Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Talent, Talent, Who’s Got The Talent?

Have you ever gotten into a long three or four way e-mail conversation with friends and colleagues?  Recently I had one that started out on the topic of “talent identification” in sports and headed off into several related directions over multiple days.   In addition to me, the participants were David Epstein, the author of the “Sports Gene”, Terry Laughlin, the creator of Total Immersion Swimming, and the runner/author Amby Burfoot.  Here is a synopsis of some of the things that came up in the exchange.


1.)  The Kid From Fargo

The conversation started when I asked David, Terry and Amby what they thought about the following story.  On the day after Christmas, my wife and I did a short swim workout at our local athletic club.  The next lane was occupied by a young guy who was doing what might be described as a serious swim workout.  During a break in his interval training, I asked what college he swam for thinking that perhaps he was a small college swimmer home for winter break.  Instead I learned he was high school kid from Fargo, N.D. visiting relatives in Minnesota.   We talked a bit more and he told me he could break 1:50 for a 200yd freestyle.  He also did some running with a 2-mile best of around 9:50.   His training regimen sounded serious but modest with no year round running for example.   I also guessed that the mystery swimmer was about 5’10” (9180cm) and  150lbs. (68 kg)…….perfect size for the triathlon.   We finished the conversation with me encouraging him to give the triathlon a try.

So, how good could the kid from Fargo get if he trained seriously for say an Olympic distance (1500m swim, 40km bike ride, and 10km run) triathlon?   The fact that he was training alone while on vacation made me think he was pretty committed.   His times while very good are not great; however, Fargo is not an endurance sports hotbed and who knows what opportunities he might have to really train and improve in college.  My bet is that with training he could become at least a sub-elite regional class triathlete, and with a bit of luck perhaps national or even world class.


2.)  Talent Identification

I have made the point before that in comparison to a country like Kenya there is plenty of wasted aerobic talent in the U.S.  The other critical point is that talent identification works.  A good recent example is the Great Britain Rowing Team Start Programme which seeks to find tall people with a lot of aerobic power and turn them into rowers.  This effort has been successful and resulted in a number of Olympic medals and World Champions and there is also a focus on who is motivated to do the training required to excel:


“The right physical characteristics are of course not the only factor that is needed to achieve that ultimate prize of an Olympic gold medal.  You also need commitment, the ability to train hard and the right mental attitude.  Even with all the physical capabilities described above if you don’t make the full commitment to training and make sacrifices where necessary then even the most talented person will not make it.”


So, when you say lack of talent, my response is lack of talent identification.


3.)  What About Motivation

In our e-mail exchange Terry pointed to an experience about motivation that he had early in his coaching career that I found fascinating:


“The most interesting observation I made while working with younger competitive swimmers–including a fair few elites who I developed–was that intrinsic motivation was a far more significant factor than physical talent. I first noticed this accidentally because my first coaching position was at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, 1972-75.

But the much more interesting observation was about motivation. 

 At Kings Point everyone was on scholarship, so no one swam for that reason. That left two reasons to swim (1) You wanted to, and (2) You did so to escape shit duty, as athletes were excused from reviews, washing latrines, swabbing floors, etc, during the season.. The prevalence of people who swam for intrinsic reasons in the faster lanes, and of escapers in the slower lanes, was even more striking than of body types. That observation remained true for the rest of my career in ‘serious’ coaching which continued through 1988.  And it remains the most influential aspect of the coaching I’ve done since.”


4.)  Early Specialization: Good or Bad?

One of the big ideas out there is that champions in sport and elites in many fields are made and not born via 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.  This would tend to argue for early specialization.  However, David pointed out that for “CGS” sports that are contested in centimeters, grams, or seconds there is evidence that later specialization is better:


“Based on a Danish sample of 148 elite and 95 near-elite athletes from cgs sports (sports measured in centimeters, grams, or seconds), the present study investigates group differences concerning accumulated practice hours during the early stages of the career, involvement in other sports, career development, as well as determining whether or not these variables predict membership in the elite group. The results clearly reveal that elite athletes specialized at a later age and trained less in childhood. However, elite athletes were shown to intensify their training regime during late adolescence more than their near-elite peers. The involvement in other sports neither differs between the groups nor predicts success. It can be concluded that factors related to the organization of practice during the mid-teens seem to be crucial for international success within cgs sports. Future research should adopt a longitudinal design with means of drawing causal inferences.”


