Q&A with Bounce author Matthew Syed

In the run-up to the dreaded exam period, we invited Matthew Syed, author of Bounce, to answer questions in a motivating children-themed Q&A in May 2011. 

Matthew is three-times Commonwealth Gold table tennis champion and a Times columnist. His award-winning book, Bounce, argues that success is down to a combination of opportunity, being in the right place at the right time and hard work, rather than innate talent. 

Education and studying | Sport, dance and music | Laziness | Bounce


Education and studying

Q. mrsgmhopkins: My son is 17 and will soon be working towards his AS levels. He does get top grades, albeit with the odd slip-up, and he's aiming for Oxbridge. The thing is, at home he doesn't work half as hard as my husband and I used to. He comes home and spends his evenings online, chatting to friends and playing games. He claims to fit revision in around the online socialising. When we say he should be doing more, he says he works flat out at school and needs to relax. He wants to study maths at university, and we think that any extra studying would make a difference as his performance in maths papers is paramount. 

How can we motivate him to really put some time and effort in during the next few weeks? He does understand that Oxbridge entrance is very competitive, but he doesn't seem to see that working really hard is the way to make sure he has the best chance.


A. Matthew: Motivation is a fascinating topic and also very individual, depending on the person. There are two aspects to it. Firstly, it is vital your son really cares from the inside about studying maths at Oxford, that his motivation is internalised. Perhaps a conversation about the beauty and elegance of maths, the extraordinary opportunities provided by Oxford, the wonderful social scene there, might help.

The other key thing is that he understands - deep inside - that reaching his destination (getting to Oxford) hinges on hard work rather than talent. Explain how each minute that he spends in concentrated study, the more knowledge he will absorb, the more exciting maths will become, etc. Once teachers have taught young people that the brain is a muscle that grows with use, it can have a big impact on motivation and performance. Also, praising for effort rather than intelligence helps a lot.

Q. snorkie: How can you motivate or encourage a child who has talent but underperforms when competing or doing exams due to a lack of self-belief? You can see at the start of a race, some children are slapping their thighs and getting all psyched up, while others look slightly slumped, and you can tell they've lost even before the race has started. The same thing seems to happen in academic exams, too, some children just can't seem to handle the pressure whereas others seem to thrive on it.

A. Matthew: This is a great question! Pressure is inevitable when we really care about something, and can be useful for channelling our anxiety into deeper concentration and focus. But it can also tilt people in the opposite direction, so that they are too stressed to perform in the way they should.

One key thing to do is to become really familiar with the stressful environment. With exams, take a look at past examination papers, so you know what they look like and the questions to expect. Take a few mock exams at home under exam conditions (timed and invigilated) to get used to the feeling of a timed test. That should help ease any sense of panic.

"Depending on the individual, pressure may help to accentuate the positives. Rather than thinking about the negative ramifications of failure, think about the blessings of success. It can help raise mood and performance. It's important to realise that, whatever happens, you can still count on the most important thing of all: the love of those who care about you."

Depending on the individual, it may also help to accentuate the positives. Rather than thinking about the negative ramifications of failure, think about the blessings of success. It can help raise mood and performance. Also, it is important to realise that, whatever happens, you can still count on the most important thing of all: the love of those who care about you.

Q. WobblyWidgetOnTheScooper: My stepdaughter may need to be homeschooled due to poor health. She's 13, and has always struggled with dyslexic tendencies and has pretty much given up on herself due to low self-esteem. The thing is that she is actually really smart, but not in an academic way because she struggles to read and write. Do you have any tips on how to get her love of learning and curiosity back?

A. Matthew: Is there anything that really gets her going? Fiction? Sports? History? Harry Potter? Would it be possible to use some pre-existing motivation as a catalyst to open her eyes to the joy of learning? I know it is not easy, but finding a trigger may really help.

Sport, dance and music 

Q. Thebestisyettocome: I'm the mother of two very sporty boys with very different personalities. What are your views on ensuring children peak at the right time? Modern parents often appear to be in a mad scramble for their children to perform well at a very young age. As I'm the mum of a five-year-old who has two premier league football academies interested in him, I am very concerned it may be too much, too soon.

"Talent is a rather misleading concept, and kids who believe in talent tend to lose motivation. Why work hard if it is all about having the right genes?" 

A. Matthew: Great question, thanks. I think a key skill of a parent or coach is to encourage without pushing overly hard, to nudge without becoming overbearing. Building skills at an early age can provide a tremendous advantage, but forcing a child to work too hard, too young, can also lead to burn-out. Sensitive handling, by finding the right balance, is the key to this.

It is not easy, and it varies from individual to individual, but it can really work. The best way to get a sense of this is to ask yourself: does my child really enjoy his or her sport, or does he/she resent doing it? If the latter, ease off a little, and get them to rediscover the joy in sport once again.

