Talent vs. Work: Part 1

This piece has been on my mind since I saw someone somewhere recently assert that ‘work beats talent’ or perhaps it was ‘hard work beats talent’.  Make no mistake, this is a common belief, usually held by those with less talent who want to think that life works like a Rocky movie (I’m still waiting for my damn training montage to a Survivor song). I’ve had repeated arguments on forums where, when you try to point out that there are genetic limits that can’t be surpassed, someone will tell me “You don’t know my work ethic.”  The implication being that hard work can overcome anything.

In other media, books such as Talent is Overrated (which is a popularization of the work of Anders Ericcson that I discussed in Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 1 and Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 2) make essentially the same argment: that there is no such thing as inherent talent and that it comes down to putting in the work.  At first glance, even Ericcson’s work seems to support that idea to at least some degree although I’d point readers to my original article series for a lot more verbiage.

The idea was recently brought back to the forefront of my mind as I read the books Pre and Bowerman and the Men of Oregon as well as watching one of the two movies made about the altogether too short career of Steve Prefontaine.  For those not familiar, Pre was one of the great distance runners of the 70’s, setting records at a variety of distances prior to dying young in a car crash.

Famously, Pre argued that talent was a myth, that the only reason he beat people was because he was willing to hurt more than anybody.    And make no mistake, his ability to suffer was legendary.  But was it true that he had no talent and it all came down to his strength of will; or was there more going on?   I’ll leave that question unanswered until I finish up in Part 2 of this article on Friday.

So what’s the deal?  Is talent overrated, is it just about hard work?  Can you talk about one or the other and is it true that hard work can overcome talent in sports?  Well, as usual, it sort of depends on what context you’re talking about.  At least one issue of relevance is exactly what you’re talking about.  In a sport context, what we’re talking about is winning usually.

And that’s the context I’m going to mainly focus on here: winning in competition.  Certainly if you pick a different endpoint (perhaps becoming extremely well skilled at an activity), things become fuzzier.  Because you’re not trying to achieve the pinnacle of performance.

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What is Talent: Part 1

The first thing i want to do is define some terms and talent is sort of a tough one when it comes to sports performance.  Certainly few trying a new sport are particularly talented at it out of the gate although, as I discussed in Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 1 and Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 2 there are likely to be differing degrees of suck whenever someone is introduced to a new activity (at least one that isn’t trivial to perform).

While it’s lovely to argue that the 10+ years of practice that folks put in is what made them experts at something (and make no mistake, clearly you have to put in the work to get to any high level, nobody is ever born great at something), it’s equally logical to assume that those that show an early affinity for a given activity are more likely to continue with it and put in the work.

That is, using the same example I gave in the above article series, consider 10 kids introduced to a new technical sport.  Assume 3 show some degree of success early on (i.e. they have a natural ‘talent’), 4 are sort of in the middle and the last 3 just suck at it.  Unless they are masochists (and athletes often are), the 3 who sucked at it are unlikely to pursue it.  And it’s debatable how many of the middle 4 will stick with it, some might some might not.  And the 3 who showed some promise (and probably got positive reinforcement through some mechanism) are likely to pursue it.

Their initial ‘talent’ (for whatever reason) led them to pursue the activity and put in the work that took them to the higher or highest levels.  My point being that often the whole discussion of talent versus hard work is far more complicated than it being an either-or type of situation; one feeds back onto the other which feeds back onto the first.

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What is Talent: Part 2

Which doesn’t really answer the question, what is talent, especially in an athletic context?  Here I’m going to use the term ‘talent’ very very very generally to basically include anything innate (think physiological, biomechanical or neurological) that gives someone an edge in a given activity.

Some of these might very well be present in kids who try a sport but the examples I’m going to use are equally as relevant if you’re trying to decide if ‘hard work beats’ talent when you get to higher level competition.  Because when you’re talking about margins of winning vs. losing of a percentage point or less, every little bit matters.

In endurance type sports that might include a preponderance of slow twitch muscle fibers, a higher than average maximum oxygen uptake or body mechanics that predispose them to be successful at the sport (someone pursuing running has to be sturdy enough to handle the training; injured runners don’t get very far).

Consider for example Michael Phelp’s size 11 feet and monstrous hands which act like paddles and flippers in the water.  Couple that with his wingspan and other biomechanical factors (many swimmers have absurd shoulder flexibility and/or are double jointed giving them a mechanical advantage in the pool) and he’s a man born to swim.

There are plenty of other examples, cyclists often have longer legs (Miguel Indurain was mechanically built to ride a bike) as do runners (increases stride length) and certain body types are relatively more or less suited for given sports.  In ice speed skating, as another example, skaters with a certain ratio of upper leg to lower leg have been shown to be superior to those without the same ratio, even if their physiologies are the same.

There are even potential psychological factors (which can be innate or at least wired early on) at work here, endurance athletes have to be able to handle what can often be mind numbingly boring training.  ADHD sufferers need not apply for the most part.

In strength/power sports, innate talent might be found in a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers.  A good nervous system (in terms of being able to fire those muscle well) wouldn’t hurt.  Hormone levels might play a role (though this wouldn’t show up until after puberty), obviously having higher levels of testosterone never hurts in such sports.  Mechanics plays a big role here too.  Tall guys tend to make poorer Olympic lifters (who typically have fairly specific body dimensions) than shorter.  Throwers tend to be on the taller and heavier side.