Did the late specializers do better because they intensified their training during a key period of physiological growth and development?  Did being a bit older allow the most motivated kids to pick the sport that interested them the most and then really commit to the required training for the internal vs. external reasons mentioned by Terry above?

There is a lot of talk about of how birthdays early in the year are key determinants of who does well in sports like Hockey via what is called the relative age effect.  The idea is that kids who are relatively older do well and thus get more ice time and practice and thus get better and better leaving the younger kids in the dust.   However, on further review this appears to be a superficial analysis:


“Because RAEs are well-established in hockey, we analyzed National Hockey League (NHL) drafts from 1980 to 2006. Compared to those born in the first quarter (i.e., January-March), those born in the third and fourth quarters were drafted more than 40 slots later than their productivity warranted, and they were roughly twice as likely to reach career benchmarks, such as 400 games played or 200 points scored. This selection bias in drafting did not decrease over time, apparently continues to occur, and reduces the playing opportunities of relatively younger players. This bias is remarkable because it is exhibited by professional decision makers evaluating adults in a context where RAEs have been widely publicized. Thus, selection bias based on relative age may be pervasive.”


There are other holes in the 10,000 hour argument that David has covered in his book.  It is certainly an interesting idea that is easy to grasp, but like a lot of ideas that are easy to grasp sometimes the nuances get lost as things get oversimplified for public consumption.


5.)  Limits of Deliberate Practice?

Amby wanted to know what happens to people that really devote themselves to something new later in life.   The example of Dan McLaughlin comes to mind.  Mr. McLaughlin essentially quit his day job as a commercial photographer to see just how good a golfer he could become with 10,000s of deliberate practice:


“On April 5th, 2010, Dan quit his day job as a commercial photographer and began The Dan Plan. Having never played 18 holes of golf in his life, Dan started the 10,000 hour journey with just a putter.  After five months of putting, he received his second club, a pitching wedge. Just before the first anniversary of The Dan Plan, Dan took his first full-swing lesson.  After 18 months he swung a driver for the first time.  On December 28, 2011 he played his first full round with a full set of clubs.  Since then it has been off to the races.

Logging in 30-plus hours a week he will hit the 10,000 hour milestone by December 2016. During this time, Dan plans to develop his skills through deliberate practice, eventually winning amateur events and obtaining his PGA Tour card through a successful appearance in the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School.”


From what I can tell, three years into his plan, Dan McLaughlin currently has a handicap of about 6 meaning he usually shoots about six over par.   I am not an expert on handicap systems but from what I can tell top PGA pros are routinely a few shots under par on their home courses.   At some level this little experiment shows us both the power and limits of deliberate practice.  Dan McGlaughlin is becoming a solid golfer and now is in the 10% of people who actually take the time to post handicaps.   To put it in perspective, about 15% of marathon finishers run under 3:30.

However, I would be remiss if I did not highlight that many positive aspects of deliberate practice including improved performance and learning how to spend more time in a relaxed Flow like state while doing challenging things.    These effects can be hard to quantify but as Terry points out most of the time the key is train well vs. simply harder.


6.)  The Talent Question

To become truly skilled at most things requires practice.  Practice plus the nebulous concept of talent can lead to exceptional performances.  David tells me that the Kenyan runners are convinced they are more talented.  Is this real?  Does their belief increase their motivation and lead the most talented kids to pursue running?  Does it give them a psychological edge in competition?  Or, do they end up simply training harder as a result of their beliefs?

Based on everything I know, most tests of talent are pretty crude especially when you are trying to find the most exceptional person in a field full of exceptional performers.  This is true for tests in the physiology lab, paper and pencil tests of academic performance and also genetic testing for most things.  The tests needed to determine who has 1/100 talent, 1/1,000 talent, and 1/10,000 just are not there.  That having been said, the great NFL quaterback Tom Brady was a 6th round draft pick with marginal NFL combine scores.   Does the fact he got to the NFL combine mean he was exceptional?  Or, does the mismatch between his “test scores” and performance simply show just how hard it is to determine or predict objectively who will be the best of the best?

Finally, to the extent that talent is something innate we don’t have control over it.  However, we do have control over how we apply it and I hope the kid from Fargo sees what he can do.


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