For a long time now, probably since graduating high school, I have been a firm believer in the idea that high levels of success in sports are much more related to the amount of proper focus and effort one consistently brings to their training table, rather than the supposed inborn talent possessed. This would, of course, encompass the little things (in and out of practice) that so few are willing to do.
My belief in this effort over talent concept, detailed above, is strong enough to take a risk and boldly state that raw talent is, pretty much, overrated and more of a fluctuating commodity than many believe.
Undeniably, there are those who will take issue with what I have said; the many who subscribe to the concept that talent “is what it is” (an unchangeable attribute), and that it is one’s talent above all else that spells high levels of success in sports.
Go to any sporting event (at most any level) and listen to others discuss the differences between athletes as they watch a few move fluidly, seamlessly, almost instinctively around the court, field, event, etc., while the largest percentage don’t seem to show this prowess.
Many (most) will express that the difference between these two groups amounts to the difference in their talent, the natural athletic traits they were born with.
It does seem logical, doesn’t it? It sure is a lot easier to accept this idea that someone is just “that” good simply because they have something that others don’t have.
Me, I’m just not so sure.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that talent is a completely irrelevant commodity by any means, it is just not that black or white. Each and every one of us have tendencies or traits that lend themselves toward being good at something, whether that something is sports, art, music, or whatever.
However, is it really these aspects (tendencies and traits) that are the big separators, the deal breakers so to speak, for what we can ultimately become – our potential? Are our inborn talents truly set in stone with no ability to grow as we grow, both inside and out?
Again, I am not so sure.
I suppose my disconnection with the commonly-held belief, that talent is inflexible and dictates potential, has a lot to do with my own situation of athletic adversity that I faced as a high school athlete (an obstacle of impossibility some said).
At the beginning of my journey, most would have said that I had no more or less athletic talent than anyone else around me. You know, talented enough to “play” but not necessarily gifted. Yet, upon completion of a one-year struggle through a minefield of obstacles to achieve my athletic goal, it was then assumed that I must have been exceptionally talented. That there simply was no other explanation.
This was something I knew better than to believe. And something Matthew Syed (three-time Commonwealth table-tennis champion and author of an acclaimed book on talent, Bounce) knows all too well as he brings his own theories to life in his article The Talent Myth published in the November 2010 issue of FourFourTwo soccer (football) magazine. In this piece, Matt truly questions the commonly accepted notion that the very best athletes “are born rather than made.”
Even though his article comes from a magazine dedicated to “football” enthusiasts, his message echoes well beyond the soccer pitch as he raises important questions about the assumption that “excellence is reserved for a select group of individuals – winners in a genetic lottery that passed the rest of us by.” Many of the queries he raises come from the self-examination about his own elite-level successes as a table tennis champion. He states:
“Like most high achievers I put it down to god-given talent; to things like speed, guile, adaptability, agility and reflexes. But could it be that my success was not about talent at all, but simply about hard work and opportunity? Could it be that expertise in football and table tennis, or indeed anything else in life or sport, is a consequence not of innate skill but thousands of hours of practice? Could it be that all of us have the potential to stride the path to excellence?”
He goes on to talk about the belief coaches have regarding how easy it is for them to “spot a talented player,” something I have heard myself. And he questions this belief:
“But how does the coach know that this player, who looks so gifted, hasn’t had many hours of special training behind the scenes? How does he know that the initial differences in ability between this youngster and the rest will persist over years of practice?”
When reflecting on Matt’s statement made above, you can’t help but think about the possibility that this perceived talent coaches are seeing is actually the result of many passionate hours of training. His inference is crystal clear.
And Mr. Syed doesn’t stop here with his questioning of coaches’ perceptions of talent as he brings heavy support for why he feels the way he does.
Don’t miss Part II: FourFourTwo Soccer (Football) Magazine Details “The Talent Myth” In Sports (coming this Friday) as Matthew Syed takes my feelings on the topic of effort over talent ten steps further using facts, figures, and data to support his thoughts.