A couple of weeks ago I sat watching the US Olympic Gymnastic Trials on NBC. Some Olympic athletes make it look effortless. Their performance flows with a grace and rhythm that seems almost magical.
It’s tempting to watch people perform extraordinary feats and chalk it up to talent or giftedness. But what is talent? I think it’s overused. It’s become a catch all to explain what we often have a hard time describing in tangible terms. Belief in the talent myth holds many of us back both as leaders and in terms of our own potential for high performance.
It Comes Down to 3 Factors
It seems plausible that we need a certain level of natural ability for success in sports, or any other high performance arena. But the amount of natural ability needed for athletic success is strikingly low, and constitutes only one of three factors that build athletes into the elite ranks:
The physical genetics we inherit from our parents is one factor – arm or leg length, hand size, shoulder width, muscle fiber types, oxygen utilization rates, etc. Our own unique mix of physical characteristics increases our potential for excellence in
some sports vs others.
Having parents who value sport, having financial resources to train, travel and purchase equipment, time to train, access to knowledgeable and experienced coaches and facilities, etc. Bottom line: the right environment and resources are required to build an athlete’s capacity and competence.
An almost reckless devotion to developing their ability. An athlete’s commitment to learning, adapting, and persevering is what sets champions apart from good athletes. This factor can’t be taught, but it can be inspired with the right environment. For these athletes there is joy in the training itself, they are intrinsically motivated. While training to become elite at sport requires saying no to other opportunities, most elite athletes don’t frame these sacrifices as hardships, they actually enjoy the training and focus they have. While winning their event may be part of their motivation, it’s the joy of learning new skills, engaging with teammates, and pushing oneself to another level that keeps them engaged.
Much of the mythology of sport is built around people who lack natural ability, who went on to successes. Wilma Rudolph had polio as a child, but later went on to win the 100m dash at the Olympics. Glenn Cunnigham had his legs badly burned in a fire, and then broke the world record in the mile run. Such stories inspire us.
Although seemingly extreme examples, these stories point to a common element in athletes who rise to the top of their sport. When their history is studied, many overcome sharp or extreme adversity in their pursuit of success. Automobile accidents, difficult family situations, financial hardships, or any other manner of challenge have created the opportunity for the athlete to choose how they will respond to what they do not control. They grow or shrink from how they choose to frame it and act on it.
Perhaps the crucial factor in their success is not natural ability or talent at all, but the willingness to overcome natural or unnatural disadvantages, many of which we all face at times. Whether it’s a minor inconvenience of getting up early to go to the gym, or something more serious such as being diagnosed with a chronic illness. It’s our response to it that makes all the difference.
But still, we want to believe in talent. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “what people would like is that a coward or hero is born that way.” Concluding that talent is something we are born with protects us by degrading the very achievements that it pretends to elevate. It somehow separates us from great athletes, making us incomparable to them. Perhaps even relieving those of us who are not excellent, in whatever domain matter to us, of responsibility for developing our own potential.
We don’t all need to become Olympians. That’s not the point. But we do need to believe in more than talent. In future posts I’ll discuss what some of those elements that seem like sheer talent are, and how anyone can begin to leverage them.