Q. merrylegs: This is exactly the conversation I am having with my son (13) at the moment. He is a tennis player (and table tennis too) and we have both just read Agassi's biography, Open. We were discussing this passage recently: "My father says that if I hit 2,5000 balls each day, I'll hit 17,500 balls each week and at the end of one year I'll have hit nearly 1 million balls. He believes in math. Numbers don't lie... a child who hits 1 million balls a year will be unbeatable." 

So is that what it takes to make it? Sheer hard work and practice? Is it just a numbers game? My son thinks you must have an innate talent in the first place. What is interesting though is that because he is so focused on his sport, and so used to training to a discipline, I find that this carries over into his school work. He gets excellent marks not because he is particularly academic but because he has such a focused approach to study. He knows the drill. He is not 'gifted', however.

A. Matthew: Fascinating! Yes, hard work is the key, because it transforms who we are. Talent is a rather misleading concept, and kids who believe in talent tend to lose motivation (why work hard if it is all about having the right genes? I talk about this in chapter 4 of Bounce).

It is particularly interesting to hear that he has carried his work ethic in sport into the academic sphere. I did the same and, although rather poor at school, ended up with great results at university. He is on the right path.

Q. crumblemum: Great book - never thought I'd say that about a sports book! Matthew, do you think there is an age where you shouldn't overly encourage sport (my two-year-old would kick a football all day long) or if they show an interest, just get stuck in?

A. Matthew: Thanks for those kind words. If a youngster is really enjoying something, that is fantastic. Allow your two-year-old to kick away! They are learning without even realising it: often the best way of all to learn. 

Q. Vale: I've been taking my child to swimming lessons since he was one-and-a-half years old. He's just turned five now, and recently moved to a proper swimming class where they start learning the swimming styles. But every lesson, he whines that he doesn't want to go. I ignore his complaints, and once he is there he enjoys it, but I don't think he is ever going to succeed in sport because he doesn't have the drive. How can I motivate him? My main goal is for him to grow up having a healthy lifestyle, so sport is paramount.

A. Matthew: It's fantastic that he enjoys it once he is there, which is a terrific sign. Chat to him about why he enjoys it so much, how much he is learning with practice, the improvements that he has made over time. It will hopefully take his mind towards the growth path.

"Repetitive practice is very useful to improvement, but doing it to the exclusion of everything else can be monotonous."

Q. ShoonaBee: How much pushing encouraging your children to practise is too much? When does it become counter-productive? I wouldn't describe our family as 'naturally musical' but I was always keen that my kids had the opportunity to learn an instrument if they showed the slightest inclination. 

My son began piano lessons, and I thought he was keen, but when he was seven and had completed Grade 1, it became increasingly difficult to get him to do his 15 minutes daily practice. It ended up causing a lot of rows, and eventually when we moved house, I allowed him to give up because we never found a new piano teacher in our new area. 

Now my daughter, who is seven, has badgered me to allow her take up the violin, with lessons at school. She's currently very keen but already getting a bit bored with repetitive practice sessions at home and I don't want history to repeat!

A. Matthew: Thanks. Repetitive practice is very useful to improvement, but doing it to the exclusion of everything else can be monotonous. It's fantastic that your daughter is keen, and she cares about this from within, and it is vital to keep this motivation in place. Getting a balance between repetitive practice and the more fun stuff should help. And it is also worth talking every now and again about how much she has improved over time, and the remarkable strides she has made by practising.

Q. cat98: I have a son who is three who's already showing a keen interest in a number of sports. However, he does not like to hit the ball the proper 'technical' way, and my brother, who is an international sportsman, wonders if there is any point to him playing if he is going to do it technically wrong. He is only three, so it's kind of a non-issue at the monent, but I am wondering about as he gets older. What do you think about this?

A. Matthew: There are many different techniques that work. Federer hits very differently to Nadal. We all have technical individuality. Unless his technique is way off kilter, perhaps you can amend the basic shot without altering it completely.



Q. fromheretomaternity: How do you get over laziness? I speak from experience as I'm prone to laziness and procrastination myself, which has really set me back in my career. What tricks do you use to overcome this, especially when the endless practice you talk about is inevitably going to get boring? Are some people just born with willpower and some without?

A. Matthew: No. Willpower can be developed. Two things: first, it is important to care about what you are doing (from the inside). If you lack this passion, there are ways to help to develop it. Second, recognise that building expertise, and developing skills, is primarily about hard work and perseverance. Once this belief has buried deep in the subconscious, laziness will not seem like an option. Why be lazy when the fruits of labour are so real and so enticing?



Q. janeyjampot: I've always believed that talent was innate. Practice is of course important, and in the normal scheme of things can help you to develop your talent more quickly, but I think that really outstanding exceptional talent is born as well as made.

