You listen to a young child play the violin in spectacular fashion or watch a young “prodigy” hit tennis balls better than you yet the child is a quarter your size. You simply shrug your shoulders and say how lucky they are to have that talent instilled in them. We do this all the time. I just heard Mary Carillo talk on Wimbledon about a player having a “talent” for being able to anticipate so well where her opponent is hitting the ball and that this talent is “not coachable.” “They have it or they don’t.” Except that she’s wrong. Way wrong. Although it makes us feel better that our destiny of mediocre performance is outside our control, it keeps us from reaching our true potential. We all have the ability to learn new things. The only difference between you and someone that you see with a better ability than you is that person chose that path and you chose yours. That person put in the time to be great while you didn’t. I know it’s hard to take but it’s true. I want to switch gears though and instead of doing finger pointing, I would like to show you some past research that proves that we all are capable of learning and performing at a higher level than what most think is possible. This relates to anything, including tennis. Hopefully after reading this research you will feel more empowered to train a bit smarter to get the most of your ability. The main focus here is how the brain is capable of some amazing things and that just like our muscles, it adapts, changes based on the training you give it.
Taxi Cab Drivers in London
Taxi cab drivers in London are considered to have one of the hardest jobs in the world. Their training includes the ability to master over thousands of intersections, places of interests and destinations. See here for the research article on their job. A study was done on people training to become a taxi cab driver. They noticed that the people that obtained their certification for driving for the London Taxi Service had their postier hippocampus grow in grey matter by a significant amount. This part of the brain is for spatial navigation, an important part for a driver. This suggests that your brain can grow and adjust to the rigors you give it to make the tasks you are doing easier.
The brain can even rewire itself to be as efficient as possible. Blind people have been shown to have the part of the brain responsible for sight fire when they use their fingers to read brail. This shows that the brain can rewire and use parts of the brain that is designed for one thing to use for another function. This elasticity of the brain is far greater than we have first imagined.
Training Your Brain to See Better
When we get older, most of us will have to use glasses to read. Our eyes lose their elasticity, making it harder to focus on small details such as writing. Researchers took a group of 50+ year olds and gave them hours of training where they had to find a dot on a colored paper that was slightly different than the surrounding color, making it extremely hard to find with the eye sight the people had. After a week of this training, ALL the people could read without their glasses and reported to have better eye sight than before they did. Their eyes did not change, their brain did!
Many people have heard that Einstein’s brain had much more grey matter than a normal person, making it easier for him to think abstractly. Most specifically, the part of the brain is the inferior parietal region (by %15). This is true but here is the kicker: many brains of common mathematicians were shown to have the same large amount of grey matter in the same part of their brain, suggesting that this is an area that was developed and grown throughout Einstein’s practice of abstract thinking just like “mere mortals.”
The Famous 1982 Experiment on Memory
In 1982 two scientists named Chase and Ericsson took a college student who had the normal capacity for short-term memory and started working with him to develop it. The college student named “SF” in the study (See here for the 90+ page report on it) went from memorizing 7-10 digits on his own way of practicing to over 70 numbers doing it with other methods such as chunking and using “special memory.” The study shows how people with no signs of great memory capability can reach a level that was once only deemed as something someone had or they didn’t. This is also important because it shows that just practicing hard is not going to get you far. You need deliberate practice. This type of practice is when you are being very specific with your methods for improvement. For tennis, this is equivalent to going out and hitting tennis every day for a year without any proper coaching versus getting the correct mechanics from a coach before going out to work on your shot. Obviously you will improve a lot more if you are using the right strokes.
Take Home Message
Our capabilities are not based upon birth but what our actions are. We are all born with the same amazing brain that has shown through many studies to do incredible things when pushed outside normal levels. Just like the body builds muscle in reaction to physical training, the brain can do the same. So the question is not if you have the talent or not but if you are willing to get out of your “homeostasis” and start putting yourself in an environment where your brain can adapt and become more efficient at the task you want it to be in. To do this, deliberate practice is key. Just merely practicing hard will not do the trick. For example, many of us drive every day but we don’t get better at it. This is because we reach a level that is “good enough” and we coast. This is fine for many things in our life but how about your profession? Studies show that teachers and doctors tend to get worse as they get older without deliberate practice. This is the same for tennis. We keep playing but we are not improving. Maybe it’s time to put deliberate practice into your routine to see what you’re really made of!