Do You Need Talent To Make It?

A lot has been written over the last few years about talent & the role it has in the development of expert performance. The debate still rages; are top sports performers made or born?

Talent can be defined as a special natural ability or aptitude. Until recently, most coaches believed that this natural ability was the single biggest factor in determining how far you got in your chosen sport. Everybody had a ceiling that was biologically pre-determined.

A number of recent books, however, argue that talent is cultivated over a long period of time & is not something you are born with.

‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed, ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Talent is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin & ‘The Talent Code’ by Daniel Coyle propagate the theory that success stems from a heady mix of opportunity, the right kind of practice & sheer hard work.  David Epstein in ‘The Sports Gene’, however counters these assertions, arguing that what you’re born with, largely determines how good you get in your chosen field. Who is right?

I agree with Epstein in so far as I believe top athletes need a certain amount of innate ability to make the most of their desire & dedication.  However I also believe that the role of talent is overstated in the debate about pursuit of sporting excellence.

Talent ID programmes that focus primarily on physical ability are flawed. They’re good at picking out genetically gifted athletes but you don’t need a barrage of tests to do that. Many of the children picked out might be fast or well-co-ordinated but that alone isn’t going to help them in the long term. So if innate ability is not the defining factor it was once thought to be, shouldn’t we be revising the way we search for our Andy Murrays of the future?

If you want to be an Olympic sprinter you do need to be genetically predisposed to run fast but in tennis, things aren’t as straightforward. In multi-faceted sports such as tennis you need an array of skills, many of which can be learnt without having any innate ability & therefore we should focus less on any perceived ‘gift’ & more on a player’s attitude to learning.

Talent is a process. It is acquired over many years so why look for it in seven, eight & nine year olds? Governing bodies should instead be looking for more accurate indicators of future success & not obsess over how well a child can throw/hit a ball or do agility drills.

A hunger to play & compete, a desire to work tirelessly & a determination to persevere when things aren’t going smoothly are attributes that will trump natural talent over time. Throw in a knowledgeable, highly motivated coach backed by supportive parents & you might have something. The Talent ID net is cast out at a much younger age nowadays; in most cases too young to be able to predict whether a kid has a real love of the game.

In ‘They Did You Can’ Michael Finnigan relates how Gordon Banks once let in 15 goals in a trial for a team in a lowly Yorkshire league. Gordon started (badly!) at the bottom & worked his way up to become England’s world Cup winning goalkeeper in 1966. It was his determination to succeed & the work he put in that set him apart from the rest.

In the same book, Phil Neville now on the coaching staff at Manchester United gives his view on natural ability. ”I put my success down to dedication, that’s all. It isn’t talent & if you want to prove that then just look at my brother. He couldn’t even get in his county side, but he just had this vision he was going to play for Man United”.

Dedication is fundamentally important as it can be harnessed by a good coach using what Karl Anders Ericsson called “deliberate practice”. Ericsson co authored the seminal work that lead to the theory that an aspiring world beater needs to train for 10,000 hours over a ten year period. This has since been challenged by research detailed by Epstein that suggests there is a range from 4,000-40,000 hours that’s needed depending on the individual & sport. One thing both camps agree on, however, is that it’s the type of practice that is important.

Deliberate practice or “deep practice” as Coyle calls it refers to the type & quality of training undertaken. It needs to be challenging, must be highly focused on specific aspects that need improvement & include accurate feedback from a well informed coach. Due to its repetitious nature it is often not fun. Indeed repeating skills over & over again plays a leading role in deliberate practice.

John Wooden a US basketball coach who ESPN voted greatest coach of all time in any sport, states in Coyle’s book, “Repetition is the key to learning” & I believe that if you practise well enough, for long enough you can reach levels you never thought possible.

Talent is a combination of nature & nurture. Who knows what the split might be. Research has even suggested that the willingness to work hard could be genetic but one thing is certain; you can’t succeed on talent alone & as a coach, I’d take someone who loves the game & is desperate to improve over a naturally gifted but ambivalent player, any day of the week.

June 2014 029

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