Training vs Talent, and, Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

The experts say the same thing about a top sportsperson’s background. They’ll have started young. You don’t often come across someone at the top level who took up their sport later than age 12-14. They’ll have something called “natural talent.” This will make them stand out from their peers. They’ll work incredibly hard, or at least play their sport all of the time they can. In a lot of cases, the parents will have leaned hard on their child or on their children.

Those of us who didn’t start young, who don’t have huge talent, and who, up until now, couldn’t really be bothered to go outdoors, might well ask if this is the only way. The answer is, it’s the only way that’s really been tried.

Natural Talent vs Training

I’ve had one time in my life when I found myself up against a natural talent in something that I was attempting to do. On my first night at Oxford, I tried to break out onto the college roof. I didn’t know the place well enough to know where to try. But I had the company of a couple of girls in the attempt, one of whom became a lifelong friend.

I found out later that she wrote poetry. I’d grown up in the East Midlands, and Oxford was the first place I’d lived where such people allowed such things to be taken seriously, to be considered worthwhile and important. It was the last, too, as I’d discover later. But I could try to write in that atmosphere. I say try.

My friend had just won a university prize for a poem sequence. I loved it: she’d used form well, she’d written in a clear voice and not the cluttered diction of much modern poetry. She’d written something moving and genuinely funny. It impressed me and intimidated me.

I took twenty or so painful drafts to produce the kind of thing that would be handed back to me by my reader with pursed lips and a shake of the head. I’m stubborn, always have been, and kept on, assuming that I’d learn and that it would come in time.

The day came when I heard the rumour that my friend had won the National Poetry Competition before coming up to Oxford. I asked her about this. No, she hadn’t won. She’d come third or thereabouts. It had been her first real attempt at a poem, and she’d shown it to her English teacher. He’d seemed to think it was OK, and implied that she might as well enter it for the Competition.

I’d thought that she’d started much earlier than I had, and worked up to the point where she was as good as she was. Now I had to take on board that this wasn’t so. She hadn’t improved upon her first poems to get here: these were her first poems and the world was her oyster, not least because she’d always have a better metaphor than that on hand. That she’d freshly minted. If you see what I mean.

But what I shouldn’t have done was ask her about her drafts. How many did it take before she was happy, before she called time on a poem? One, with corrections: and then I knew that I would always be a scrabbler in the poetic undergrowth. The news hurt and humiliated me.

Natural talent. But she worked hard too. She would shut herself away for at least one entire day a week, just to write, and that would be on top of the 2-4 daily hours it would also receive from her. She felt that the restrictions on her social life were justified by the satisfaction she drew from it. This has all paid off. Her third book was published a few days ago.

She took the talent road, and I took the training road, and she was in Scotland afore me. By the spring of that year, I’d pushed out more and more dreck, and had more and more shaking heads and pursed lips..oh, those pursed lips. But then it happened: early one afternoon, which found me bunking off what I was meant to be doing in order to write, three perfect lines appeared in my head as though summoned. I wrote them down, then found that the rest of the poem flowed out of them with almost no effort at all. I made some slight corrections, then found myself a reader.

It’s the classic creativity clichee: absorption, concentration, meditation, creation, natch. It didn’t happen often after that, but it did happen from time to time. The results were always better than the poems I wrought through pure sweat. But I had to churn out the waste to have any chance of something better happening.

(Virginia Woolf said that you did your reading at 14-18. I was 22 when I read that, my reading hardly begun, and hated her for it. Always too old, always too late, always playing catch-up).

When I taught myself to draw and to paint in oils it was the same story. If I could create myself the perfect conditions, and cordon off for myself a lot of time, then my results wouldn’t embarrass me. I was happy with this. Then I met the man on the bus. And what a bus, pitching and rolling its way into the pit of South London, belching like a fat man in a dirty public bar and going into spasm whenever the driver changed gear. The man on the bus had propped a bit of scrap paper on the back of his redtop paper, and was drawing on it in biro.

I noticed the rhythm of his pen first. Then I saw the wonderful result. My god, it looked like silverpoint. A landscape, hatched in early renaissance style in two-point perspective. He drew quickly and effortlessly. It looked almost as if he was merely scratching off the foil to reveal the picture beneath.

My uncle is a watercolourist of huge talent. He’s apt to compare himself unfairly. Fifteen years ago, we toured the Royal Academy’s exhibition of British nineteenth century watercolourists. I was inspired by it. He came out enormously depressed, by a gulf he’d seen between them and himself, a gulf quite hidden from my eyes.

I believe that these are typical talent vs training experiences, and I think you can map them directly onto sport.

I am a sporting autodidact. This isn’t because my schools had no opportunity to provide training. Back in the days of Jim Callaghan, my state middle school provided soccer, rugby, hockey, cricket, athletics, tennis, basketball, gymnastics and swimming. But my teachers preferred the natural sportsmen. Either you “got it” with a sport straightaway, or you didn’t.

