Open up a debate about talent in just about any circles and it’s likely to be pretty lively. After posing the question on twitter recently, it’s clearly no different in swimming. Why does the question of talent spark such debate? What is it, and is it important for swimming coaches and sport scientists to understand?
The Challenge of Defining Talent
Defining swimming talent is no easier than it is in any other field of endeavour. Indeed, in the sports talent literature one of the primary issues identified is the lack of a consistent operational definition (Tranckle & Cushion, 2006).
It’s no better (perhaps worse) where I spend most of my time, in business organisations. In business, talent is used interchangeably to describe employees, top performing employees, senior leaders, ability and potential. Having been employed as a ‘talent manager’ I’m none the wiser which is right!
As this highlights, talent has been conceptualized as both the input and the output of the development process (Gangné, 2000), and so even the professionals can be left dealing in conflicting or unclear terms.
In such a situation, can we identify and develop talent appropriately? Does is matter? Let’s take a closer look at some different aspects of talent.
Concepts in talent
Importance of context
Csziksentmihalyi (and colleagues, 1993), famous for developing the ‘flow’ concept of optimal experience, argued that talent is socially constructed. In other words, talent only appears when there is a context for it. Without swimming and other achievement related fields, without an outlet, talent essentially does not (or may as well not) exist. This makes sense. You might say that when the right outlet is not found, this is untapped potential.
Relativity of talent
This also leads to another argument, that talent is relative. Without the means of comparison, is there any such thing as talent, even if comparison is subjective?
“…it is not related to absolute performance, but is very much subjective and determined by the observer…….” @bigdaveakers (David Akers, former swimmer, masters swimmer and coach)
“So if talent is subjective and based purely on perception, then surely the concept in itself is too abstract to be ‘possessed’ by an actual individual” @QueenMond (Lizzie Simmonds, British Olympic Swimmer)
Talent as Identifiable
Another view is that talent is something that it is possible, at least in part, to identify before it fully develops (Durand-Bush and Salmela, 2002).
This, of course, is the foundation for the considerable industry that has been built around talent identification. Talent identification is the appliance of scientific principles and evidence to indicate future performance.
Much of talent identification focuses on physical markers (e.g. height as a basic example) and the performance of physical tasks, both of which are indicators of physical potential and represent the ‘nature’ side of the nature versus nurture debate.
Nature versus Nurture
There’s no either/or argument over nature and nurture in sports performance. The only real question is how much each influences success and, quite frankly, we’re no closer to knowing. How many pairs of identical twins who go into the same sport (but different conditions) can we identify and study?
As Ericsson et al’s (1993) ‘magic’ 10,000 hours of deliberate practice suggests, talent is nothing without development. Clearly technical and physical development are core, observable components of any swimmer’s development. More complex, however, are the social and psychological factors in the ‘nurture’ side of the debate..
Psychosocial Aspects of Talent
Indeed, responses from the swimming fraternity on twitter to the question of ‘what is talent’ focused largely on the psychosocial aspects of talent:
The ability to focus on the tiny points of race pressure-streamline, extra underwater dolphin kick-all the time.. ..success is boring, lonely, repetitive. Whoever hangs on the longest wins.” @goldmedalmel (Mel Stewart, 3 x Olympic Medallist and co-founder of swimswam.com)
“the ability to learn a new task at an excelled rate” Bill Sweetnam, via @NickFFrost (Nick Frost, Swimmer)
“The word “talent” gets used too often, a misguided way of describing potential. It’s purely a mental process, not physical” @jamesmwwardle (James Wardle, Swimming Coach)
Where should we focus our efforts?
Given the complexity of the talent ‘equation, as Csiksentmihalyi has suggested, what may be most important is not that we can pinpoint prospective talent but that we systematically create the conditions that allow it to flourish. Indeed, talent identification is only surely important because of resource constraints. We need to channel funding and support to those most likely to succeed, because there is only so much to go around.
But at the grass roots level, prediction of success is surely less important. What is important, however, is that we don’t focus all of our efforts on the early developers and discourage youngsters that might gain positive experiences and life skills from staying in the sport.
Hard Work Beats Talent?
However, perhaps the most compelling argument for focusing on creating the conditions for talent to flourish is, as Richard Bailey writes, “even the most genetically endowed player will fail to achieve if she is lazy, or unable to deal with success and failure”. To me this means focusing on teaching and coaching: excellence in technical instruction, (physiological) training principles and creating the psychological climate for success.
Indeed, the more we talk about talent and the less we talk about attitude and effort, the more we may discourage the ‘task orientation’ that supports a healthy competitive mindset. As Barry Shillabeer, Lead Strength & Conditioning Coach, British Swimming put it, “talent is a vague external term and can undermine someone’s personal hard work to become ‘talented’” @BarryShillabeer.
The Forrest Gump Approach?
Perhaps when all’s said and done we should just take a leaf from Forest Gump’s book and simply conclude that ‘Talent is as Talent Does’……
Bailey, R. (2009). YOUTH TALENT DEVELOPMENT IN SPORT: RETHINKING LUCK AND JUSTICE.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented teenagers: The roots of success and failure. New York: Cambridge University Press
Gagné, F. (2000). Understanding the complete choreography of talent development through DMGT-based analysis. In K.A. Heller (Ed.), International handbook of giftedness and talent (2nd ed., pp. 67-79). Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science Ltd.
Tranckle, P., & Cushion, C.J. (2006). Rethinking Giftedness and Talent in Sport. Quest,58, 265-282