Natural Talent … Or Is It?

Natural talent is a vastly overrated part of human excellence, as argued by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance.

What Exactly Is Natural Talent?

I recently wrote the below feature on the topic of Natural Talent, and when I went to add it to the website, I realised that I’d written an article on the same subject many years ago. So, instead of deleting the old one, I have added the new one above it. So, below, enjoy not one but two different essays on this fascinating concept of sports psychology.

What Exactly Is Natural Talent?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in concepts related to natural talent. How significant is nature (genetics) regarding human excellence versus nurture (lived experience)? While researching this article, I thought I would try to see if there is an agreed definition of natural talent and what it’s not. Surprise, surprise, I could not find a standard clarification, but this was my favourite:

Full credit to Blue Print Tennis for this definition contained within this fascinating article on the same topic.

Natural Talent Vs. Natural Ability

It’s important to emphasise the context in which we tend to come across the concept of natural talent in our work here at Condor Performance. Virtually everybody that we work with has one thing in common. They want to get better at something … or a bunch of things.

Sometimes, this performance area is evident and tangible. They want to improve their golfing consistency because they won’t be able to secure their tour card for next year without it. A surgeon gets nervous before surgery and needs to improve her composure to be the best possible surgeon she can be.

Other times, this performance area is far less obvious but still a performance area. The athlete who wants to be a better husband struggles due to the sheer amount of time they spend training. A soldier desires to be a better father by not allowing traumatic and recurring memories of the battlefield to impact his time with his young children. 

Each of these examples, along with many others, has an element of talent or ability. The last example is probably the best to emphasise this. We know from the research that, for some reason, specific soldiers who return from the battlefield seem to cope very well with adapting to everyday life. On the other hand, some military personnel who experience precisely the same situations return home and have their functioning compromised by their experiences. What is going on here? 

Earned and Unearned Competence

Sometimes, I think it might be better to think of the Natural Talent debate in terms of earned and unearned competence at something. 

Earned competence is essentially the most common type of competence whereby you are good at something because you have spent a lot of time becoming good at it. However, not all competence is a direct result of hard work.

Unearned competence is when you are good at something without having spent hours and hours honing that skill. Why? How? We are not sure. Genetics undoubtedly plays a part. But maybe there are also many environmental factors that we are entirely unaware of. Perhaps the soil in the country in which you live is much richer in nutrients than in other countries. So without you having to do anything, the quality of the vegetables you’re putting into your body is slightly better. 

Undoubtedly, at the end of the day, how good you are is a combination of the two types of talent/ability/competency. It’s also worth pointing out that some performance areas are arguably more susceptible to one than the other. In other words, it’s incorrect to say that ability is 50% natural and 50% nurture. 

Let’s Look At A Few Examples 

First and foremost, the more complex and challenging the performance area, the less likely experts will be as such because of inherited advantages. Let’s look at a sport like the decathlon.

The vast amount of different motor skills, physical, psychological and technical requirements needed to be an excellent decathlete means that it would need to be more influenced by hard work and less by Mum and Dad’s genetic offerings.

Maybe the opposite example also comes from track and field. If we look at sprinting, it is easy to see that there appears to be a more significant genetic predisposition to running incredibly fast.

I am not taking anything away from the hard work of the world’s fastest men, women, boys and girls. But here is a fact: if you were born into a family of Caucasian shorties, good luck trying to win a 100m or 200 m Olympic medal.

Fortunately, due to advances in sports science, we don’t need to guess these things any more. There now appears to be universal agreement amongst the academic community that in the case of sprinting, fast-twitch fibres (which are entirely genetic and cannot be increased post-birth) play a significant role in how quick you will be. Of course, you still need to put in the training, BUT the training seems to pay much more dividends to those with more fast-twitch fibres. 

How Much Influence?

As is often the case, it can be beneficial to consider how much influence we have on all of this. For virtually every performance area, a certain percentage of how good you can get will result from inherited elements. A better question should be, “How much influence do we have on our natural abilities or lack thereof?”.

The answer is simple. None, nada, zilch!

So because we have no influence on these, I suggest you accept and ignore them equally. Instead, focus on aspects of improving that you have the most influence over.

