Being the Best: the Myth of Talent

It has long been customary to view the world’s best sportsmen as super-talented; demi-gods possessing abilities that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream of. But were the Roger Federers and Lionel Messis of this world really born with some innate characteristic, elevating them to sporting stardom? Unlikely. Or, are the successes of the sublime Swiss and the artistic Argentine and many more like them, the product of something far less subjective than talent, something like, say…practice? Getting warmer.

It was after reading Bounce:How Champions Are Made, by Matthew Syed that I felt compelled to re-evaluate how I viewed the sporting elite, and it is on his thesis that my article is based. Syed questions the so-called ‘myth’ of talent, offering a far more scientific, and logical explanation of reaching the top; one that centres around quality and quantity of practice, not nonsensical jargon such as ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’.

It has often been suggested that Tiger Woods was ‘born to play golf’, and the ever-modest Diego Maradona claims to have been born with ‘football skill in [his] feet’ (highly ironic for a man unquestionably born with the hand of God). Indeed, popular culture these days encourages this kind of ‘soaring individualism’, but what substance is there behind such sentiments? Were these sporting giants really put on planet earth to win the Open at St Andrews, or score ridiculous goals against England? A handful of case-studies documenting some contemporary top-performers can seemingly dispel the myth of talent, whilst suggesting that quality and quantity of practice are the true catalysts behind success.

Sportsman-cum-journalist Matthew Syed, was a hugely successful table-tennis player in his own right, plying his trade at the highest levels of the game, domestically and internationally. Upon retirement, he became interested in his path to reaching British number one, and considered the multitude of factors that contributed to his success. He quickly realised that his childhood had been hugely privileged in terms of his introduction to table tennis. Not only did he have a table bought for him as a child, he had a keen older brother to practice with, a table tennis club a stone’s throw from his home, and a fanatical table tennis coach (Peter Charters, the nation’s top coach at the time) at his school. Looking a bit deeper, Syed discovered that Silverdale Road, his childhood residence, had produced more top-class table tennis players in the 1980s, than the rest of the England combined- an astonishing number of world-class players lived only houses away from each other. Coincidence? Oh, come on.

Syed, and many of the other notables who emerged from this hot-bed of ping pong players, were clearly privy to powerful advantages that the vast majority of the nation’s kids were not, which enabled them to become accomplished players at an extremely young age. By the time these young prodigies had grown up, they were light-years ahead of the competition.

But this only tells half the story; an examination of some more prestigious sportsmen and women sheds more light…

Tiger Woods, despite his somewhat colourful private life of late, is still considered a modern day sporting icon, a truly ‘gifted’ golfer. In fairness, watching Woods play the game is, at times, utterly breathtaking, and the intensity with which he competes is nothing short of phenomenal. At first glance, it is very easy to conclude that Woods is just a precocious talent. But is he? You don’t get that good by accident. Woods’ upbringing amounted to an indoctrination into all things golf. Before his first birthday, Woods already owned his first golf club, and at 18 months, he had his first experience of playing the game. At two and a half, he was familiar with bunker play (a skill that alludes most fully-grown adults), and could already hit the ball over 80 yards. Most of us were mastering walking and talking at this age. Tiger was mastering the intricacies of pitching and putting. Thus, by the time Tiger reached adolescence, he had practised and played a remarkable thousands upon thousands of hours of golf. When coaches and fellow players saw the quality of his stroke play, they labelled him ‘gifted’, without knowing the arduous and abnormal process that had got him to this level.

The Williams sisters, since claiming ownership of women’s tennis, have reinvented the female game, stocked-up on silverware, and have spent so much time on centre court that they’ve started paying rent. What’s their story? Two years prior to the birth of Venus, Richard Williams and his wife decided to produce a tennis player. Richard taught himself to play, and consulted books and professional coaches to gain an insight into how to teach the game. After the birth of the two future world-beaters, Venus and Serena, the family moved to the not-so throbbing metropolis of Compton. Training begun when Venus was four, Serena a tender three. They played on a dilapidated court in an area rife with gang violence, with Richard hitting over 500 balls (which he kept in a shopping trolley) to the young starlets, before picking them up and repeating the process. The two sisters were known to often train for five hours or more, and honed their skills by hitting with baseball bats, and serving at traffic cones. Does this remind you of your childhood? Didn’t think so.

