“The funny thing is, I find the more I practice the luckier I get” – Gary Player’s famous response to someone who had suggested that a brilliant shot to the green during his just-finished round had involved a slice of good fortune – was far more than just a slick response to a cheeky interviewer.
In every form of elite sporting endeavour it is a truism that genes play a significant part.
You’d be hard-pressed to become a basketball great if you stand a mere five feet six in your stocking feet, just as – whilst nothing is impossible – you’d struggle to make the grade as a jockey or Formula One driver if you grew to be six feet eight and eighteen stone.
It also happens to be a fact of life that some people are born with greater innate talent than others for games involving eye-coordination and moving balls.
Those of us less or averagely blessed in this department can sometimes get frustrated or envious when we come across those with greater gifts who seem to be squandering their talents. When I was a kid, if I’d had a penny for every time I cursed my parents’ failure to bequeath me sufficient stature and natural sprinting speed – the only things I felt I lacked to become an international rugby flanker – I’d have been a millionaire.
Sometimes talent is wasted upon the talented.
When something comes easily to you, I guess you don’t value it quite as much as you might if you could live for a day as someone who (like me) had all the mental attributes to develop and sustain a lengthy career as a sporting superstar … but was deficient in some of the basics, like body shape, aerobic strength and the reaction-times of a panther in pursuit of prey.
Does anyone remember that early Judy Mitchell hit Big Yellow Taxi? There’s a recurring line in it that goes ‘Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone/[They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot] …’
That’s what happens, of course, to supremely-talented sportsmen and women who don’t push their abilities to the maximum and then, inevitably, have to retire when Time dulls their reflexes.
Journalist Matthew Syed identifies some fascinating angles on sporting talent in his 2011 book Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice (a read well worth the undertaking).
Most importantly, he demonstrates with bells on that the power of practice should not be underestimated. Citing research studies from around the world, he proves to my satisfaction that – for example – with enough dedication and practice, a averagely-talented violinist could acquire the necessary skill to carry off a role as first violinist in a symphony orchestra.
That doesn’t mean that anyone can become a first violinist in a symphony orchestra, merely that practising anything hard enough can render you passably good at it.
It was writer Malcolm Gladwell who originally came up with the ’10,000 hours’ rule – viz. that practising something for 10,000 hours does the business in this respect. He gave as an example how on earth did it comes to pass that four young guys from Liverpool (the Beatles) became so musically talented? Partly it was because, allegedly fuelled by artificial stimulants to keep them awake, they played six sets a night, seven days per week, in different clubs in the Hamburg red light district for months at a time. By the time they’d put in 10,000 hours of such slog, they could essentially play any song in any style or tempo they or anyone else requested – and (for Lennon and McCartney) creativity flowered as a result.
But the point Syed makes is that the glibly-stated ‘10,000 hours rule’ doesn’t just make averagely-talented people half-decently competent. It applies equally to the naturally super-talented.
In other words, take someone born as talented as a Lionel Messi, or Muhammad Ali, or Roger Federer. If either they have the innate motivation, or you can spot their talent earlier enough and encourage them, to apply the ’10,000 hours’ business to working on their talent, they can actually turn into a Messi, Ali or Federer.
After all, that’s exactly what Messi, Ali and Federer did.
That’s my lesson to be learned from the soccer World Cup currently going on in Brazil. There are some players out there who are supremely talented and yet still striving to be better. But there are also some very highly-paid players in some of the teams who are no longer trying. They’d reached the pinnacle of their profession and are happy to relax and enjoy the celebrity trappings that come with it.
More fools them.
Sporting careers are necessarily short. It’s important to nurture your own talent and seek to improve all the time, whilst you still can.
Plus, of course, you’re a long, long time retired – if you’ve done well enough, you can take your time and savour the trapping then.