June 17, 2011

What is talent in sport?

Is it just natural ability or the consistency that comes from perseverance?
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My father believed - as was the norm with respectable middle-class families in the years gone by - it was important that his children were good at mathematics. If your child was good at mathematics, you had imparted the right education and fulfilled one of your primary duties as a parent.

He often quoted to us what his friend, a respected professor of the subject, used to say: "There should be no problem that you encounter in an examination for the first time." It meant you had to work so hard that you had, conceivably, attempted and vanquished every situation that could find its way into an exam paper. It begs the question: if you did achieve 150 out of 150 in an exam (which my wife very nearly did once, much to my awe), was it because you were extraordinarily intuitive or because you had worked harder than the others, so that you didn't "encounter any problem in an exam" for the first time?

In other words, is getting a "centum" (a peculiarly Tam Bram expression) a matter of genius or a matter of perseverance? It is an issue that many intelligent authors around the world have been debating for a while, and one that is at the heart of sport. Would anybody who solved a certain number of sums get full marks? Would two people, each of whom put in 10,000 hours (Malcolm Gladwell's threshold for achievement) produce identical results? Or are some people innately gifted, allowing them to cross that threshold sooner?

We pose that question a great deal in cricket when we argue about talent. Players who play certain shots - the perfectly balanced on-drive for example - are labelled "talented" and put into a separate category. They acquire a halo, and in a near-equal situation they tend to get picked first. "Talent" becomes this key they flash to gain entry. And yet it is worth asking what talent really is.

Is it the ability to play the on-drive or, more critically, the ability to play that on-drive consistently? It is a critical difference. Consistency brings in an element of perseverance that you do not normally bracket with talent.

Let me explain. I have often, while watching Rohit Sharma bat, said "wow" out loud. I probably said it because I saw him play a shot I did not expect him to. Or maybe it was a shot very few players were able to play. Just as often, I find myself going "ugh" with frustration at him. It is probably because, having had the opportunity to go "wow", I now expected him to play the same shot again. And so, without explicitly stating it, I am invoking the assumption of consistency to assess talent. The old professor of mathematics would have said, "Play the shot so often that it is no longer a new shot when you play it."

It is while I was debating this in my mind that I became aware of why Sachin Tendulkar paid such high compliments to Gary Kirsten for throwing him balls. Tendulkar wanted to perfect a shot and needed someone to throw him enough balls to attain that perfection, so that when he attempted it in a match he wasn't doing it for the first time. And in a recent conversation he said he was at his best when he was in the "subconscious", not distracted by the "conscious", and able to play by instinct - which he had perfected through practice.

Now we often call Tendulkar a genius, and yet, as we see, the talent that we believe comes dazzling through is, in essence, the product of many hours of perseverance. Is Tendulkar, then, the supreme example of my father's friend's theory of doing well at maths? And assuming for a moment that is true, shouldn't we be honouring perseverance because that is what it seems "talent" really is?

And so it follows that when we complain that all talented players don't get to where they should, we are in effect saying that they didn't practise hard enough to be consistent. Maybe it means we should all use the word "talent" more sparingly; not bestow it on a player until ability has been married to hard work long enough to achieve consistency.

This is also the starting premise of a new book I hope to continue reading - Bounce by the former table tennis champion Mathew Syed. I am delighted by its opening pages, one of which said "talent is overrated". It is something I have long believed.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on June 19, 2011, 4:24 GMT

    In my opinion, whole topic itself looks incorrect. Either 'Talent' or 'Perseverance' cannot be linked to 'Greatness'. You may need to attribute 'Good/Better/Best', for either talent or perseverance. It is not 'Greatness', something natural. With this individual talent or perseverance may give some personal bests and records. Nothing else. But if you do 'something special' using talent that is 'Greatness'. Like Kapil,Gavaskar,Imran,Warne,Dravid,Ganguly,Sehwag etc. they did something specials. They changed the course, they gave a new direction etc. In a team game they are 'instrumental' for 'something specials'. But Sachin with his talent/perseverance, achieved a lot personal records, not 'something specials'. When volume is high you can many other numbers on high. I must be a fool if I say he is not talented etc, I can say easily he is best batsman, but I do no think I can say him as 'Great' like others. I think you cannot link easily link 'Greatness' to 'Talent'.

  • Phantom_XI on June 18, 2011, 22:07 GMT

    I would like to postulate a formula for talent which is T=HIA2 (hours, interest, ability squared). Its one thing spending 4,000 hours in a year at a piano but that won't turn in to Mozart if you didn;t have any interest or natural ability in playing piano. You do no need ability to turn your interest and hours you spend on it to a more purposeful end so hours you spend on doing any activity and interest you have need to be coupled with inherent talent to shine it above others. Whenever somebody mentions talent v. effort I think of Rahul Dravid who doesn't seem to possess any inherent talent at batting like Sachin or Ponting do but he's there with them only because of sheer dedication,perserverance, practise and intelligence. I might've contradicted myself but hey.

