The “Talent” Question

I posted my opinions on talent recently (Do You Believe in … on July 8) and have been engaged in a lively debate with a number of you regarding that claim. There seems to be some misunderstanding. I was specifically addressing the existence, or rather the nonexistence, of specific talents, such as a talent for archery, or a talent for chess, or the violin. There is no doubt that people have advantages of the body and mind over others when it comes to any particular sport. In fact, I will be so bold to say that participation levels are high enough that at the elite level we see specific body types and mentalities being selected out. If you have, say, genetic physical advantages and you participate, you will experience more success, which can create greater encouragement, which can lead to higher levels of accomplishment. Fifty years ago, no college football offense linemen were over 300 pounds in weight. Now it seems they all are. This did not happen by chance.

As another example, when I was interested in swimming, most swimmers were of middle height. Today, you will find successful swimmers who are much taller and thus benefit from a longer power stroke. If one seriously considers the physiological advantages of a swimmer like Michael Phelps, you can see huge advantages built into his body. Now, if he had been born on a desert planet (Arrakis?), he would have never developed that “talent,” which is my point: what we call generally call talents are actually just high levels of accomplishment.

There is something called the relative age effect. I have written about this with regard to the age groupings of youth sports, including archery. If you break youth competitive groups down into two-year groups, for example, you will soon discover that kids who were born slightly after the start date have an advantage. Let’s say the starting date for the age groups is July 1. If a youth were born on June 30th, he/she would be one day into his/her twelfth year during their first year of any cycle. If they were born on July second, they would be considered to be almost one whole year younger than they really are for that whole year. (They would be an eleven-year old on July 1 and for the rest of the year.) This is a tremendous advantage. Twelve year olds that are twelve plus one day would be competing against kids who were twelve plus 364 days, essentially a thirteen-year old.

This played out in a study of European professional soccer clubs. All or virtually all of the players on the teams at the time of the study benefited from the relative age effect. Since they were older and stronger than their competitors in their age groups, they got more playing time, more encouragement, and experienced more success, or so the story goes.

These are not kids who have more talent, these are kids who are stronger and faster and better because they are older. A 13-year old is 9% older than a twelve-year old in the extreme. These athletes are parlaying their natural “gifts” into success on the playing field, and these successes can play out long term.

So, an athlete’s physical and mental attributes play a role, a role so large that we are seeing elite performances being made by people with advantageous body types, but who also are almost (or actually) obsessed with their sports. I can remember a time when a farm kid or high school kid could take some special training and end up on an Olympic team, even winning a medal. I can remember when female gymnastics were grown women. These situations do not occur any more because of the artificial selection process. Female gymnasts got shorter and shorter and lighter and lighter which were all advantages in their sport. To get the lightest, fittest athletes, they had to be younger and younger, to the point that officials finally put an age minimum on competitors.

You can’t put a limit on effort, however, so the obsessed athletes are putting up numbers that in order to be competitive with them must be matched by equal levels of obsession by the others in their sport. Athletes train year-round for their sport, their countries support them while doing this, so if you want to compete, you, too, have to train year around.

This is artificial selection, not natural selection. What is being selected are genetic benefits and mental abilities, and not inborn or god-given abilities to perform a certain sport or other activity. If you want to learn more about this I recommend the book The Sports Gene (highly readable).

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The “Talent” Question

  1. kmartin

    When I was working my way through college I worked in a pony keg (the Cincinnati equivalent of a 7-Eleven convenience store). I worked with a gentleman who was a high school basketball coach and worked at the pony keg in the off season. He liked to talk about a player he coached who was 6’9″ in height. This was the early 1970s so 6’9″ for a high school basketball player was probably a three standard deviation event. This kid was an excellent athlete. The coach raved about how well he could run the court and jump. He had soft hands and could catch. He had excellent coordination. He was very hard working and was an enthusiastic athlete. He was also a very bright kid. He made almost all A’s in the classroom. In addition, the coach described the kid as very “with it” and self aware. He could discuss politics, religion, current, events, etc. However, there was just one problem. The kid was a horrible basketball player. Not just average, but flat out bad! According to this coach and everyone else who coached the kid he was the least “talented” basketball player they had ever seen. Everything was there: brains, brawn, and work ethic. What was the mixing elixir? Talent. Do I believe in innate talent for a given activity? Of course I do.

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    • So, you are assuming the absence of something not proven based upon negative evidence? So, what did the lack of talent consist of? What would he need to have added to his skill set to be an above average player? This is the problem with the mystical talent. Nobody can describe it, it is something they can tell is just there. pretty much the same argument as for the existence of mythical beings.

      On Sun, Jul 16, 2017 at 6:10 PM, A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:

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  2. Arthur Halligey

    My journey has gone via Dwyk, Syed, Erickson and Epstein. Ask most successful athletes (any sport) if they put their success down to ‘talent’ and you will get a reply putting it down to purposeful hard work.
    So is it nature or nurture? Starting children young so that they can become familiar with the feel of equipment and form through safe play seems to be a positive step although we have had adults take up sport at a later time and still have success. Do they have an aptitude for their sport and if so what is the nature of this aptitude?
    What genes will benefit archery? Height and/or reach? Broader shoulders, proportionately to the average or longer forearms? Core muscle length? Or is it all physical – how much is due to a mental aptitude for learning faster, focus deeper, psychomotor skills?
    Or should we worry about it and just teach people to enjoy their sport (and enjoy it ourselves)?

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    • Arthur, re “What genes will benefit archery? Height and/or reach? Broader shoulders, proportionately to the average or longer forearms? Core muscle length? Or is it all physical – how much is due to a mental aptitude for learning faster, focus deeper, psychomotor skills?”: one of my points is that with large scale participation in sports (especially the ones offering lots and lots of money to do so) we are seeing the artificial selection of the attributes the sport favors. The sports themselves are showing the way. Add on top of that the increased attention we are paying to training and the whole process is accelerated. Archery, interestingly, is a sport with very low “selection pressure” for physical attributes. As long as you are not to tall or too short (7 footers need not apply), one’s body can be utilized for elite level archery. (IMO obviously.)

      On Wed, Jul 19, 2017 at 6:26 AM, A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:

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  3. If you looked at a beginner’s group on the first night, and described someone as talented, it would be a shorthand way of praising their speed of uptake, which you’d attribute to genetics or useful past experiences, or both. If you saw a professional archer and called them talented, the same is true, you’d be referring to their skill as a result of genetics and past experience (practice). I think talent is just a way of describing someone’s relative place on the bell curve of ability. There’s a book about this called Bounce, by a professional table tennis player, which is interesting.

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    • There is a “talent tale” involving a table tennis player in which a belief in “talent” actually crushed his career. Since the “talent” everyone lauded in this young man was a “”gift” that had nothing to do with the young man, he grew to distrust it and avoid challenges to his position because if he failed, all he could do was acknowledge his insufficient amount of “talent.” I will check out your book reference! Thanks!

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      • So actually referring to things as talent could be destructive!

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      • Yep, it certainly doesn’t help anyone. The claim of talent is usually proffered as support of an athlete’s efforts, but since that talent is “who they are” rather than a reflection of “what they have learned to do” it doesn’t lead anywhere.

        On Thu, Jul 27, 2017 at 8:39 AM, A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:

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