Uncovering Talent

by Rich Kite

Talent (tal·ent) – A natural aptitude or skill, Synonyms; gift – aptitude – ability – genius – capability. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary

Would you believe me if I told you that talent is specific to individuals who are fortunate to attain it? Even the definition of talent, according to the most trusted dictionary in the world, leads you to believe this true. Generally people would agree, but what would you say if I told you I was actually lying?

If you type “talented people” into Google, you will see musicians, dancers, sporting personalities, artists, and so forth. The list goes on. When we address them as talented, do we allude to the fact they will be good at most things, or do we mean that they possess an incredible level of skill in their respected field? The answer to this question can be found by looking at what happens when you take a talented athlete out of their field, even just a little.

In his book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed explains a couple of events he encountered. First off, it is important to note that Syed was previously ranked number one in Great Britain for table tennis, is a three-time Commonwealth champion and competed in two Olympic games.

Syed speaks of a promotional tennis event he attended where he was able to have a game with Michael Stich, a former Wimbledon champ from Germany. He requested that Stich serves as fast as he could, to see whether he would be able to react fast enough to make the return. Each and every serve, Syed was nowhere near it, yet he comes from a sport that has almost half the time to play a return shot, AND was well-renowned for doing such things!

In addition to this, Syed also recalls a previous table tennis teammate who was known as the fastest player in the sport. After the team underwent a reaction test, this so-called Speedy Gonzales turned out to be the slowest reacting person on the whole team!

To explain the reasoning behind this, Syed and Coyle speak of a research carried out on chess players. They took a group of world-class (WC) chess players, and a group of non world-class (NWC) players and tested them. The first test required players to place the chess pieces into various positions that could be found in a game, and both groups were told to remember the exact positions. Almost 100 percent of the WC players remembered, which can’t be said for the NWC group. The second test was placing the pieces in any random order that is unattainable in a normal chess game. This time around the tables had turned; the NWC group dominated the WC group in remembering the positions. Why was this? Because it wasn’t something that the WC players were familiar with; it didn’t resemble a previous move that they could recognize and identify with.

So why couldn’t Syed return a serve in tennis? Because he wasn’t able to recognize the positions that Stich was going through to then read and predict the positioning of the ball upon service. It’s similar to table tennis, but it's not the same. And why was Syed’s teammate slow at reaction tests but known as the fastest man in the sport? Because the tests simply didn’t resemble the sport.

So what about the forming of talent in individual sports, such like the table tennis and the tennis athletes, among others? Well, it all comes down to practice!

A 1993 research study that you may have heard of was carried out by Ericsson concerning the difference between great musicians and good musicians, and what tells them apart. Ericsson found a number of interesting things. One of these was that we all learn at exactly the same pace. To put it another way, 'talented' people do not learn any faster then 'non-talented' people. Therefore, becoming talented has nothing to do with the speed of development or learning. In fact, the only identifiable difference was the amount of practice attained, showing that at the age of 20 the great musicians had attained 10,000 hours of practice, whereas the good ones had only attained 8,000 hours.

Syed, his teammate and these world-class chess players have practiced so much that they can identify positions and anticipate their next move before they have even happened. They’ve seen almost all there is to see in their respected sports. They have been through hours of practice learning how the opposition behaves, how the equipment they use feels and reacts, and they have subconsciously remembered all of it.

As an Olympic weightlifting coach, my immediate thoughts are to suddenly start writing a Bulgarian style training program including lots of sessions per day. However, it is important to note that Coyle (2009), Ericsson (1993) and Syed (2010) all state that there is a limit to how much you are able to practice and benefit from on a daily basis. This reverts us back to the famous quote that has since been modified; “Perfect practice makes perfect.” So the question is this: how is young talent formed? How are we able to squeeze more practice into less time?

Heyes (2009) and Ramachandran (2000) both underwent studies to discover further understanding of the role of the mirror neurons in humans. The mirror neuron is quite an interesting thing to understand. Neurons are like cables, some of which are connected to muscles. These cables carry signals or stimulations to activate the muscles requested by the brain. So without neurons, we are unable to send such signals.

To explain what the mirror neuron is, both researches speak of a previous test in monkeys, which looked at brain activity while the monkey was eating peanuts. Purely by accident, they had left the device running on a monkey whose neuron activity started to activate without access to any peanuts. How was this possible? The monkey was observing a lab scientist eating peanuts and was replicating the actions involved by up to 80 percent neuron activity. Tests were then underwent on humans to see if such effects are present, and it was concluded that not only do we have this function, but we also react to a lesser extent when we hear a noise that we can familiarize with.

So not only taking part in activities but to a lesser degree by watching and listening, we are actually practicing. How do young talented individuals manage to get so much practice in such short space of time? They observe and they listen. This is effectively subconscious practice, and lots of it.

Coyle (2009) goes further than this, in fact, to explain the type of practice that is required--something called “deep practice.” Deep practice is one of three required components to create talent, but before deep practice can be undergone it requires “ignition” and “master coaching,” the other two components.

Ignition is, as I expect you have already worked out, your motivation to practice. The thing that spurs you on to better yourself. As with mirror neurons, this could be completely subconscious. In fact, this is usually because of the master coach: small cues that are used, unaware to you, to ignite something subconsciously.

Coyle (2009) speaks of a research with a test involving a story of a mathematician who succeeded against all odds. There were two groups involved in the study. One group had the story unchanged, while the other group had the birthday of this successful mathematician altered to match that of their own. On further testing, those who were in the group with the alteration to the birthday excelled. As small and insignificant as it may sound, this was the ignition, as carefully placed by the master coach.
The role of the master coach is to keep the ignition alive, but also to deliver high levels of coaching. Depending upon the sport or performance, different variations of coaching or teaching can be used. Some can be silent, delivering concise cues only at the point of a breakdown, and others can be a long string of exact instructions to follow, stopping you at the moment of error. Both work, but only in the right disciplines. Get this wrong, and you are potentially delaying the progress that can be achieved from deep practice.

The moral of the story is this: don’t give up on your dreams. Talented individuals are the ones who have practiced hours upon hours. If you want to become one these people, you know what to do: find an inspirational and motivational coach, practice, watch the best in action and pay attention to their performance.

I will finish with a quote from Coyle’s book:

“Struggle is not optional, it is required. You must make mistakes, pay attention to those mistakes and learn from them. We must be persistent and passionate to succeed.”

Rich Kite is a Strength & Conditioning and Weightlifting Coach in the UK. Rich has worked closely with numerous high level athletes of multiple sporting disciplines, as well as running his own weightlifting club. When Rich isn’t coaching, he is endlessly promoting weightlifting through his website. Get in contact with Rich visiting his site at www.ukolympicweightlifting.co.uk or on Twitter at @rich_kite. 

The views expressed in this article may not be that of USA Weightlifting. Publication of all articles is to share different opinions and viewpoints. For instruction on the lifts from USA Weightlifting visit www.usaweightlifting.org.



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