Why are They Better Than Us?

Posted: June 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

This past Sunday (Father’s Day) was an interesting one as it was filled with a ton of thoughts on one specific topic/question,

“Is talent made or born?”

This seems like your typical Saturday night bar conversation with the boys (or girls), but you may be surprised to know there is actually a good amount of research and literature out there written on this very topic.

So, what led me to these thoughts?

Well first, I began reading “The Last Natural” chronicling Bryce Harper’s story during 2010. For those of  you unaware of Harper, let me give you the cliff notes version:

Harper was a high school phenom from Las Vegas who got his GED after his 10th grade year in order to graduate high school early. Essentially, he was too good to play with the kids his age. It seriously got to a point where they were scared he may hurt other people by using an aluminum bat. At 16, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated being called the Next LeBron James.

Once he got his GED, Harper enrolled at his local junior college (which happened to be one of the few college conferences in the country to use wood bats, and also happened to have one of the best teams in the country, regardless of level) with the idea of playing for one year, and then making himself eligible for the pro baseball draft. Essentially, he wanted to be drafted after his junior year.

This would be normal. Except for the fact that NCAA baseball players are only eligible to be drafted after their junior year of college, not high school.

Essentially, this had never been done before. (Actually someone did try it once, but under different circumstances.And no, it did not work.)

To make a long story short, he did all of this, and completely dominated. He got drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals and is now playing in the big leagues as a 19-year-old. Sunday, I was actually reading this book while watching Harper play against the Yankee on tv.

For those of you unfamiliar with baseball (since this is much more common in basketball), for Harper to be an everyday major league player as a 19-year-old is remarkable. Additionally, he is actually playing well while playing a new position, right field.

Fast forward a few hours…

After the Yankee game,  I began to watch the U.S. Open golf match. Leading into Sunday, a 17 year-old high school amateur named Beau Hossler was in contention for the lead. And while he didn’t have a great day and finished a few shots back, to be in contention on the final day of the U.S. Open as a high school golfer is nothing short of remarkable. It makes you wonder how people at such a young age can have such superior talent.

Typically, we all write it off as saying,

It’s god-given talent. They were just born that way.

But is that truly the case?

We could all argue both sides.

Or can we???

I’ll let you decide.

What I want to do is introduce you to two books that you may find interesting on this very topic.

The first, “The Talent Code” was written by Daniel Coyle. Admittedly, I have yet to read this one. It’s certainly on my list…

For a quick synopsis of what you can expect from the book, this is straight from thetalentcode.com

He found that there’s a pattern common to all of them — certain methods of training, motivation, and coaching. This pattern, which has to do with the fundamental mechanisms through which the brain acquires skill, gives us a new way to think about talent — as well as new tools with which we can unlock our own talents and those of our kids.

From this little quote, I think you can probably tell that Coyle’s work looks to debunk the “born with it” idea behind talent.

Here is another book on the topic. This one I have read. It’s called, “Talent is Overrated”

Being that I did read this book, I want to give you what I extracted as the ‘take home’.

Note: I read this book over a year ago and do not have the book in hand currently, so I believe that what I still remember  really had a profound effect on my thinking.

My take: As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” This type of statement makes us believe that if we simply put in the time for whatever skill we choose, we will become proficient at it. There actually may be some truth to this. But what does it take to be great? I can tell you, based on what I learned, that simple practice (or time spent) will not make perfect.

The next saying, “perfect practice makes perfect.” Again, great statement but wrong message. The problem here lies within the idea of perfect practice. In my opinion, the only way your practice will be perfect is if you are not challenged at the skill. For example, let’s take a baseball player. This player is fantastic at hitting the ball thrown right down the middle. Now, he could practice hitting the ball pitched down the middle all day, be “perfect” and really not get any better.


He has not struggled to improve a skill of which will actually make him better, whether it’s hitting a different type or location of the pitch.

Finally, we have the idea of ‘purposeful practice’. Quite frankly, this type of practice sucks. It’s a struggle. It’s not even fun. If I remember one lesson from “Talent is Overrated” it is just this. The idea that the great ones out there actually hate practice. It’s mentally and physically draining and exhausting.

But why are they great?

They are great because they continue to practice, purposefully.

Even when it’s not fun or enjoyable, they continue to log the hours. (I believe the number is roughly 10,000 hours needed in order to master something)

the next part of this article may be a bit of tangent, be warned

Another way in which I have begun to think of such practice: challenging the neurology.

No longer think of it as practicing a physical skill. Think of it as training the brain to send a better, more accurate signal for your body to execute something.

I think the way in which we look at top-level athletes or performers is incorrect. We marvel at their physical attributes. How strong they are. How fast they can run… you get the idea.

But really, these top-level performers are nothing more than neurological wizards. The simplest way I can describe it: They are better than you and I at telling their brain to do something and actually having their bodies listen.(I realize the idea of telling your brain to do something is not really accurate but work with me here people!!)

So now, I think we have come full circle. Again, it’s the chicken or the egg. If you believe in the research and in purposeful practice, then talent certainly is not born. But, if you believe that the greats are neurological wizards, then maybe they simply have an easier time doing difficult tasks. They practice them more, and get better quicker than the rest of us.

Again, sorry for the tangent. Somehow in my head, it all makes sense.

I am curious if any of you have thoughts on this topic.

Don’t be afraid to weigh in!

  1. Leonard Faye says:

    Interesting to a psychomotor skills instructor i.e. Chiropractic Technique.
    When i was with the 84 Olympic athletes for many weeks, I observed some things about elite athletes. They all had the ability to self criticize and practice what they were less good at, in the overall performance, They had the ability to dissect the performance and practice a component.
    The week link in the chain of coordination, was isolated.
    Chiropractors develop a favorite set of manipulations and repeat those on patients and not necessarily what the patient needs.
    Most chiropractic students do not have a list of what they should be able to perform and do not self criticize by grading. The outcome is they pass technique classes but fail to become experts at many manipulations, except their favorite few.
    Go to http://www.chiropracticmentor.com and print out the free workbook and highlight what you can’t do to a “conscious competency level”
    Dr. Faye

    • Dr. Faye,
      First off, as a chiropractic student, I am honored to have you comment on my post. As an MPI officer, I have followed your works for years. Interesting thoughts on the Olympic athletes as I truly believe the adjustment is an athletic event so the same rules certainly apply!

      Thanks again for the insight!


  2. Great post, Justin.
    Purposeful practice is what it takes. But it’s also interesting to note that a lot of elite athletes spend their lives with dramatically better sympathetic tone in comparison to we mortals. They’re chilled out and they have a switch. We don’t have control of the switch like they do.

  3. […] Why are They Better Than Us? I Don’t Cheat So You’re That Guy […]

  4. Eileen says:

    Having taught chiropractic technique for 18 years to novices… I can honestly say, it comes easier to those with athletic talent. However, I have seen non-athletes also excell… but It takes more dedicated and purposeful practice. So, I think it’s a combination of attributes. Talent, a willingness to put the practice time in, and the ability to be taught. There are some students with great potential, but it’s impossible to teach them… because they think they already know…

  5. […] turn into full blown posts that I think warrant a little more attention (the same thing happened here, and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s