the joy of strength training


September 19th, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Hard work beats raw talent

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…

Zoe Smith prepares to snatch at the British Seniors 2010


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.


Liz Johnson celebrates her breast stroke goldYou 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.

Kenyan runners in a cross country race

Hard work

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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  • 1

    Another inspiring article Sally. I have already achieved lots of goals that I wouldn’t have considered possible just 6 years ago. And I’ve done it purely by hard work. After being a couch potato for 20 years, I found it much more difficult to attain some of those goals than my younger counterparts who are looking after themselves – maintaining their muscle, endurance and flexibility. I wish I’d worked hard much earlier!

    Louisa on September 20th, 2010
  • 2

    I wanted to read all that but it seemed like too much hard work.

    The people you mentioned are athletes, if they don’t work hard then they’re out of a job. For most of us, we’re doing it allegedly for fun, so perhaps we just need to find the right incentive

    nadeem on September 20th, 2010
  • 3

    Actually, nadeem, a very, very small number of athletes do something as their full-time job. Sure, tennis players, football players (both kinds), and golfers are professional athletes who train exclusively for their sport, which is also their profession. But most athletes, even pro and/or sponsored athletes, usually do something else for a living. For every Mariusz Pudzianowski there are a doze (hundred? thousand?) “pro” strongmen who work in a day job and train in their free time. Their incentive is simply to be the best they can at their chosen endeavor.

    DaveN on September 20th, 2010
  • 4

    @ nadeem: I’m basically saying, don’t get put off by people who seem ‘better’ than you naturally, because if you work hard and spend many hours practising it is likely that you will be able to catch up to and even surpass them.

    Mark Cavendish the Tour de France cyclist says that his brother Andy had more natural talent than he did, but not the perseverance or indeed the passion for the sport. I’m sure practically every successful sportsperson can tell you about someone in their youth who seemed to have more talent than they did.

    I have spent several years on the competitive circuit in various sports. I’ve seen people ignored for years or written off completely, only to see them come through to success after working their guts out.

    I’ve also seen people who are really ‘good’ at something (e.g. rock climbing) and people assume they are just naturally good, they don’t take into account the hours and hours of practise. I used to climb with this girl, and I’d say we had about the same amount of aptitude for the sport, but she used to practise far more than me and eventually left me behind in terms of skill.

    gubernatrix on September 20th, 2010
  • 5

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  • 6

    It’s been a while, Sally, but this was worth the wait!

    It’s interesting that you bring up environment. Some people think I’m wrong but I’ve always insisted that environment plays a much bigger role in a culture’s fitness, or lack of it, than people realize. I’ve noticed that people in a town/city in the USA tend to be fitter if they live near mountains or a body of water (ocean, lake, river). People who live on flatter terrain tend to be heavier.

    A fitness magazine here does a list of the 10 fittest and 10 fattest cities and almost without exception, it proves my point.

    Justin_P on September 24th, 2010
  • 7

    Thanks Justin, I’ve been doing more training than writing recently! Kinda nice but it’s also good to get back to writing.
    Completely agree with your comments on environment.

    gubernatrix on September 24th, 2010
  • 8

    Yes not just in strength and sports but in life as well the secret of success is paying attention to basics.Hard work is the best kept secret of all talent.

    varsha on September 25th, 2010
  • 9

    It is certainly worth aspiring to a world class level in a chosen sport. I think both talent and hard work work will get you there. Most of todays top athletes have been at it for years. Depending on when they picked up their sport may have something to do with when they achieve “world class” status.

    There is a theory in psychology that to achieve expertise in any given field requires at least ten thousand hours of practice (Malcom Gladwell – Outliers: The Story of Success). This seems to make some sense when you look at today top athletes. Those in their 20’s and 30’s have likely been at it most of their lives (e.g. Tiger Woods). Those who reach elite status later in their career likely started later in life.

    Talent will only get you so far but to sustain it still requires hard work and persistence. What is important is to have goals, whether they are to achieve proficiency or world class doesn’t really matter. It is the goal or objective that keeps you moving forward. Talent is what you start with in your training but its the hard work that determines where you finish.

    KO on September 26th, 2010
  • 10

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  • 11

    Fantastic article.

    We can always be negative, and give up on lofty goals by thinking its all beyond our reach. But very few things will actually stop us from improving ourselves incrementally. And its the accumulation of those incremental gains which finally gets there, one way or the other.

    Pat on September 29th, 2010
  • 12

    “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

    Saw this on the door to Coach Chris Doyle’s weightroom. One of the greatest S&C one-liners ever IMO.

    Boris on October 3rd, 2010
  • 13

    Nice one!

    gubernatrix on October 4th, 2010
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