I dislike how we use the word ‘talent’. A quick google of the word ‘talent’ provides the following definition: natural aptitude or skill. Despite this rather narrow definition, I feel ‘talent’ is too often given as the independent reason and cause to explain how people reach elite performance in sport. I would instead argue that talent is not enough.
My argument isn’t a new one, yet it still fails to pervade lay understanding of elite performance. Of course, talent undoubtedly plays a role in helping sportspeople to reach elite performance, though there are other factors which are too often neglected. Let’s look at two of them: opportunity and prolonged deliberate practice.
One of my favourite illustrations of the importance of opportunity in reaching elite performance has been popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, who was citing a Canadian psychologist named Roger Barnsley (Gladwell, 2009). Whilst studying elite Canadian hockey players, Barnsley uncovered that 40% of professional players were born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September and only 10% between October and December.
Does this suggest players born between January and March have more talent, or ‘natural aptitude or skill’? I don’t think so. Rather, the cut-off for age-class hockey is the 1st of January in Canada. So, when coaches are scouting players for junior sides, they understandably choose those born earlier in the year since these children tend to be better due to their extra months of physical and motor development. The result is that only these children are able to regularly practice in the ice rink and benefit from professional coaching. This only serves to enlarge the performance gap between these children and their unfortunate peers who have equal talent but not opportunity. And despite this, we still attribute elite performance solely to natural talent.
2) Prolonged Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is a well-known concept in sport psychology, where individuals specifically look to practise specific skills to improve their performance. Equally well-known is the 10,000 hour rule where in general, elite sportspeople have had 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before they reach an elite level. Indeed, the importance of deliberate practice to reach an expert or professional level has become so well-known because it is based on a great level of empirical research (Colvin, 2010). For instance, in summarising their research, Ericcson, Krampe and Clemens (1993) stated:
“We deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”
So it’s clear that thousands of hours of deliberate practice are vital for elite performance. So why do we continue to label people as ‘talented’?
Maybe it’s because we like to put others on pedestals, praising their ‘supernatural’ talent because it’s the easiest reason for us to give. Maybe because it’s easier than saying ‘I might be able to be that good if I put in a few thousand hours of good practice’. Or maybe because it’s easy to see the current gap in ability between us and elite performers, but not the thousands of hours of practice that they had to put in to get there. Whatever the reason, research has dispelled the myth that talent is enough to ensure elite performance. Not only should we adopt this view because research supports it, but also because our current outlook on high performance merely serves to encourage a fixed mindset: ‘he/she is that good, you’re this good and there’s little you can do about it’. However, if we were to listen to the research, we’d have a far more positive and healthy understanding of high performance.
Although it’s undeniable that some individuals are born more talented than others (not all ice hockey players born in January are scouted by coaches!), a huge amount of research has shown us that natural talent is rarely enough for elite performance. By recognising the importance of opportunity and deliberate practice, I’ve only scratched the surface in accounting for what underlies elite performance. For instance, attitude and resilience, amongst other factors, are also undoubtedly key to reaching world-class performance.
Why do you think we continue to use the word ‘talent’ as the sole reason underlying high performance?
What else do you think needs to accompany talent to reach elite performance?