The best benchers often have certain mechanics (shorter arms and a big chest never hurts) while the best squatters and deadlifters often have different mechanics.  Having overall robust joints and bones doesn’t hurt here either: lighter boned or jointed people tend to get injured by the type of training needed to succeed at this type of sport.

Even in something like bodybuilding, it’s often been felt that having small joints was a benefit, it makes muscles look bigger.  Height is an issue here as well, tall guys have to carry a lot more muscle than shorter to look as big because of differences in how muscle cross sectional area scales with changing limb length.

Certain psychologies are probably better for these types of sports as well.   Aggression helps in a lot of the strength/power sports and, to be blunt, bodybuilders and other physique types usually walk the obsessive compulsive control freak line.  Otherwise they don’t survive the dieting.  Mind you, many great athletes have a streak of obsession; you have to to keep working at something year after year.

In team sports, it gets fuzzier since the determinants of victory often lay far outside purely physiological factors.   In addition to physical factors, speed of movement, body requirements, there is the issue of tactics, reading plays, reaction time.  A quarterback in American football needs to be able to assimilate a tremendous amount of incoming data and make rapid decisions or alterations on the fly; while some of this can probably be trained it’s not far fetched to assume some differences in innate ability here.

As another example, there is a current interest in vision improvement, for some sports (consider an American football quarterback watching for a sack, a soccer goalie trying to watch his flank, that sort of thing), good peripheral vision would be a real boon.  Some of these things do respond to training, mind you, (one of the reasons coaches set up plays repeatedly is to teach athletes how to recognize and deal with them), but some of it may be innate or the luck of the draw.

Mind you, the Eastern European countries did a ton of work on the above type of thing, developing normative data and doing extensive testing on kids to try to identify who had the most potential to become a super athlete based on body mechanics or physiology (i.e. vertical or long jump tests to determine fiber type and explosive potential).  And, in many countries, athletes simply weren’t given a choice about the sport they could do.  If they were built for sport X, they did X because, presumably, they had the best shot at being successful at it.  In contrast, in the US this is far less commonplace; usually athletes with some sort of ‘talent’ for a sport luck into it as often as not.

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What is Talent: Part 3

And then there’s the genetic issue.  We’ve known for a decade or more than subjected to the same training stimulus, the variety in adaptability can vary massively. For example, in response to aerobic training, VO2 max can increase anywhere from about 0% (a small percentage of folks simply don’t make gains) to about 50% (the other extreme) with most getting an average response because that’s what average means.  The best endurance athletes invariably were born not only with a high starting VO2 max but also had the genetics to get the biggest adaptation to proper training.

I can think of at least one study on strength training where folks with a lighter bone structure gained less strength than folks with heavier bone structure and I even mentioned that above; lighter boned folks often get injured trying to handle the heavy training loads that best stimulate strength gains.  And chronically injured folks don’t make good athletes.  Hell, there’s that whole odd data set on 4th to 2nd finger length ratio (which is indicative of a lot of things that went on during fetal development) that predicts a ton of things…including athletic performance ability.

Moving to a more reductive level, studies are looking closely at the role of genetics in athletic performance and adaptability and there is certainly evidence that this matters.  For example, a specific ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) type is found in elite endurance athletes, and the opposite type in strength/power athletes.  Other genetics markers have been found that relate to strength and power production.  For example, the genetic marker alpha-actinin-3 is associated with speed performance and athletes who lack it will be at a massive disadvantage to those that have it.

And of course, all physiological systems in the body do have some upper genetic limit that can’t be surpassed and we might consider that upper limit under the heading of talent in the sense that someone with a higher upper limit has the potential to reach a higher level of performance than someone with a lower upper limit (other critical things being done).

Whether it’s a limit to Vo2 max, muscle mass or something else nobody keeps adapting indefinitely.  That’s one of the big reasons athletes use drugs (yes, newsflash, athletes use drugs).  Not only do they provide numerous other benefits such as improved recovery or what have you, they artificially raise the inherent genetic limit of the body that, otherwise, wouldn’t be surpassed.

To the above we might add other things that would show up as ‘talent’.  Good body control, proprioception, things like that.  Things that are often innate (or at least vary with some people showing better inherent levels than others).  We all know kids who have better or worse ability to tell where they are in space (I’ve seen the same thing in dogs at the Austin Humane Shelter; some seem unable to tell what’s going on physically) and they are probably more likely to be drawn to and/or succeed at sport early on than kids who are, to put it mildly, spazzes (who make excellent water boys, make no mistake).

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What is Talent: Summing Up

My point being that there would certainly appear to be some inherent physiological aspects that relate to sport performance that can show up as innate ‘talent’. Certainly some are modifiable with proper training, but some are not.  And there is clearly a difference in how well or poorly someone will adapt to training with increasing evidence that this is determined genetically.

I’d note before moving on a concept that seems to escape many, which I’ll leave for now simply as an unanswered (and possibly unanswerable question): is it conceivable that part of what makes people willing to put in the 10 years of grinding work to get good at something is an innate characteristic?

That is, something about them is just wired to make them want to devote 10 or more years to a pursuit with potentially zero rewards?  If so, the whole issue of innate talent versus hard work becomes far more complicated of a question: perhaps the drive to put in the work is an innate talent in the first place.

And since this has already gotten out of control length wise, I’ll cut it here and finish up in Part 2 on Friday where I’ll talk briefly about the work side of the equation and then put this all together in some form or fashion. And answer the question I raised above about Pre: was his success an issue of his work ethic/ability to suffer or did he simply have talent?

Read Talent vs. Work: Part 2.

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