The tip of the iceberg: What are we seeing when we watch elite sport performances?
In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed explains that the so-called talent we see in high performers is a result of lots of practice; deliberate practice in the lingo of expertise research. Although the definition of talent can be nuanced to mean different things it's typically defined (wrongly) as something we're born with, an innate gift one has that others don't.
In Bounce the backstory for some remarkable performances is explained through anecdote and research. Syed makes the argument that talent doesn't exist, at least not in the way we traditionally think about it. No one sees the massive foundation of countless hours of practice that support exceptional performance, thus it's easy to say that these performances are the result of innate gifts. The point is that no one is born with talent, there are no innate gifts, and if we want to be good, really good, at something then our only option is to practice.
Anders Ericsson calls this phenomenon the iceberg illusion. It occurs everywhere where talent, practice, and expertise can be included in the same discussion. We see evidence of deliberate practice all the time but we generally don't attribute expert performance to practice. Performers are 'born' athletes or musicians, or whatever. Seeing a youngster do something with skill and expertise almost always raises the talent issue and claims about having been born with the ability.
Ericsson, you may recall, is the originator of the idea that 10 years or approximately 10,000 hours of practice are needed to achieve expertise. He dismisses the so-called "10,000 hour rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which is partly based on Ericsson's research. The point of the '10,000 hour' idea was to illustrate that creating talent takes a long time rather than to establish a hard and fast benchmark.
Unfortunately the message in Bounce and other popular reading about talent and ability doesn't seem to be putting a dent in mainstream sport administration practices. We still hear about talent identification schemes, using the schools to develop athletes, and other old and ineffective ideas that have never produced good results for Malaysian sport yet persist in administrative circles as go-to solutions. With a new government and a new sport minister this may change.
Articles you can find in the Sportkid Metrics database that address talent creation and sport development:
Bill Price (email@example.com) is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.