After years of this, the two girls were snapped up by a professional coach and moved to a high-performance academy in Florida. A decade or so later, the two were catapulted into the public eye, as they battled it out in multiple grand slam finals, and, like Woods before them, became labelled as super-talented.

Another interesting case-study for consideration is from the beautiful game itself. And no nation has made the game look oh so beautiful as the Brazilians. Over the years, the likes of Pele, Ronaldinho, and a plethora of other South American soccer stars have dazzled world-wide audiences with their unparalleled skill and unrivalled, seemingly effortless technique. Deservedly dubbed the greatest footballing nation, Brazil have claimed five world cup victories, and have produced a long list of ‘talented’ and ‘gifted’ players with ‘football in their blood’. Why so? The answer is futebal de salao, or futsal. This version of the game is played religiously in the slums and favelas of the great footballing nation. Incorporating a smaller, heavier ball in a confined space, the game demands high tempo, flawless ball control, and tremendous vision. According to a university study, players involved in a game of futsal touch the ball on average six times more per minute than in the conventional game, thus accelerating the development of players’ skills. Concise passing is quintessential, and when players then move up to a full-size pitch, it seems vast, and time on the ball seems endless. Pele, Ronaldo, and reams of other Brazilian stars all trace their footballing roots to playing futsal as a young pretender. Futsal is exemplar of the rewards of well-designed training, and has more recently been adopted in local clubs in England, with incredible results.

I do not wish for one second to detract from the achievements of Woods et al- the levels that such people have achieved in their respective sports are quite brilliant and are worthy of our utmost praise and admiration. All I wish to suggest is that this success did not happen by accident, to a select group of individuals who were blessed with talent in God’s lucky dip. Less mysterious forces are at play. Surely, it is the result of a long and arduous process of practice, practice, and more practice, more often than not from an unusually young age. That is not to say that hitting a thousand golf balls a day would be enough secure your place at Augusta; the practice must be meticulously planned and structured, and the addition of a decent coach or pushy parent probably helps too. This, coupled with a hunger to win are what it takes to mix it with the very best. Simple.

Alexander Juggins

6 Comments on this post.
  • dan
    16 March 2011 at 19:17
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    I think a difference between team and individual sports needs to be identified. Being very skillful (sp?) in for example football doesn’t mean you will make it. A greater awareness is needed and that would be even more true in rugby.

  • Rob
    17 March 2011 at 02:11
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    Bounce is a decent and accessible book!
    It can be applied to other ‘talents’ too

  • Tom
    17 March 2011 at 20:11
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    This whole article is just a rip off of the Syed article in the Times

  • jason
    18 March 2011 at 13:47
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    Yeah, but some people are naturally good at stuff, you only neeed to look at messi when he was a kid to see that

  • Alex
    21 March 2011 at 10:38
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    Thanks for the feedback guys. As for it being a rip-off of a Times article, I haven’t even read it so I think that’s fairly harsh. I made it clear that the article was based on Syed’s book, so I’m not trying to pass it off as my own. I just wanted to highlight some of his key arguments with regards to sport, and see what people made of it.

  • Roger
    29 August 2013 at 10:05
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    Interesting article. I must make a point of reading bounce. I can really only offer an opinion on football and triathlon. In my experience the overwhelming majority of footballers are born, not made. Sure, there are a dedicated minority who maximise their talents through sheer hard work eg David Beckham. But for every DB there are, say, 20 who were born talented and have neither the brains or work ethic that would give them that tiny bit extra to operate at 100% of their potential when they know that 98% will still put them right at the top of the game.

    The vast majority of fans have simply no idea just how talented the players players are in the lower two leagues, let alone the championship or premier. No idea at all.

    Moving on to triathlon. Pro triathlon has basically evolved into being the best runner. With drafting allowed in both swim and bike it’s all about the run. And the major factor there is genetic. It wouldn’t matter if you started training in the womb, if you don’t have the optimum fast / slow twich muscles whilst you can be competitive, winning is going to be very tough.

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