  • Nampally on June 18, 2011, 18:32 GMT

    I am surprised to see many comments confusing hard work with talent. Talent is something inherent in you. You can work as hard as you want but if you do not have talent you will never go any where. Take for instance Usain Bolt. How many people can do 100 metres in 9.6 seconds? That is talent.The american swimmer Phelps who dominated the Beijing olympic games with record number of Gold medals.How many have such swimming ability?Jesse Owems who dominated Berlin Olympics with 4 golds.You cannot make it without talent.Dhayan Chand of Indian Hockey team was a wizard with hockey stick. George Best the soccer player who played for Manchester United was like a magicien or Pele of Brazil. Talented guys make it against all odds because it is an inherent gift they have. In my earlier note I quoted Gary Sobers of WI as the most talented cricketer ever.Bradman, Warne, Tendulkar,Gavaskar, Nissar, Amar singh, Hobbs, Larwood, Richards, lara are some of the cricket talents.

  • thisgameislife on June 18, 2011, 16:59 GMT

    we are talking about people at the very peak of their chosen field. 'lazy talent' or 'hardworking un-talent' will only take you to a certain level (i still rate the latter higher). but you only qualify to be at the top because you have a base-level of both. the greatest at that level do not think of this in the 'or' paradigm. they operate in the 'and' paradigm. they are talented AND hardworking, no matter what the outer persona conveys. one of the comments that has stayed with me for years is from sunil gavaskar on tv - '...no greater crime than wasting of potential'. about rohit sharma - he has reached this level by being better and working harder than millions. but so have the others who he now plays with. too early to say which way he will go.

  • dummy4fb on June 18, 2011, 16:18 GMT

    Good Article, that essentially defines, Talent without perseverance is wasted Talent.. !

  • Percy_Fender on June 18, 2011, 13:20 GMT

    Contd..) in excess but with a reluctance to work hard. They say he has got over this shortcoming and point to his recent success in the West Indies. Well only time will tell if he has really imbibed hard work in his mental chemistry. If he has then he could be a great player. There have been players like him in the past who were casual about practice and yet achieved greatness like Mark Waugh, Dennis Compton and David Gower. But then the point I wish to make is that none of them were born in privilege. They were talented, recognised early, played the game and assumed the mantle of greatness. Virat Kohli is a combination of talent and maybe privilege. Cheteshwar Pujara is probably a case of preponderance of hard work over talent. In the past there were the Hardikars the Bhosles and the Sudhakar Raos who worked very hard but did not make it big.It is essential for a player to be noticed as above average after which only hard work and committment to the game matters. No golden spoon here.

  • Percy_Fender on June 18, 2011, 13:20 GMT

    There is a difference with a talented player and a hard working one.Niether of these qualities can cause a player to be a great. There has to be a high percentage of both these qualities without which a player cannot compete at the international level. Tendulkar was a prodigy as we all know even before he scored a hundred on his Ranji debut. Thereafter, he has gone on to achieve his legendary status because he practices so hard and simply loves what he is doing. He does not come from a cricketing family. His late father if I am not wrong, was an academic. Sachin was not born in privilege. So he did not have those special advantages Gladwell would have us believe. It was god given talent combined with hard work.Rahul Dravid ever the perfectionist is almost similar. From a studious family of great pedigree, he is from a common man's School. St Joseph's Bangalore not from Oxford or Cambridge from where in any case greats have been few and far between.Rohit Sharma is a clear case of talent

  • dummy4fb on June 18, 2011, 13:20 GMT

    Dear Harsha, Talent is that you can see when you see Warne flummox batsmen, doesn't mean he didn't put in the 10k hour effort , but for people like us 10k hours of practise won't help in replicating the ball of the century.

  • jay57870 on June 18, 2011, 11:00 GMT

    (Contd) Yes, they were endowed with special talent. Growing up in big cities with cricketing traditions, they had access to good facilities and resources. They worked out and practiced very hard, easily surpassing Gladwell's "10,000-hour rule" of success. Importantly, they enjoyed the support and encouragement of their families & friends. They were put under the tutelage of dedicated coaches & mentors. At that time Indian cricket was rising and transforming into the power-centre of international cricket. It helped but the climb was not easy though. The match-fixing scandals and captaincy issues in the late 90s posed new challenges, which were met head-on. The Fab 5 had matured mentally and physically. With the positive Ganguly-Wright leadership in place, they ushered in a new era of competitiveness, challenging even the mighty Australian juggernaut. We saw the dramatic emergence of Team India ("can do it" team spirit) in the new century, built around the nucleus of these 5 stars. TBC

  • jay57870 on June 18, 2011, 10:40 GMT

    Harsha -- Building on Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," he postulated that successful people are "invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." Cases in point: Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble & Laxman - The Fab 5. They were born in the early 70s and came of age at the right time to take advantage of special opportunities that opened up in the dramatic 90s: A "youth movement" precipitated by BCCI's legal ban of a few revolting players from the 1989 West Indies tour - coupled with popularization of "A" tours & satellite TV broadcasts - opened doors for these aspiring youngsters. It was a "Tipping Point": Another Gladwell phenomenon of dramatic changes with "little things" leading to "big effects." The precocious Sachin was ready and seized the opportunity in 1989. He inspired his peers to follow in due course to the national scene. (TBC)

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