Why Are Your Athletes Blind to the Truth About Talent?

Athletes today are bombarded by lies about talent. They are told to trust the process yet commentators repeatedly praise top performers for being natural talents. How important is talent to success, really?

Talent is Overrated, Truth About Talent, Talent is Over-Blown, Effort Counts Twice, Effort Multiplies Talent, Natural Talent, Grit, Generation Y, Youth Athletes, Hard Work Pays Off, Growth Mindset, Trust the Process, Athletes, Coaches, Coaching, Sport Psychology, Mental Toughness, Resilience, Team Culture, Culture Development, Mental Conditioning, Mental Training, Mindset

Let’s explore what is true about talent, why today’s youth worship it, and how to maximize the talents your athletes do have.

Talent is Over-Valued

You’ve likely heard Allen Iverson’s infamous rant when asked about his practice habits. If not, you can tune in here:

Iverson’s lack of commitment to practice is merely one of many examples of how athletes often put too much emphasis on talent.

We are fooled into thinking that talent is the most important factor for an athlete’s success. In years past, we attributed the success of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to talent. Commentators would say things like, “He was just born to swing a golf club.” It was easy to overlook the hours and hours both athletes spent practicing, training, and drilling the intricate skills that came together so fluidly in the heat of competition.

Talent is Over-Blown

Sociologist Dan Chambliss said, “Talent is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success.” Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, went on to point out that when we can’t explain how an athlete did “something jaw-droopingly amazing, we’re inclined to throw up our hands and say, ‘It’s a gift! Nobody can teach you that.’”

Consequently, many of today’s young athletes try to rely on talent alone. They mistakenly believe the lies they’ve heard that great athletes are “naturals,” “gifted,” and “born champions.” These remarks may make for interesting commentary or talk radio, but they are misleading the athletes of today…and tomorrow.

According to Tim Elmore, author of Generation iY, today’s youth often assume that:

  • Slow is bad.
  • Hard is bad.
  • Boring is bad.
  • Risk is bad.
  • Labor is bad.

Elmore shares that today’s athletes make these assumptions because they are surrounded by SCENE “that adults have created.” SCENE is an acronym:

S – Speed

C – Convenience

E – Entertainment

N – Nurture

E – Entitlement

Coaches have to help their athletes recognize the truth behind athletic success. Success in sports, as in life, comes by relentlessly doing the slow, hard, boring, risky, and laborious tasks that result in growth, mastery, and excellence.

Talent is Multiplied by Effort

Angela Duckworth has devoted the better part of her career to understanding high achievement. Essentially, she wanted to know why most people fail and few succeed.

In Grit, she shares how to get from talent to achievement.

Equation 1:

talent x effort = skill

Equation 2: 

skill x effort = achievement

“Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them,” Duckworth summarized.

Effort Counts Twice

When discussing talent, I often ask people if they know someone who possessed a lot of talent yet squandered it. Nearly every one raises a hand.

In contrast, I also ask whether they know someone who has achieved a high level of success despite modest talents and meager circumstances. Again, nearly every hand is raised.

The point is that talent is the x-factor. It is merely a factor. Based on Duckworth’s research it is effort, fueled by passion and persistence, that matters most. In fact, according to her it is effort that multiplies both talent and skill in order to succeed.

She wrote, “Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.”

Every coach looks for athletes with talent, but the best coaches know that talent + effort = skill and skill + effort = achievement. That’s why you try to teach your athletes to trust the process, that hard work pays off, and long-term success requires more than talent alone.


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Spread the Truth About Talent

Coaches and sport parents have the power to set the story straight about talent. Sure, talent matters. But it is what your athletes do with the talent they have that matters most. Teach them to cultivate it, maintain a growth mindset, and trust the process. Point out the hard work behind the success stories of today’s sport stars. Help your athletes see that effort is a key ingredient to pursuing their potentials.

Question: What lies do your athletes believe about talent?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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