I learned my football from a cartoon strip on skills, allegedly and probably by Trevor Brooking. Brooking said practice against a wall with a tennis ball. I did. Brooking taught me how to balance, how to strike the ball with follow-through, how to trap the ball, how to head the ball and control the ball on my chest. He taught me everything, just by showing me how and allowing me to copy and to practice.

I did the same with darts, using a book by John Lowe, and became good enough to beat pub players by the time I was old enough to get into the pub.

I did the same with rugby. This time, the book was of 1930s vintage, and it had sat unread in the school library since the 1950s. But it had everything. How to hold and pass the ball accurately even at speed. How to tackle (that was fun the first few times, when no one was expecting me to stop them – I’d lift them slightly so they’d javelin painfully into the icy turf..) and how to sell a dummy. Within months, I’d gone from the bottom group to the 3rd XV reserves. Had my eyesight been better, I’d have gone further.

I learned, above all, that with the right advice, you can improve straightaway, and that practice takes you further still.

But how far? And what if you’re not starting young?

The neurological evidence is clear: you can learn most easily and have muscle memory most easily when you are young. But there is no evidence that you can’t do so later in life. None of us would pass driving tests if that were true. Nor would Larry Nelson have won the US Open – he didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 21, a full 19 years later than Tiger Woods.

The difference is just time. I spent hundreds of hours playing darts as a 12-14 year old: entire summer holidays. But I was academically able, and the time I had available for darts went down. Then I took up cycling; then I fell in love.

As an adult, I’d have at most 2-3 hours per day available outside my work commitments. That’s not enough to master anything. When I was a psychotherapist, I thought and read about the subject all the time. I spent my weekends at seminars, or writing about it, or training with mentors. I worked every hour I could get. My first practice was a three hour journey from my home. I spent the time studying.

How good would I have been at football if I’d devoted 12 hours per day on skills training as an adult? I don’t know, but I suspect fairly good. But football has no structure to deal with late arrivals. I’d have to choose between one Sunday league and another. I’d have come up against the fitness/age barrier: not everyone can be Gary Speed or Teddy Sheringham and keep up with the kids.

What about golf? Golf is a different story. By comparison with football, it’s an ageless sport. And it has handicapping.

Michael Oliff took a year out of his career aged 43 and devoted his time to golf. He trained for 12 hours a day for six months, under the best teachers he could find. He trained eight hours per day for the following six months. In the first six months, he took one day off per week.

He went from a hacker’s handicap of 26 at the start of the year, to scratch. It can be done.

That still doesn’t put him amongst the world’s top golfers, but it means that he is competitive at a very high level. The difference in average score between the top player and the 100th player is only 3 strokes across an entire year. That’s a psychological distance, measured in mental strength, not one of skill or ability.

But no one, to my knowledge, has taken a year, or five years, out of their adult life to begin with football and to discover how good they could become.

The best footballers are also the players who practice the most. Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, George Best and the goalkeepers Peter Shilton and Gordon Banks were/are renowned trainers. We know that not every naturally talented footballer – and you have to be one to get into the professional game because the training isn’t there in the schools to get you there any other way – is interested in football. For many, it’s just what they happen to be good at. Not every player “misses the buzz” when they retire. Not every player wants to train. Lee Trundle said as much when he was at Swansea City; Robin Friday at Reading might have agreed.

But there are limits to what you can achieve. During a league season, most players will spend a huge amount of time travelling and getting ready to travel. Most of them will have some kind of community work to do on top of that. Then there’s the danger of overtraining. There’s a delicate balance between match fitness/sharpness and fatigue. Extra skills practice and training is still additional physical work.

But in theory, at least, a one-footed player can become as two-footed as makes no difference. A player who can only pass to a team mate who is in three yards of space can learn to find one who is in only one. It’s a matter of finding the time, finding the opportunity within existing structures to do that.

In theory, someone might take up football at 35 and devote themselves to it full-time and become a match for, say, Conference South players. If they have natural talent, higher than that, taking fitness levels into account. “Masters” level, perhaps. It’s all about finding the time to try: and it’s the one thing the kind of adults who might be interested just don’t have.


3 Replies to “Training vs Talent, and, Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?”

  1. “In theory, someone might take up football at 35 and devote themselves to it full-time and become a match for, say, Conference South players. If they have natural talent, higher than that, taking fitness levels into account. “Masters” level, perhaps. It’s all about finding the time to try: and it’s the one thing the kind of adults who might be interested just don’t have.”

    It’s a reality TV show waiting to happen!

  2. Hi James – I loved this piece! I remain eternally optimistic about the products of hard work and discipline rather than pure ‘raw’ talent…

    Have you read a book called ‘What Sport Tells Us About Life?’ It’s by Ed Smith, Captain of Middlesex Cricket Club. In it there’s a chapter about how ‘pure’ talent can actually be the death knell for a sportsman’s career and that personality plays a key role in determining success – it’s more about resilience, discipline and the importance of ‘formative defeats’. Inspiring stuff! Try and get hold of a copy if you can. It’s a terrifically wide-ranging book too.

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