Are small town athletes better at deliberate practice than their big city counterparts?
This is what passion looks like. It's not something you feel, it's something you do and once athletes learn to practice this way there are few limits on the level of skill they can develop.
The Talent Code1 by Dan Coyle is a book many of my readers are probably familiar with. It hit the streets in 2009 amid a flurry of other similar books. In it Coyle examines the concept of talent in various ways and in one section suggests that sometimes the best environment for hatching talent is found in small towns. I come from a small town so I liked this idea as soon as I read it and it had that counterintuitive, underdog-ish hook that I always fall for. What is it about small towns and ability in sport that go together?
Well, spoiler alert, it's not geography. Coyle offers some common sense reasons for it that could exist anywhere but are more likely to be found in smaller communities.
Being a big fish in a small pond
Standing out in a crowd sometimes sparks enough interest in an activity that leads to an increased cascade of practice and improvement. In small towns the "crowd" is usually small and it's not hard for athletes with even minimal skills to stand out. Small physical advantages like height or strength, or early instruction, such as swimming or dancing lessons, are sometimes all it takes to be recognized as "the best'' at something in a small community. This can trigger the passion that lies at the root of improvement, passion that guides the athlete into becoming a student of the sport with a focus on increased practicing and mastering ever more complex skills. These children may be only temporarily ahead of the game, others may catch up with them later on, but sometimes this moment in the spotlight is all it takes.
In Talent is Overrated2, another book in the talent genre, Geoff Colvin calls these small advantages a multiplier effect, "The concept is simple. A very small advantage in some field can spark a series of events that produce far larger advantages."
The evidence for the multiplier effect is powerful, in addition to which it makes sense and explains quite a bit. It then raises a very large question: What triggers the effect? If it all begins with some small advantage — a little difference that somehow tips a balance and starts a self-fueling cycle of increasing motivation and performance — where does that difference originate? (Colvin, 2008, p. 210)
Along with big fish status come increased support from coaches, the team, the school, parents, and depending on the cultural importance of the sport, from the community itself. The nostalgic view of everyone knowing everyone else in a small town may not be exactly like how it is portrayed in the media but it is generally accurate. The quarterback's mother may be the school secretary, the father of the basketball captain may be the coach's barber. Connections, even amongst those who think they live on the periphery of a community, actually run quite deep. People in small towns may not know everybody but they do know a lot of other people. These connections invite support and it's easy to back star athletes because the assumption is they represent community values.
Of all potential small town advantages the importance that a community places on a skill is paramount in achieving recognition. For example, the socializing nature of high school sport in a small town assures the attention of the community. School teams fuel discussion in coffee shops and bars; top athletes become local big shots; and parents of players receive momentary notoriety.
For example, high school football is a culturally important activity in many small towns across the United States. The popularity of football is part of the reason schools spend money on stadiums, game equipment, and coaching staff — things that are clearly outside the educational mission of the institutions but are nonetheless important to the community. And football provides the quintessential us against them ethos at the heart of many team sports. It's easy to get caught up in the exploits of the local team even if you're not particularly interested in the sport.
Athletes involved in sports that enjoy community attention like football are in the spotlight and receive support, praise, and recognition from a wide range of people who may not care about the sport itself but who are engaged because it is a community event.
These three small town factors may be the impetus that gets the ball rolling on talent development but they aren't the mechanism behind skill acquisition or improvements in performance. Practice does that, and not just any kind of practice but deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is also purposeful; it's done with the intention of improving skills. Without evaluation and modification the activity isn't practice, it's merely repetition. There may be metabolic benefits to repetition alone but learning and improving skills aren't among them.
These two factors distinguish deliberate practice from the somewhat mindless way that many athletes normally practice: Put the time in and get the work done (there are benefits to this, of course, but they are limited). Deliberate practice is not easy. It is a skill that must be learned all by itself in addition to whatever sport skills are involved.
I suggest that when passion for a sport is ignited, that's the moment when an athlete begins learning how to practice. That's when a focus on getting it right and making it better becomes the sole reason for doing it. This is what passion looks like. It's not something you feel, it's something you do and once athletes learn to practice this way there are few limits on the level of skill they can develop. Absolute performance may eventually be limited by physical attributes but athletes who learn to practice deliberately will eventually be able to compete at or near their genetic potential.
Deliberate practice is what passion looks like. It's not something you feel, it's something you do and once athletes learn to practice this way there are few limits on the level of skill they can develop.
Does deliberate practice explain why small towns are hotbeds of talent? Perhaps. Elements like community support are not easy to reproduce elsewhere and cultural importance of an activity might be limited by ethnic or economic stratification. Deliberate practice may not be the only advantage small towns have when it comes to talent development but if we're looking for ways to operationalize the small town effect then teaching athletes how to practice might be the best place to start.
Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how. Bantam Dell.
Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated. Penguin Books.