Talent is a Myth

When watching an elite athlete in any sport, it is tempting to conclude that the athlete was born with innate talent.  How else can you explain the seemingly super-human abilities of players like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, or Venus and Serena Williams?  When we then compare ourselves, our children, or the athletes we coach to these icons, we concluded that we obviously were not born with that level of talent, and have little hope of reaching similar levels of ability.

There is no talent trait

Scientists have attempted to identify the gene trait, or biological marker that is responsible for excellence, not just in sports, but also in academic and artistic endeavors.  They have studied thousands of elite performers, comparing them to thousands of less accomplished counterparts.  Do you know what they found?  Nothing!  There is no innate trait or marker that separates elite performers from the rest of us.  Talent is a myth! Michael Jordan did not bound out of the womb dribbling a basketball.  In fact, as many of you may know, he didn’t even make his high school basketball team initially!

No substitute for Hard Work

The truth is, no athlete ever reached world-class status without thousands of hours of practice and hard work.  Not Tiger Woods, not Michael Jordan, nobody.  Many of us have heard the stories of Tiger Woods hitting golf balls since he was a toddler.  Tiger surely logged tens of thousands of repetitions at a very young age, and has hit millions of golf balls in his life so far.

Enjoy the Process

If there is anything hard-wired into these amazing athletes, it is likely a deep love for their sport and great enjoyment gained from practice.  There is no way they would have practiced and worked as hard as they did if they did not get enjoyment out of the process.

So what is the lesson for all of us as athletes or the coaches or parents of athletes?  It is to follow and nurture the athletic activities you enjoy the most.  Don’t discourage a child athlete because they don’t seem to have innate talent.  Watch carefully the activities they engage in most and seem to enjoy, and reinforce and encourage their participation.  At the very least you are facilitating participation in an activity that is inherently enjoyable to that young athlete.  And who knows, you may be guiding the development of a budding world-class athlete!

If you are interested in further reading on this topic, I highly recommend the book Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (2008, Penguin Books).  As always, feel free to comment or email DrRich@mindforsports.com for more information.