds”  or as a friend more colloquially suggested “chicken-wire Harvards” , Coyle delves in the matter of talent and its components. Carefully trying to assign a definition to the term, Coyle introduces us to the world of sports, psychology and flight simulation; the results in all cases seem to deter the notion that talented people are miraculously so. Along with the brief descriptions of his endeavor that took him on what his daughter compares to an alternative “treasure hunt” , readers of his work actually come to realize that perhaps the term “talent” is highly overrated; perhaps it does exist in terms of a being prone to a grandeur in certain fields – mainly athletic – but it should be more properly substituted by the term “deep practice” . For Coyle it’s nothing more really than “practice makes perfect” motto reinvented. In page 18 Coyle defines this as a paradox since”… experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.” Indeed after skimming the first pages of the chapter it seems quite reasonable to the author and the audience as well, that through constant effort we redeem ourselves through our mistakes; we actually become better at what we are trying to do by doing it wrong at first – it is in the human nature to strive for perfection amidst fallacy.
In order to back his assumptions Coyle makes use of the scientific world as well as that of empirical data. Professor Bjork, chair of psychology in the prestigious UCLA, provides the very definition of the chapter’s title: “”It’s all about finding the sweet spot,” Bjork said. «There’s an optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do. When you find that sweet spot, learning takes off.”  In other words it takes really more than just one’s time and strength; one needs to be able to do that efficiently.
However, Coyle uses more practical sightings of his ideas and to do so he implements a worldwide beloved sport: Brazilian football and the “supernatural skills”  of Brazilian football players. Coyle’s readers actually discover that unlike Maradona and his infamous hand, skills of the sort do not necessarily come as God’s gift. Moreover they are the result of another game, which happens to be quicker and more demanding, yet lesser in scale. “Futsal”  left Mr. Clifford – a coach from the other bank of the Atlantic – in awe of its potential implementation. He concurs: “It was clear to me that this was where Brazilian skills were born […] It was like finding the missing link.”  Baring witness to the Brazilian wonder, Clifford successfully paved the way to young Englishmen, following the example of their Brazilian comrades. They began practicing futsal “developing a soccer program for elementary and high-school-age kids that he called the Brazilian Soccer School. He constructed an elaborate series of drills based on futsal moves.”. Laughable at first yet it actually worked providing Coyle with ample evidence, that he is on to something. These junior stars later defeated their Scottish peers and even took noted posts on their national team. “More stars, Clifford says, are on the way.”
Coyle’s ideas seem refreshing as they are vividly depicted through numerous case studies. Indeed he captures the sentimental insecurity of his readers concerning potential drawbacks in performance and implies that through rigorous training, miracles are possible. Coyle argues that even Air force pilots benefit from the “opportunity to practice more deeply”  and as a result not only do they become more skilled but they also implementing – in this case – a life-saving technique.
As in all cases however there is a problematic aspect of Coyle’s assumptions. The empirical evidence used to support his ideas is distracting; we are being told of cases where hard work and training took a toll on talent but the recount of such stories is deliberately in favor of “deep practice”. Coyle mostly observes groups of people (namely pilots, football players) and not one-of-a-kind figures individually. Didn’t Maradona engage in equally hard training with his fellow comrades? We only seem to remember his name, though. Contrary to Coyle’s scientific theoretical approach, the emerging theory of gamification – as the Gamification wiki (2013) defines it – upholds the idea of “…game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging.” As such the user becomes effectively a “player”; players are all equal when onboarding a gaming experience or during the process of scaffolding. Yet the “epic win” outcome – and the bonuses attached – is for those selected few, who might have spent equal amounts of “deep practice” but achieved goals more efficiently.
To sum up, Coyle makes a hard case against talent even from the early stages of his book; it is after all an effort of coming up with a self-improvement title, that might sell well. His ideas are carefully pitched and the examples come from various aspects of life so as to cover enough ground. Nevertheless, I cannot seem to stop questioning his intent: are we to dismiss talent? There are certainly things we are good at and then there are things we are great at; we can unquestionably narrow the margin towards greatness by “deep practice”. But being the best at something takes a lot more, I ‘m afraid.
“Diego Maradona.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 25 Sept. 2001. Web. 14 April. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_Maradona
Gamification wiki 2013, ‘What is gamification’, wiki article viewed 15 April 2013 http://utas.libguides.com/content.php?pid=27520&sid=289517
 Reference to the 1986 World cup football match. Wikipedia recounts “This match was played with the background of the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom and emotions were still lingering in the air throughout the entire match. Replays showed that the first goal was scored by striking the ball with his hand. Maradona was coyly evasive, describing it as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” It became known as the “Hand of God“.