The Myth of Talent

I have a very strong belief that talent is not a gift you are born with but more something you earn. There is a huge amount of data around to back this up. Sportsmen such as Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Daly, Paul Gascoigne etc. are all considered naturals. People who just picked up the sport and without having to work at became world beaters. You even hear reports from people who knew them as youngsters who would say things like ‘I knew he was special, he just had it.’ But if you look deeper into their backgrounds and actually break down the number of hours they actually spent playing their respective sports you would see they practiced for many 1000’s of hours as kids. For some it may not have been a structured practice run at an academy or with a coach. But they were there hitting, potting and kicking balls. If you added the hours athletes put in at this young age it would generally be a greater number, the better the athlete. I’m not saying that there is no genetic variance. Of course, this has some effect but it would be probably 1% of the equation.

Don’t blame genetics

I believe it’s important that we don’t support the notion that talent is a gift, and especially important we purvey this thought onto our kids. If we talk about a child performances in sport by using language such as ‘oh she’s just not sporty’ or alternatively ‘she’s always been a natural’ then we are doing our best to create a fixed mindset. One in which the thought is that you are either good at something or not. This causes two major problems:

Lack of Work Ethic

If talent is a gift, then why do I need to work at it? In basic terms that’s what creating a fixed mindset causes. Kids that are identified as gifted will begrudge working at something as they feel they are a natural. But probably more importantly those kids who maybe don’t start strongly at a sport will be the first to quit. They’ll think it’s not for them. In fact, this is something that I hear parents say ‘oh, he just wasn’t good at tennis. He doesn’t have the coordination’ I absolutely hate hearing this from parents. As someone who didn’t take up golf until his late teens I understand how good practice can turn anyone into a good player. If start using the phrases above with your kids, then they’re going to spend their whole lives searching for something that they are good at from the start. Never committing to anything that they struggle with initially. This doesn’t just apply in sport but in all other areas of life and academia. This mindset can stick with you for your whole life, I teach adults who tell me they just aren’t sporty. Crap! They just haven’t stuck and worked at something with the dedication they needed to break this cycle.

Fear of Failure

If a fixed mindset creates a lack of work ethic and prevents slow starters from pursuing a sport it also gives those who a called gifted a fear of failure. If a child is rewarded upon every good performance and told how talented they are and given treats for victories, then they’ll base all their thoughts upon making sure that they never fail. Given the choice between practising a drill which they find easy and rewarding and one in which they fail most of them time they will always choose the easy option. This is building a soft athlete that will crumble at the first sign of failure and will never develop to an Elite level performer.

Encourage failure and praise effort

When training athletes what we want is to be encouraging them to be pushing themselves to attempting challenges that they will fail at most of the time. Gymnasts, Divers, weightlifters and other such athletes are always trying moves and weights that are within touching distance but that will cause them to fail most of the time. It’s this striving to get to that next level that pushes their performance. In golf this would be working on drills that you may fail at most times. Something like trying to hole twenty 6 foot putts in a row, for footballers this could be playing practice matches against stronger opposition, in academia it could be solving problems at a higher level. Most times will result in failure, but the benefits will be huge and the satisfaction when successful far greater.

Language is king

With that in mind when praising kids, we need to praise the work. When they get results we need to let use phrases like ‘that makes all that hard work you did worth it’ and ‘good work, what do you want to achieve next? I love it when an athlete succeeds and then says ‘that was great, but next time I want to be better at….’. We need to learn to enjoy the journey to success and not just the rewards.

Fixed Mindset isn’t Fixed

If you feel you or your kids/athletes are stuck in a fixed mindset. Don’t worry! Mindset is another learned trait that can be unlearned, it’s not easy to change but the rewards of doing so are well worth it. In future content, I’ll talk about ways to develop this.

In the meantime, Love the work, embrace the failure.

If you’d like to develop your own or your child’s athletic and sporting ability contact or call on 01494726447


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