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Permanent Link: The Myth of Natural Ability in Elite Sport

Posted Jan 13 2010 12:00am

by Justin Coulson (School of Psychology, University of Wollongong)

Despite decades of psychological research to the contrary, the myth that natural ability makes an athlete superior persists. In fact, if you listen to the commentary of nearly any sporting event you will hear the “expert” describe the “natural talent” a given player exhibited throughout his or her life, which has culminated in present day successes.

Everyone believes in talent. Especially the experts.

Physical endowment is visible. Shape and size, agility, and strength are all visible. So too are deliberate practice and training. You would think that the fact that training produces outcomes would dispel the myth of natural ability. After all, training demands that effort be made which leads to subsequent improvements!

Let me share some examples from the history of sport.

Muhammad Ali was not considered a natural fighter. He had the wrong body proportions, for a start. While he was quick, he lacked strength and he lacked the classic moves. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset (which I recommend as one of the greatest books on the psychology of motivation ever written), writes that Ali “boxed all wrong. He didn’t block punches with his arms and elbows. He punched in rallied like an amateur. He kept his jaw exposed. He pulled back his torso to evade the impact of oncoming punches” rather than dodging left or right.

In hindsight experts reflect on his natural talent and physique. We see the body of a great boxer. Yet Ali’s work ethic and ability to tactically psyche out his opponents before a fight made him the fighter he became.

The second example is Michael Jordan. Everyone knows he was cut from his high-school basketball team – and in hindsight we mock the coach that dropped him. Jordan never got recruited by the college team he wanted and in his first NBA draft two teams bypassed him for other players. Couldn’t they see his natural talent? Jordan became known as the man who practiced longer and harder than ANY other player in the NBA. His work ethic is what made him great… not any natural ability.

The same can be said (and has been) about one of Rugby League’s greatest players, Andrew Johns.

I remember as a teenager being stunned that a man who was only 165cms (5’5”) could win a slam dunk contest. Was he naturally endowed for basketball greatness? Not remotely! The same can be said for athletes from every sport throughout the world at the HIGHEST levels.

And while I know that not everyone loves Lance, personally I find him inspiring. This ad highlights precisely the point this post is about.

The “naturals” we knew as kids and as teens were most likely only natural because they were older (and therefore bigger), more mature (and therefore more co-ordinated), or had parents or friends who spent time with them developing their skills.

I have two nephews, aged 2 and 3, who are the most amazing soccer players! It’s incredible. Are they naturally gifted to play? Of course not. From literally the day they were born they’ve had soccer balls to play with, and parents who kick the ball around in the back yard EVERY chance they get.

My ten year-old daughter is not as fast as the other girls on the velodrome. She knows her bike isn’t as good as some of theirs. And she knows that her wheels are smaller. But most of all she knows that while ever she only trains one afternoon each week and they train three afternoons each week, they’ll always be faster.

Of course the myth of natural ability is a handy cop-out for people not doing so well in their given sport. If I’m not naturally gifted, then my poor performance is not “my” fault. It’s genetics conspiring against me. Researchers have absolutely decimated that myth.

There’s no such thing as naturals. There are simply those who train their bodies and minds longer, more precisely, more deliberately, and harder than everyone else.

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