What’s that? I hear you shouting.

The answer is simple. The quality and quantity of improvement endeavours. This might be called training, practice, preparation, or something else depending on your performance area.

A Personal Example

I have two children. One finds most sports far more straightforward than the other. During Covid, when they were homeschooled, we spent a lot of time just working on basic physical literacy. Throwing, catching and kicking basics. One of our favourite activities was throwing tennis balls between one another and trying to catch them with a baseball glove.

Because of natural gifts, one of my children spent no extra time trying to learn how to catch the ball better. The time the three of us spent outside was all the practice they got.

But my other child, who, for some reason, even though they have the same mother and father, found catching a much trickier proposition. So this child, without being prompted, spent far longer in the backyard trying to improve by themselves. What was the result? Two children who are exceptionally good at catching a baseball.

But What If …

I sometimes ponder how good the first child would be if they had/have the same work ethic as the second child. In most cases, this never happens. The natural talents work less because they can get away with it. The less naturally gifted try harder because they have to.

And every once in a blue moon, you get someone who combines extraordinary natural liabilities with exceptional quality and quantity of practice. These rare individuals are already mentally very healthy yet go out of their way to further improve the mental aspects of what they do. They choose to work with sports psychologists (like the ones at Condor Performance) not for a couple of months but for a couple of decades in the knowledge that there is never an end to improving.

We have names for these unique creatures. They are the top 0.1%. Some are called GOATS. They are the Hall of Famers, world champions.

Suppose you are following the logic of this theory. In that case, you might realise that, unfortunately, for some people, their genetics will mean they will not be able to reach the summit, irrespective of the quality and quantity of practice. Maybe you are one of these people. If you are, then I would suggest this mindset. Let’s see how far we can get without the biological head start.

If you need a hand, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Natural Talent – Previous Article

Words or combinations of words, primarily when spoken, are powerful and need to be treated delicately. As a general rule, I try hard not to dislike certain words. Instead, I choose not to use specific combinations myself. For example, the word control is used prolifically in performance psychology circles. As my colleagues and clients know, I prefer to use the word influence. In my opinion, it’s just a much better word for exerting an impact on something.

As a sport psychologist who doesn’t use direct cognitive therapy techniques, I try not to correct my sporting clients when they use the word control. Instead, I just choose not to use it myself. I refer to our varying degrees of influence on different aspects of our life and performance.

Two Words Not One: Natural + Talent

But I am particularly offended by one pair of words: natural talent. Before pulling it apart and explaining why I feel these words should be banned, let’s look at each word by itself.

The ‘natural’ part refers to genetics, what we’re born with, and our DNA. In other words, it is the former in the Nature Versus Nurture concept/debate. Like most scientists, I believe most of our abilities are made up of a combination of nature and nurture.

Most experts now believe it’s a fairly even contest between genetics and environment. And this may well be the case in many areas I know little about. However, in sports, I firmly believe that genetics is vastly overplayed as a determinant of success. Let me be 100% clear here. I am not dismissing the role of genetics. I am simply saying that factors such as height and hand size play a much smaller part than many people believe they do.

Not All Performance Areas Are The Same

As performance psychologists, we work right across a multitude of performance domains. Some of the most exciting work I have done is with male and female professional models. By models, I’m referring to men, women, boys, and girls who make a living by doing catwalks and photoshoots. Imagining a performance domain with a more significant genetic component to professional modelling is hard. After all, height is considered critical for most adult models.

And the last time I checked, it didn’t matter how hard you tried, but you couldn’t make yourself taller. Yet even in this cutthroat industry, I still assert that success is more than 50% about non-genetic factors. Chief amongst these uninherited factors is effort, or how you apply yourself. Suddenly, natural talent doesn’t feel that natural.

What About Sports?

Not too far behind professional modelling are sports that benefit from particular physical attributes. Height is useful for basketballers, netballers, and high jumpers.

But what about sports which are much less physical? Sports such as golf, lawn bowls and figure skating. Are there some genetically predetermined characteristics that allow some people to have an advantage in these psychologically brutal sports? Instead of sharing my views, I invite you to add your thoughts to the comments section below.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.