When you take up a new sport later in life as an adult, it can be disheartening to see other people, perhaps younger than yourself, pick up the skills and make progress much faster than you. Or to see people who have received the top of their sport at an unbelievably young age.
How is it possible that Tom Daley can be world diving champion at the age of 16? How can weightlifter Zoe Smith clean and jerk 110kg at the age of 16?
They must be supremely talented, right? They must have something that you and I can never attain: youth, talent, great genetics…
We tend to overestimate the importance of talent, and underestimate the importance of hard work. This is not surprising. Hard work is, well, hard work. Perhaps it is easier to put success down to someone else having more ‘God given’ talent than you, rather than admitting that they worked incredibly hard for their success.
Chris Hoy, four-time Olympic gold medallist in track cycling, is a believer in hard work being more important than talent in sport, since it teaches you to relate hard work to success:
“I think that ‘talent’ is vastly overrated in sport. I am thinking especially of power and endurance sports but the idea that even tennis players and golfers such as Roger Federer and Tiger Woods are the best in the world simply because they are the most talented is ludicrous; they have talent, of course, but they have maximised it by hard work.”
Matthew Syed, author of Bounce: How Champions Are Made, takes this idea further. He argues powerfully that talent is a meaningless concept that we use to rationalise what seem to be superhuman skills by top sportspeople. The key is more prosaic than that: hours and hours of practise from a very early age.
“Tiger Woods was given a golf club five days before his first birthday…by the age of five he had accumulated more hours of practice than most of us achieve in a lifetime.”
But surely Tiger Woods was massively talented at the sport of golf? Syed has an even more interesting example. He himself was a top table tennis player, winning three Commonwealth gold medals. He points out that along with himself, the other top table tennis players in England were not only from the same town but from the very same street, Silverdale Road in Reading.
“For a period in the 1980s, this street and its immediate vicinity produced more outstanding table tennis players than the rest of the nation.”
What on earth was going on? Well, the kids on that street had access to a local 24-hour table tennis club, the nation’s top coach was a teacher at their school and they had plenty of people to practice with. They were very motivated and spent an enormous amount of time practising.
In other words, they had the opportunity, they worked hard and they got extremely good as a result.
You might make the argument that genetics plays a powerful role in sporting success. But again, genetics might be overrated.
Practice has the ability quite literally to evolve the human body and make it better adapted for the movements it needs to make. That’s why adaptation is a key principle of training.
Swimmer Liz Johnson, a Paralympic gold medallist, is a fascinating example of this process. She was born with cerebral palsy which means that only one side of her brain works properly, controlling one side of her body. The other side of the brain is damaged and can’t control the other side of her body properly.
However medical scientists discovered that the reason she can swim the breast stroke so well is that the side of her brain that works properly has adapted itself to control both sides of her body. Swimming since the age of 3, she has actually evolved superhuman abilities through practice and repetition.
Environment and opportunity
It is not just practice and repetition, but also environment and opportunity. In Syed’s example of the table tennis players, opportunity (having a great club and coach on the doorstep) was clearly a major contributor to later success.
When the great long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie was asked about the difference between the success of the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners and that of western athletes, he mentions the fact that the former have been living and training at altitude their whole lives, whereas western athletes might spend a few weeks a year training at altitude.
The Kenyans and Ethiopians have also developed very effective training methods based on their environment, such as the famous ‘Kenyan Hills’, which runners all round the world now employ in their programmes.
So what does all this mean for you and me? This is not meant to be a negative message of ‘you are not working hard enough’, but a positive message of what you can achieve if you do work hard enough and practise often enough.
We often make excuses based on perceptions of our own ability and its limitations: “I’m not built for that”, “I’m not very good at doing x”, “I could never do that, it’s too difficult”.
The truth is that we don’t do those movements often enough to get good at them. Everyone I know who really excels at something does it whenever they can, practically every day, giving 100 per cent.
Some people can walk into the sport of weightlifting and snatch their own bodyweight within a few months. One could easily envy that talent! But where do they go from there? Does every improvement come with such little effort, or will they at some point have to start working hard? Chris Hoy comments,
“Often, such talent is all you need as a youngster – but as you get older, and the competition gets stiffer, talent will only take you so far. At some point, you have to start working, and as people catch up, you have to work harder. Which can be hard to accept if you’ve never made the link between hard work and success.”
The lesson I take from this is to worry less about how much talent or ability you naturally have and simply focus on getting as good at your chosen skill as you can.
If you have to work hard right from the start, you are one very important lesson up.
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