What would you do differently if there were no such thing as talent?

How we think about ability and learning changes the nature of youth sport programs and affects sport on a national and individual level

Until the late 1800s scientists believed that something called the 'ether' allowed light to propagate through a vacuum. Back then light was assumed to be a wave that needed some kind of medium in which to move. Scientists cooked up the ether to provide this medium even though it was completely undetectable. They couldn't see it, touch it, or smell it but it must be there they thought, it has to be. 

For over 100 years the ether was an essential part of our understanding of how light propagated. But since the 1920s we know that there is no such thing as ether nor does light need a medium to travel. A lot of what we used to believe about light propagation has changed — and believed is the right word because ether was an article of faith; assumed into existence without any kind of evidence. We needed it at the time but as our knowledge of physics expanded, the need for the ether evaporated.

Today the same circumstance exists around the idea of talent, especially in sport. We have long labeled the source of early, unexplained ability as talent. We've created the fiction that some young athletes are born with special gifts or innate abilities to explain why they perform better than their peers. But after decades of research, the ground on which talent once stood has been swept away. We simply don't need it anymore to make sense out of what we see in the arena. 

So what is talent?

Expertise research has shown that the source of precocious ability can be attributed to what we have known for a very long time: practice matters, opportunity matters, coaching matters. In short, environment matters. Given the right environment ability can be created. We don't need talent to explain it.

Originally expertise research sought to discover the nature and source of talent. What caused it? Where did it come from? When talent proved to be as elusive as the ether the focus of such research shifted to how humans acquire ability and how they learn. What we now know about how we learn explains a lot of what we used to attribute to talent.

In the 1980s Benjamin Bloom conducted the Development of Talent study of 120 subjects with high ability in art, science, or sport. Bloom's objective was to discover how these individuals were different from their peers at young ages, thus hoping to be able to pinpoint what talent might look like in its early stages. 

Bloom was specifically looking for talent; what he found, however, was that these individuals had no special gifts but they were immersed in an exceptional learning and training environment from young ages. This eventually led to what is perhaps the most famous quote to come out of that study:

We were looking for exceptional kids, what we found were exceptional conditions.

In other words, the high ability subjects in Bloom's study learned to be exceptional mathematicians, artists, and athletes. Their expertise was explained by the various components needed to develop it: Practice, Opportunity, Support, and Passion — the usual suspects. Indeed, there has never been a study of expertise that identified talent as the origin of any kind of ability. 

The iceberg illusion

It shouldn't be surprising that children of music teacher's would be better piano players than their peers. They get a head start on learning, probably have opportunities to practice at home, and live in a supportive musical environment. It would be unusual if they weren't better pianists. While some may be tempted to suggest a genetic basis for their ability there's obviously no need for it once you’re aware of their environment. What really separates them from others are the unique conditions in which they live.

I experienced this myself when I taught swimming. When a 4-, 5-, or 6-year-old showed up in lessons with more ability in the pool than his friends these early skills could almost always be attributed to some obvious reason; his grandmother’s backyard pool (earlier opportunity), or that he was slightly taller or stronger (earlier or faster growth), or he showed less anxiety around water due to a number of possible reasons.

The point is when we see an unexpected performance without knowledge of the environmental advantages that contributed to it we tend to attribute it to special gifts or genetic disposition. Anders Ericsson calls this the iceberg illusion. The performance we see — the tip of the iceberg — is the result of the part we don't see; the learning, practice, opportunities, and support that preceded the performance or, as some might claim, created it. Special gifts have nothing to do with it.

At one time or another we have all used talent as an excuse to explain our own weaknesses or simple inabilities. "I'm not good at math or music," or "I can't dance," or whatever the skill might be, we blame our low ability on a lack of talent rather than just never having learned these things in the first place.

Let's be honest, the reason you can't dance or speak Russian is simply because you never learned how. Given what we now know about learning and expertise, it's time to retire the idea of talent permanently. If you really want to speak Russian stop pretending that you can’t and get started learning it.

Obviously there are physical and metabolic characteristics that make it more likely that athletes will be successful in sport but these do not make a difference in creating ability. Tall and short basketballers can be equally skilled but the taller athlete has a better chance of being successful. In cycling, an athlete with a higher VO2 max will probably be more successful than an athlete with a lower one but this attribute and others like it are also trainable. They're irrelevant when it comes to developing ability except in some cases where strength, for example, might be required to perform certain skills.

It's helpful to review the definition of sport talent provided by Dan Coyle in The Talent Code:

Sport talent is the possession of repeatable skills not related to physical size.

If we use this definition it is easier to see the difference between learned skills and abilities, and physical and metabolic attributes that may be factors affecting success.

So what's the problem?

Believing that talent is an innate ability can be harmful not only on a national level by premature selection of young athletes for elite programs, but also to individual athletes who may be denied opportunities to participate in sport programs because of their perceived lack of talent.

Athletes display early ability for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons we will know about, some we won't. If we assume that talent is innate we may unconsciously rob youngsters of deserved instruction, coaching, and opportunities.

Coaches especially have to realize that they are critical to the learning process. Every athlete can learn the skills involved in a sport. And even though athletes will eventually reach various levels of success each one deserves the time and attention to develop the skills they will need. Athletes who start sport later than others will probably not appear as skilled as their on-field comrades, at first. Given time though these athletes will overcome their late start, their late birthday (relative age effect), or their later maturation. No one knows what a young athlete's potential is until it's realized; athletes should have the opportunity to find out and that takes time. 

Even if you think that talent is a real thing, pretend for a moment that it isn't.

What would you do differently as a coach? As an administrator? As a parent?

If we accept that the origins of ability are within our control then national sport governing bodies can design programs that support the creation of ability rather than early training and so-called talent identification schemes. Coaches can focus on the important goal of keeping athletes engaged and help athletes learn the skills needed to enjoy the sport as they get older. And parents can be confident that their children are enrolled in worthwhile programs that are teaching young athletes skills they will need as they progress, or skills they can use later to live long and healthy lives. 


Thanks once again for reading The Sportkid Newsletter. Comments are always welcome and if you have ideas for future articles please let me know. If you enjoyed this letter please share it with your friends.