Optimal Training Principle: Ability is a variable, not a constant. The harder a person works, the more able he or she becomes over time.
Ability is not Talent. And Talent isn't Greatness.
We have a tendency to admire talent. Or, more accurately, we have a tendency to admire greatness, and to confuse greatness with great talent. We see what people are able to do and we think to ourselves, "Wow, that guy is special." And while they no doubt are special, we tend to attribute that special quality to something they have that we don't, something fixed and unchangeable within ourselves.
Perhaps this is true. The bookshelves are littered with biographies of geniuses, savants, phenoms, champions and "born leaders": Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. Mozart. Picasso. Yeats. Alexander the Great. And since this is a running blog, let's not forget about runners: Herb Elliot. Jim Ryun. Haile Gebrselassie. Hichem el Guerrouj. Alan Webb. Mebrahtom Keflezighi. Maybe they do have something we don't. But I would argue that we don't know whether or not this is true simply by looking at their performances. Performance shows us a person's ability at a specific point in time. And ability is not talent. Ability is talent molded by effort over time.
Mebrahtom Keflezighi (Meb) was a teammate of mine at UCLA. The man is certainly talented. But I don't know that he's the most talented person I've ever met. He is, however, the hardest working, most disciplined runner I've ever seen. Bar none. At UCLA, he ran twice a day, did insane numbers of sit-ups and push-ups, stretched religiously, underwent pre- and post-workout treatment regularly, ate healthy food, slept enough, and to top it off, he studied hard in all of his classes, often having to read the text twice because as a non-native English speaker he didn't learn everything in one reading. Though he was a four-time national champion when I first met him, everything I heard from teammates was that Meb entered school with this work ethic and discipline. And he's still doing it today, almost a decade after he graduated.
When we talk about an athlete like Meb in terms of his talent, we discredit the real difference between Meb and us: Meb has worked smarter and harder than us over a long period of time. Meb's success wasn't preordained by the gods like a Greek hero. He has taken his talents and painstakingly developed them to the point that he won a silver medal in the Athens marathon and set the American record in the 10k. If anything, the talent that separates Meb from 90% of his competition is not physical. It is his passion, motivation, discipline, compulsion, whatever-you-want-to-call-it to do what is necessary, day in and day out. The same applies for the other people I mentioned above.
Did you know Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team? It's true. He credits it with making him truly apply himself on the court for the first time. Mozart and Tiger were coached early and often by their fathers. Were they so good so young simply because they were prodigies, or because they had worked significantly harder than anyone else at their crafts? One thing is certain. Prodigy or not, their performances improved over years of constant hard work. The same goes for anyone at the top of their field.
You probably know this already. But we all need to be reminded of these things. When the going gets tough, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it'll never get better. When your outlook on ability is like that of the lower arrow, the only real incentive is to not work hard and/or quit. But when you maintain your focus on effort and you are able to sustain your discipline over the long term, you have an opportunity to reach your potential. It isn't always a smooth ride, but without understanding that talent is just one (likely minor) part of the ability equation, you have no chance of reaching your potential.
Later this week, in part 2, I'll look at some new research in cognitive science to explore in more detail why this Optimal Training Principle is so important and how we can better develop a mindset in which ability can grow.
This is part 1 of the first of many posts I plan to write on my Optimal Training Principles. The Principles are developed during my study of learning theory at UCLA, and borrow heavily (in some cases, entirely) from the work of Winston Doby and Edward "Chip" Anderson. I have modified the Principles to better suit athletic training. All the same, I wish to give credit where credit is due.