June 17, 2011

What is talent in sport?

Is it just natural ability or the consistency that comes from perseverance?

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

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