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Can Hard Work Beat Talent: Part 2

In Part 1 I asked the question “Can hard work beat talent?” and took too long attempting to define what “talent” in an athletic sense might represent.    So now let me look at the other half of the issue, that of “hard work” and how to define it.  Surprisingly given how much I wrote in Part 1, I won’t have a lot to say here.

Defining Work/Hard Work: Part 1

Compared to what I wrote about talent, I don’t have that much to say here.  Hard work is, well, hard work.  In an athletic sense it would represent the often grinding, exhausting training that all ultimately successful athletes put in.  Depending on the sport this might eventually entail 20-40 hours of endurance training per week, 5+ sessions of Olympic lifting, hours in the weight room, etc.

And whether or not you buy into the idea of there being some type of innate talent, I don’t think most would deny that you still have to put in the work.  Ok, that’s not entirely true.  Some people do play this silly little game where top athletes either have natural talent OR put in the work.  They turn it into this silly either/or.

Essentially they will take the statement that “Someone has a genetically innate talent for something,” and hear it as “What you’re saying is that they don’t have to put in the work.”

It’s also a little bit more nuanced than the above based on what level of performance you’re looking at.  I’ll come back to this topic later in the series.

Now, as I said in Part 1, it’s common to find relative beginners who show relatively better or worse ability at doing something.  As I pointed out, in all likelihood the people who stick with an activity are the ones who succeed early on.  But nobody and I mean nobody gets to the top level of anything without taking whatever talent (which might simply be a higher genetic limit) and maximizing it with years of grinding work.

African Running Dominance

It’s an established fact at this point that blacks of East African Descent dominate endurance sports whereas blacks of West African descent dominate the sprint events.  Honestly, it’s not even debatable at this point.  The Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners outstrip every other country in the distances and literally every 100m world record can be traced genetically back to one small town in Jamaica.

Now, scientists have looked for reasons why this is the case for years, examining various physiological characteristics.  And in many cases there are clear innate genetic advantages in each group that partly explains why they are so superior.  I’d point people to the book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It for a look at this.

But none of that changes the years of grinding work that both groups put in to maximize that talent.  Kenyan runners often run 3-4 times daily every day and they do this for years.  No matter what their ethnic descent, nobody rocks up at the starting line of the 100m final without putting in the workd.

Defining Work/Hard Work: Part 2

Which still doesn’t really define terms.  Just as with “Talent” I’m going to define work here fairly generally.  Consider it as the half of the training equation that includes proper, intelligent and progressive training that is specific to the sport.

We might assume that the individual got competent coaching on proper technique.  Assume that the athlete was willing to put up with the often severe discomfort that comes with high-level training.  Sir Chris Hoy, a track cyclist, was famous for his ability to suffer during bike workouts, driving himself to collapse.

Once again I might suggest that there is a temperament or personality profile that may be innate inherent to being able to suffer that hard.  But that goes under talent.

So that’s what I’m defining as “work/hard” work here: the training that is part and parcel of making it to a high level.  You can assume in most cases that it will take a solid 5-10 years of that sort of thing for the person to even come close to maximizing their talent.

Let me note that there are examples of athletes who got there much faster, usually in sports without massive technical demands.  Cycling and running are good examples where someone born with a high VO2 max who gets a good response to training may reach relatively high levels of performance in a few years.   But these are both non-technical sports.  In cycling the training is literally “Ride lots”.

In most technical sports, it takes a lot longer than that and you can figure the 10 year/10,000 hour “rule” to be a pretty good one.  Even here there are exceptions.  Almost invariably they occur when someone switches sports later in their career.  And where their previous sport acted as a base for the new one.

In Olympic lifting, Shane Hamman comes to mind.  A world class powerlifter he switched to Olympic lifting and did quite well after only a few years.  But he already had a 1000 lb squat.   You will see Olympic lifter switch to powerlifting from time to time as well.  Same thing in reverse but now they are going from more to less technical sports.

It was common in the 80’s for ex-speed skaters to switch to cycling and do well quickly.  But most skaters rode bikes for training anyhow and the sports are physiologically similar.  And again we have the non-technical aspect of cycling.

In ice speed skating, Chad Hedrick came from a two decade in-line skating background to become world champion in only 1.5 years.  At the same time, Derek Parra came from the same background and took 8 years to reach the top.  The difference was probably that Hedrick had played ice hockey and had a feel for the ice and Parra did not.

