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Where Does Talent Come From? Part 1

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” ---Aristotle

I'm sure many of you have heard those famous words of Aristotle before, and I'm sure almost all of you would agree fully with the fact that these habits are learned through skilled, deep practice. As a strength coach and a trainer my job is to make sure every person that walks through our doors is able to piss personal excellence during their time with us. Just for the record, everybody here at XIP is an athlete in some way, shape or form whether you are 8 or 80. We all must perform on some level of fitness every day regardless of what venue our performance takes place at or on. We are athletes. As athletes we all understand that in order to “piss personal excellence” we must take calculated steps in our approach along the path in order to create successful habits. Straying from this path of skilled, deep practice is, as they sometimes say “like kissing your sister,” and really is only stalling your efforts to achieve greatness.

For years it was common to think that if you obtained a certain talent it was because you were born that way...Your parents gifted you with an innate genetic potential or skill that allowed you to perform at a level above and beyond those people around you. Although we cannot argue it is the case that some individuals possess certain skills or talents at birth giving them an advantage over others in the world, it’s not everything. For example; the guy who is 6'10” and has great hand eye coordination has a great chance to be a good basketball player. Or the person who is long legged, lean and has a high mitochondrial muscle fiber density is set up well to be a marathoner. Or the individual who has a “photographic” memory and a good “poker face” might do really well on the World Poker Tour. We could go on forever with potential observations into the world of innate skill, however due to some really cool research into the inner complexities of the brain and where specific talents come from the views on skill development are now being rethought.

What this research is showing us is that talent, as Aristotle told us eons ago, is an act, and it is learned through deep practice and repetition. Have you ever heard the line, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work”? Well it's true, if the hard work is done in a way that promotes the repetition of the skill in a skilled and effective manner. The mind doesn’t know that it’s the wrong way to do the task, just that it is the way it learned it…So it’s extremely vital that coaches and athletes develop the best movement patterns possible at a very young age and keep this as top priority through the process of developing more efficient athletes.

An analogy that I came up with years ago to describe this process to my athletes is that ultimately we are building roads every day we train, or every day we live for that matter. As we all know there are good roads and there are bad roads out there and when it comes to learning and creating new skills we must build good roads that will lead us to our goals in health, fitness and performance. This is why technique is of utmost importance in our training programs here at XIP, and I explain it like this.

If I am teaching someone how to squat for example, and in one workout they perform 15 good reps and 20 bad reps then at the end of the workout they were really unsuccessful in creating a new skill as they built a good road and a bad road, however the bad road was longer…

You see the mind is unbiased in what pathway is used to perform a certain skill. If you've made countless repetitions of bad reps at a certain skill then you have created a motor pathway from mind to muscle that will complete the skill in that manner. The mind doesn't care if it's the “wrong” way to squat, all it cares about is that the squat is performed and the task is complete. This is why we as trainers love to have “green” athletes. To me a 10 yr old reporting to his first summer camp here at XIP is a sponge for skill acquisition. They have no “bad” roads built yet, and thus if I the coach can use my strategies and experience in teaching proper form and technique in running, jumping, landing, lifting, changing direction, accelerating, decelerating, core control, body awareness, etc. then they will leave with an entire system of good roads having been built. When they come back in the winter after their fall season we go back to building. The athlete who comes in with a few years of fu fu training under their belt and a bunch of dysfunction and muscular in-balance means I have some major deconstruction to do as we must first go backwards before we can go forwards. This is sometimes a very frustrating process, as people never want to be told they are wrong, and nobody likes to hear that hours of work spent on a skill was actually leading them down the wrong road.

What the research is showing us is that this road analogy I have been using is totally on track with how the brain and body function. As we know the brain is full of nerve fibers or neurons, and ultimately any skilled movement is a result of hundreds of thousands of these nerve fibers sending impulses to our muscles to make the movement happen. In a nutshell these nerve fibers are wrapped with an insulating material called myelin, and myelin my friends is the secret to all skills and talent. Myelin is what makes or breaks a particular skills success. The more we practice a skill correctly, the thicker the myelin wraps itself around the nerve fiber and the more efficient or the more talented we become at the particular skill. More myelin=more talent. It's not muscle memory we are talking here as the muscles just do what the brain tells them to do, it's myelin thickness, and the thicker the myelin sheath gets the more skilled we become. How does it get thicker? Practice practice practice.

The 10,000 hour rule applies to this exactly. In order to be great at a particular skill it has been said that you must spend 10,000 hours in deep practice of that skill, at that point you will then be great. This is true, although some might reach greatness sooner than that if they spend a greater percentage of those 10,000 hours performing the skill correctly. Take two aspiring sprinters for example, who both want to be Olympians in the 100m. We will assume that both have very similar genetic gifts for speed. Both are very similar in height and weight, and as youth athletes had almost identical times in their events. They spend many hours training every week for years, from youth through high school and into college. Both practiced equal amounts of time, and both were making nice thick myelin sheaths around those nerve fibers needed for maximum speed. Both spent 10,000 hrs on developing their speed. The difference was that one athlete was surrounded by coaches who understood proper sprint mechanics and strength and conditioning protocol and because of this he qualified for the Olympic team. The other spent many hours with poor sprint mechanics and had a strength and conditioning program like that of a body builder. Because of this his 10,000 hours were not spent effectively developing the skills he needed for success and thus he never reached his true potential and made the Olympic team. It’s not so much that you spend the time, it’s how you spend it that matters most…

In Part 2 of this series I will talk about how we as coaches, parents, teachers, athletes, and students, can utilize the most effective way of teaching and acquiring new skills, and what to watch out for in the learning process...

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