The Rugby Equation


I might have skipped the headline altogether: 2011 Rugby World Cup to be Held in New Zealand. Yes, I knew rugby was a game, a second cousin to soccer, and that Nelson Mandela used it to pull his country together in the years after he’d taken office (per the movie Invictus). But rugby wasn’t high on my agenda. Born in Canada, ice hockey was my game. After all, my mother was a speed skater, and we’d learned to skate not that long after we’d learned to walk! However, I had just finished reading The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

Initially, it was Daniel Coyle’s reference to hockey that caught my attention. He ascribed the apparently supernatural skills of some Brazilian soccer players to their practise of a game known as futsal. “In its rhythm and blinding speed, the game resembled basketball or hockey more than soccer,” he writes.

It’s all myelin

Coyle believed that individuals who have developed exceptional skills likely did so because they had honed their neural circuitry and obeyed the rules of the talent code. In short, growing more myelin, a neural insulator.

According to Coyle, “Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically a signal travelling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibres the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out.”

Medical studies have linked myelin problems to a variety of health challenges such as attention deficit disorder, autism, dyslexia, post-traumatic stress syndrome and multiple sclerosis. One reason teenagers sometimes make less-than-desirable decisions can be related to myelination.

On the contrary, the wisdom that is more likely to be found in older individuals again relates to myelin. In these brains, key myelination processes are complete, which allows complex and complicated thought processing to occur on several levels.

According to George Bartzokis, a neurology professor at UCLA, breast-fed babies tend to have higher IQs because fatty acids in breast milk are the building blocks of myelin. Many nutritionists tout the benefits of and recommend eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Evidently, the more myelin you have in your brain, the smarter you can be.

When you practise a skill, your cells respond by secreting myelin and wrapping layers of it as insulation around the nerve fibres that make up that neural circuit. (Think of those circuits as a neuron highway paved with myelin, the brain’s asphalt.) With each practise, the myelin gets thicker and insulates better, allowing your movements to become faster and more accurate.

Whether or not they can articulate what is happening, individuals who have developed exceptional skills have done so through focused practise. The best way to build a neuron circuit (or highway) is to fire the circuit, learn from the mistakes made, then fire the circuit again. Over and over and over. Wrapping myelin around a large circuit requires immense energy and time. No surprise, this is called practice.

In this process, struggle and persistence are biological requirements.

A decade of practise

Only one team will win the coveted Webb Ellis Cup, named after William Webb Ellis, the man often credited with creating rugby. Be assured that the players on the winning team will be a group of individuals whose brains contain a great deal of myelin.

In many ways, they will resemble any other randomly selected group of individuals: They will have come from poor and wealthy families; they will have differing personalities; they will have been born in different cities and countries; they will have had different teachers; and, of course, different parents.

But they will all have one thing in common—they will have spent thousands of hours practising rugby, honing their skills, making mistakes and correcting them, learning to be team members, and learning to compete. They will have taken part in, as Coyle put it, “the greatest work of art anyone can construct: the architecture of their own talent.”

And, yes, thousands of hours. Swedish psychologist and one of the world’s leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise, Anders Ericsson, estimated that every expert in every field is the result of about 10,000 hours of deliberate practise.

That results in a temptingly concise equation: Deep practise x 10,000 hours = world-class skill. Stated another way, expertise in every domain requires roughly a decade of committed practise.

The genius cell

What are you passionate about? What are you willing to invest time, energy and practise in? What innate talent do you possess that you can hone into a high-level skill? Every brain has talent!

According to Ericsson, there is no cell type that geniuses have that the rest of us do not possess. The difference lies in passion and persistence. So seize every opportunity; begin honing your skills; get busy becoming world class, at something! Then put it to good use, especially in service to others.

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