But I’m getting off topic as usual.  So I’ve defined both “talent” and “work”.  Now I can start addressing the original question: Can hard work overcome talent?

The Work/Talent Matrix

Ok, let me start by presenting something I’m going to call the Work/Talent matrix  (whoa).   In it I’m going to create a 2X2 grid with Work (work ethic might be a better term here) on the top and Talent on the bottom.  To keep it simple I’m going to consider each as being high or low.  Clearly this isn’t correct and this is a continuum.  This just keeps it cleaner to get the point across..

The Work/Talent Matrix

What this matrix gives us is four potential types of athletes when it comes to sports performance.  Let’s look at each combination in order.

Low Talent + Low Work = The Always Gonna

In the context of this series, the athlete with low innate talent and no work ethic isn’t really worth discussing as they won’t ever get anywhere.   Not only do they have no inherent ability to do anything, they aren’t willing to put in any work to actually improve.

Mind you, folks like this always take a mean game.  They talk about how they’d “love to do” something or are “always gonna do” something.  But they either never get started, half-ass it if they do start, and then quit shortly thereafter since they didn’t get magic results.

The only way to get folks like this to ever put in anything approximating work is by putting them into the military or something.  Left to their own devices, it’s just bullshit excuse after bullshit excuse.

Low Talent + High Work = The Workhorse

The next category “up” is the athlete with lower innate talents but a high work ethic.  Coaches call these the workhorse.  Here, the term “low talent” is a bit wrong.  Workhorses often show some talent at a given activity although they aren’t blessed in the way that the high talent individual is.

And what the workhorse lacks in talent they attempt to overcome with sheer amounts of hard work.  Often too much.

The workhouse can often get pretty far in their chosen sport, depending heavily on how they approach things.  They might not ever make it to the absolute top but pretty far.  Let me note that in the early days of sport it wasn’t uncommon for sheer workhorses to reach the top despite a lack of innate talent (or often overcoming some physical limitation).  But that was then and this is now.  In the modern era, it rarely happens and the top in any activity have the innate talent and put in the work.

In some sports, workhorses often play critical roles where they can put the talent they did develop to good use.  In some cases, they can even make a living at it.  Road cycling is perhaps the best example where teams will have riders called domestiques.  They aren’t the star because they don’t have the talent or ability to win at all.  But they can play other roles, usually working to support the leader.  If the team wins, they win by extension.

In track running, workhorses may act as pacemakers and act as training partners or work in races to help the top athletes.   As in cycling, they aren’t really running for the win (though a fluke occurs from time to time) but they can be part of a record setting effort by doing a specific job that lets them put what ability they develop to work.

But when the top athletes (discussed last) are present, the workhorse can’t really ever win (again, fluke excepted).  Life isn’t a Disney or Rocky movie where the plucky underdog can come from behind on heart, vim and vigor.    No amount of work can overcome a lesser degree of talent compared to someone with the same work ethic and more talent.  The top athletes always have both.

Mind you, as often as not the workhorse trains themselves into the ground and gets injured or overtrained.  Since they don’t have the talent, they attempt to make up for it with 2 or 3 or 10 times as much work as a more talented athlete.  And they end up doing themselves more harm than good.  As often as not, it’s not “hard” work that’s needed but “smart” work.

I would add that workhorse athletes often make the best coaches later on.  Since they didn’t have the extreme talent that let them succeed “easily” they tend to be the ones who take apart their sport and chosen activity bit by bit.  They study every aspect of technique, nutrition and training to try to eke out the most of whatever talent they do have.

I’ve commented in many podcasts that most of what led me into the field of exercise physiology, nutrition, etc. was a desire to be a better athlete than I was.  And while I reached a pretty decent level, I was never going to make it to the top.  I also think I’m a better coach than I ever was an athlete.  If nothing else, I can prevent people I coach from making my mistakes.

In other situations, I think workhorse athletes become coaches so that they can help someone else achieve a level they never did.  My own speed skating coach was like this.  Having failed to make it to the Olympics (while training three times per day every day), he spent the next three decades taking others a place he could never reach.

Do not mishear me, I am not saying that only workhorse athletes can make good coaches.  But I think if you look at the sporting history of some of the best coaches, that is their background.  They trained themselves into the ground and got pretty far.  But once they started coaching, they took others far past them.

High Talent + Low Work = The Prima Donna

Next up is the athlete with lots of innate talent but who won’t really put the work in.  Athletes like this tend to do well early on in their sporting career.  Often they have no real competition and get by on their talent alone along with putting in the minimal amount of work necessary.    This turns them into a prima donna.  They are the athlete that doesn’t have to work hard or show up because they know their coach won’t punish them.  They are usually the one carrying the entire team.

