Wednesday, March 07, 2007

How to Grow a Super Athlete

There was an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times (in a sports-related supplement called Play). It is titled "How to Grow a Super-Athlete" by Daniel Coyle. I'm only now reading it thanks to club member Ed Selling, who sent me the link. I usually don't read sports, I must confess. But the article has some implications for chess -- which is as much a sport as it is an art or science, etc. Coyle writes:

What is talent? It's a big question, and one way to approach it is to look at the places where talent seems to be located — in other words, to sketch a map. In this case, the map would show the birthplaces of the 50 top men and women in a handful of professional sports, each sport marked by its own color. (Tennis and golf handily rank performance; for team sports, salaries will do.) The resulting image — what could be called a talent map — emerges looking like abstract art: vast empty regions interspersed with well-defined bursts of intense color, sort of like a Matisse painting.

Canada, for instance, is predictably cluttered with hockey players, but significant concentrations also pop up in Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic. The United States accounts for many of the top players in women's golf, but South Korea has just as many. Baseball stars are generously sprinkled across the southern United States but the postage-stamp-size Dominican Republic isn't far behind. In women's tennis, we see a dispersal around Europe and the United States, then a dazzling, concentrated burst in Moscow.

The pattern keeps repeating: general scatterings accompanied by a number of dense, unexpected crowdings. The pattern is obviously not random, nor can it be fully explained by gene pools or climate or geopolitics or Nike's global marketing budget. Rather, the pattern looks like algae starting to grow on an aquarium wall, telltale clumps that show something is quietly alive, communicating, blooming. It's as though microscopic spores have floated around the atmosphere in the jet stream and taken root in a handful of fertile places.

A quick analysis of this talent map reveals some splashy numbers: for instance, the average woman in South Korea is more than six times as likely to be a professional golfer as an American woman. But the interesting question is, what underlying dynamic makes these people so spectacularly unaverage in the first place? What force is causing those from certain far-off places to become, competitively speaking, superior?

This suggests a straightforward study (Mark Glickman, are you listening?) regarding the geography of chess performance by rating in the U.S. or around the world. Maybe it has already been done (if so, someone send me the citation!)--and it would probably be a relatively simple matter of extending the work already done on gender. I imagine it would reveal where there are some schools and programs making a significant difference in nurturing chess talent in specific places (including in and around New York!)

The article had some other implications for chess, however, which I am only beginning to absorb. The biggest is that it suggests that chess training has to include specific work on problem solving technique or "thinking" technique if it is to be fully effective. As a great tennis coach is quoted as saying: "Technique is everything ... If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!" Gets you thinking....

1 comment:

Wahrheit said...

Fascinating article--thanks for the link! The research and studies mentioned here and other places recently have given me a lot of food for thought. Rocky Rook posted a couple of related articles here