Talent is over-rated

I’m currently reading Matthew Syed‘s excellent book ‘Bounce‘ in which he makes the argument that sporting champions are not born, but are made through good fortune of opportunity and hours of practice.

In the chapter whereby Syed (a former Olympic table-tennis player) tests his reactions against a tennis serve from Wimbledon champion, Michael Stich, he argues that experience is key to success;

“I was confident I would return the serve… Even as I witnessed the ball connecting with his racket, it whirred past my right ear with a speed that produced what seemed like a clap of wind. I had barely rotated my neck by the time it thudded against the soft green curtains behind me.” (p26)

Syed, with his years of reacting to table-tennis balls being smashed towards him, believed that these reactions would be transferable to another sport.  After all, as Syed noted, table-tennis players have even less time to react to shots due to the lesser distance covered. So why weren’t his skills transferable as he had expected? The answer became clear when Syed went to a sport science laboratory to have his reactions to a ‘virtual serve’ (essentially a computer graphic) analysed; he was told that he wasn’t focusing on the ‘right’ aspect of the serving player. It wasn’t the ability to react to the ball once hit that Syed was lacking, it was the ability to see and interpret cues from the body before the ball was hit. And this is true for all sports that involve reacting to variable situations. A cricketer in bat doesn’t react to the ball after it has left the hand of a fast-bowler, she sets up her shot as she sees the bowler making her run-up and winding up to release the ball.

I was thinking about this in relation to my own sport of rugby and I remember having a conversation along similar lines with my friend and retired international, Georgia Stevens. We were discussing the fact that even though we may not be as fit, as fast or as strong as we used to be, we are still able to hold our own against younger players (who are fitter, faster and stronger), for the simple reason that we can read the game better and anticipate what is going to happen. I find that the older I get (and as long as I keep myself at a reasonable level of fitness) I don’t have to work as hard in games as I used to. In essence, the older I get, the lazier I can get away with being.

So Syed is right in suggesting that talent is over-rated (and probably doesn’t really exist at all). What really matters is experience and this comes with hard work, dedication and practice. To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell in another excellent book, Outliers, ‘if you’re prepared to put in 10,000 hours of practice, you can become a master at anything’.

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