These are the athletes that coasted through high school on talent alone and never learned to work hard or hurt because they simply never had to.  But once they start to reach higher levels and athletes with the same inherent talent, they start to find out that talent alone isn’t enough.    But it’s often too late for them to develop a good work ethic or learn to put in the work.

Invariably these types of athletes coasted through early competition (high school, etc.) on talent alone and never really developed any sort of work ethic.  They never learned to hurt or work hard (or smart) because they never had to early on.  And as they reach higher levels of competition, and start running into either guys with talent and work ethic (or the next group I’m going to talk about), they realize that talent alone isn’t enough.But since they were always the top of the heap before they usually don’t see any reason to change.

The prima donna athlete is the bane of higher level coaches because they are completely uncoachable.   They never had to work before and don’t see any real reason to start now.  Coaches look at these athletes and think “What a waste”.  Other athletes, workhorses, look at them and think “If only I had your talent.”

In fact, given the choice, most coaches would rather coach a workhorse than a prima donna.   You simply can’t coach someone who’s not willing to do the work to begin with.  The workhorse may not have the innate talent but at least they will show up on time and put in the effort.

Which brings me to the final combination in the Work/Talent Matrix.

High Talent + High Work = The Thoroughbred

At the highest level is the the athlete with the innate talent to reach the top and who is willing to put in the work.   Endless work.  Smart work.  Hard work. Painful work.    For years on end.  When you combine that with innate talent, they reach the top.  Coaches tend to call these guys thoroughbreds.  They have the innate talent and they are willing to do the work.  They can be groomed for the top levels and usually reach them because they simply never stop.

The drug issue aside, Lance Armstrong is a great example of this.  In his teens, he was measured with an extremely high Vo2 max and he was winning triathlons at an early age.  Then he got cancer, came back and put in years of grinding work to reach the pinnacle of the sport.  Yes, there was more to it but he combined a monster physiology with years of hard work (and the drugs) to take him to the top.

I mentioned Chad Hedrick up above and he also had a legendary ability to suffer.  As my coach put it “Chad would just turn his brain off and go”.  He also skated hard for 20 years, during which time he may have honed his ability to suffer.  But he had to have had it to some degree early on.  Chad, like Chris Hoy, and most other top athletes combined the innate physiology with the willingness to do the hard work to reach the top.

Invariably when you look at the world beaters, the guys who reached the topmost echelons of their respective sports that is what you find: innate physiological talent plus years of hard work.

Talent vs. Work: The False Dichotomy

As I said in Part 1, a mistake people make is thinking that success is either due to innate talent OR hard work.     You either had one or the other.  But it’s the third possibility that is usually the relevant one.

The top athletes, the best of the best started with some innate genetic advantages, whatever they were, and proceeded to maximize those advantages with the hard work.  Yes, there are many other issues here.  Lucking into the right sport, having the resources to pursue it.  I’m not saying that talent and hard work are the only variables involved here.  There has to be a bunch of other stuff present   But without both, none of that other stuff really matters.

Taking a quick tangent here: It’s not a question of talent vs. hard work even if people try to make it into a simple either/or. It’s an issue of them having an innate talent that they maximized with the hard work.  There are other issues mind you, lucking into that sport, being able to pursue it, having the money to do it, whatever.  I’m not saying talent and hard work are the only variables.  But without either you don’t reach the top level.  There simply has to be a bunch of other stuff too.

I suppose this is as good a time to go back to Steve Prefontaine who I mentioned previously.  He asserted strongly that talent was a myth, that he beat other runners based on guts and being willing to suffer the most.

And when he was finally physiologically tested, it turned out that he had a VO2 max of 85 ml/kg/min, near the highest ever recorded (from memory, the highest highest was in a cross country skiier).  And you might compare that value to the 68-70 values that are seen in good endurance athletes and 40-50 or lower for the average person.

The simple fact is that guts and suffering or not, he’d have never set the records he did or competed at the highest levels without the innate physiology to succeed.  He would have been born with a high VO2 max and had a huge training response.  Without it, all of his suffering would have accomplished nothing.  But it was the amount of hard work he was willing to put in that maximized his gifts.

But his assertion that it wasn’t talent but hard work that generated success was nonsensical.

Moving on.

Read Can Hard Work Beat Talent Part 3.

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