A. Matthew: If you get a chance to read Bounce, I would be fascinated to know if it shifts your perspective, at least a little. You can email me via my webpage: matthewsyed.com.

Q. generalhaig: I'm perfectly willing to believe that practice makes perfect, but there has to be a spark of some kind (call it innate talent, call it drive, maybe call it parental ambition!) in the first place, which ignites the desire to practise. 

My two boys both had swimming lessons from an early age - the oldest is naturally sporty and pretty much right from the start was a boy-fish hybrid - it came easily to him, whereas my younger son has hypermobile joints and low muscle tone. He found it very hard, didn't do as well, didn't enjoy it as much so there was no motivation to work at it like his brother did.

However, despite not being a 'natural', my younger son does stick at things which interest him - he's practised his bowling really hard over the last couple of years and is now the reserve for his cricket team's B squad - might not sound like much but for him, it represents enormous improvement.

Certainly in sport, physical attributes make an enormous difference - and no amount of practice is going to be able to wipe out his physical disadvantage. But I wonder how much impact differences in intelligence have on academic success, or whether there's a similar effect as in sport?

"A child with a head start does not necessarily stay ahead. The strongest predictor is not early achievement, but a capacity and mindset for hard work."

A. Matthew: Interesting perspective, and it is true that hardware (inherited physical attributes) can make a different in certain sports. But in most sports, the limiting factor is not hardware, but software. See Chapter 1 of Bounce, which also looks at intelligence in sports (pattern recognition).

Q. cortina: I've come to realise that the majority can get incrementally better at whatever they set their mind to. What one child can learn most can learn, and if you treat children as if they are more intelligent they tend to become more intelligent in this sense. There might be genetic differences in 'intelligence', but there is a huge variation around the base point that depends on encouragement, self-belief, mindset and experience. 

It's my view that excellent teaching, especially early on, can mean that children can develop skill sets and methodologies that would mean they could pass 'tricky' exams especially if coupled with drive and ambition. If you speak to teachers, they almost universally they speak about their high, middle and low-ability pupils. Of course, they want pupils to surprise them and they appreciate there will be changes, but once a child is seen as 'bright' they rarely lose that label, excuses will be found for poor performance etc.

So I'm wondering, do you think a minor intellect can become a major genius? Or that the child that starts ahead generally stay ahead? Why is the view 'you can't get out what God didn't put in' so resilient? Do you agree with setting and streaming of any sort in primary schools? What can we do to instill drive and ambition in our children?

A. Matthew: What a fascinating and nuanced post! I agree with almost everything you write! In response to your questions, a minor intellect can definitely become an outstanding student. The evidence is overwhelming. A child with a head start does not necessarily stay ahead. The strongest predictor is not early achievement, but a capacity and mindset for hard work. I think the 'God put in' view is resilient because it seems to be based on our wider views about heredity. We inherit eye colour and hair colour from our parents, why not intelligence, too?

"Environment overwhelms genetic variation due to the transformation that occurs at a neural level with hard work. Our brains are highly transformable."

The reason is that with highly complex traits, environment overwhelms genetic variation due to the transformation that occurs at a neural level with hard work. Our brains, to put it another way, are highly transformable. As for setting and streaming, I have been researching this very question over recent weeks with educationalists. I hope to have an answer soon. And to answer your question on drive and ambition, the strongest approach is to instil the 'growth mindset'. Get kids to understand that hard work is transformative; that their abilities are not fixed in genetic stone; that effort is the means of personal growth.

Q. senua: It is tempting to look at the likes of Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters or the Hungarian chess family and say that they got there by hard work and tenacity, and if they can do if then so can you. However, it is in the nature of things that we only hear about the success stories. Has anyone actually scientifically tested this theory? There must be kids who have had the intensive input and training but didn't become champions: what is your analysis of them? What are your thoughts on the opposite end of the spectrum? An average person may get better with practice, but if someone is already ahead, and can stay ahead without trying too hard, then how do you keep them motivated?

I am thinking principally in terms of education where teaching tends to be aimed at whole-class level and does not have the time or resources to cater for the gifted and talented. How do you teach the academically able child to apply themselves when they don't need to.

A. Matthew: Thanks - I had exactly the same question when I first came across this evidence. What of those who practised hard and failed? Is there survival bias in the statistical evidence? I am glad to say that I found no evidence of this. With deliberate and purposeful practice, we are all transformed with dramatic implications. All of our brains have this plasticity.

As for students who are already ahead of the pack, it is vital they are pushed. If they stay within their comfort zone, they will not learn. This takes a bit of thought from teachers, but with innovative methods, you can push all kids in a mixed-ability classroom.

Last updated: 9 months ago