Saturday, May 28, 2011

Does being a natural athlete matter at all?

I sent Jim off the last blog post on Athlete: I don't think that word means what you think it means to get his input on whether it should be in the book. I think I will insert it at the beginning of the section on physical conditioning. Any opinions on that are welcome.

We try to split up the work, so Jim is reading Steve Scott and John Saylor's book "Conditioning for Combat Sports" and I am supposed to read another book on strength training that was recommended to us. I guess whichever of us will get done first will read Talent is Overrated, because it seems to bear on an issue we have taken up lately.

Before Jim's time was all taken up getting ready for his youngest son's wedding, we were talking about what I had written about how most of our judo players are good at judo but not good athletes. He disagreed with me that you need to be a good athlete to be a successful international player.

I was a bit surprised but less so when Jim said,
"I was never an athlete. I had to work twice as hard as anyone else to get into shape."
or something like that.

Personally, I was the opposite. The first time I ever walked into a gym, I saw their record for women's bench press, said, "I can beat that" , lay down and broke the gym record on the first bench press I ever did in my life.  I was naturally ungodly strong for a woman my size, and that was just a blessing I did nothing to deserve. I can't believe that didn't help me in judo. I certainly wasn't Olympic level fast, but I was fast enough to make the varsity track team in college and win some races.

On the other hand, I tore my ligaments and cartilage in my right knee when I was 17 years old and had so many operations, as my lovely daughter Ronda says, I look like I've been attacked by a midget with a chain saw. There were a whole group of throws I physically could NOT do, but I compensated and won anyway.

Speaking of my little pumpkin, Ronda, she was always a good athlete. She won several events at the Hershey track meet, which was the first athletic event I ever took her to, in the heart of North Dakota. She did quite well on the swim team before she ever started judo.

Jim defines "athlete" as someone who has natural athletic ability while I define it as someone who is in excellent physical condition to perform the athletic requirements of a sport. As I told him, I look at it like when I'm hiring someone for my company. If they are like my husband, just naturally brilliant, taught himself Calculus in the eighth grade and picked up a book and learned C++, that's great. If they went to college for four years and took eleven courses to learn Calculus and become a good programmer, that's fine, too. I really don't care how they got there as long as they can do the job.

So, does it matter if you are a "natural athlete" or if you just got to that level because you trained your ass off? I don't know. I think perhaps it does. Once I laid down and did that first bench press, I trained and moved up from there. I happened to be in the gym because my coach had decided we should get a strength trainer for our team. Two years later I was doing a hell of a lot more than I did the first time.

As Lex (I think it was Lex), commented on an earlier blog, 'other things being equal', the stronger person will win, but that is a hell of a qualifying phrase. So, 'other things being equal', the person with natural athletic talent MAY win more.

When I recall Jim as a competitor (I was but a child at the time - no, seriously, I was), it's hard for me to believe he was not a natural athlete, but I'll just accept it, because he said so. Is that why Ronda and I ended up winning more international medals than he did?

I have no idea. I can say it certainly helped both Ronda and me to have some physical talent. On the other hand, like Jim, we both worked our asses off. I THINK (I don't know), that Ronda and I both had a little different perspective on winning during the match. Both of us would rip your heart out and eat it dripping blood in front of the referee to win a match if that is what it took and the only reason we didn't is there's a rule against it. The difference is Ronda would be nice to you off the mat and go out to a party with you, where I would just hope you died. I don't have that off switch she has.

Reading the comments on Talent is Overrated on Amazon was quite interesting. Many of them raised the same questions I have. If it is just work, what about those people who work just as hard but didn't win? What about support from family and friends?

I think one advantage I had over Jim is that I had one child while I was competing, where I think he had three. Once I had my third child (Ronda), I was done competing. Some things are just more important than winning - well, the only thing I'm sure is more important is your kids. Of course, Ronda had no children (and she better keep it that way until she gets married!)

Another advantage I had was the late Frank Fullerton, may he rest in peace, and the wonderful Bruce Toups, the airplane fairies, who paid for almost all of my travel, so that I could go and compete without worrying that I was taking money away that could be spent on my daughter, Maria.

Yet another advantage I had, and Ronda had, was coaching. One very telling comment Jim made one day was when he said he had to coach himself and I remarked that I thought a coach was really necessary to making it at the elite level and he answered,
"Well, I wasn't that successful, was I?"
I doubt it is coincidence that he was so dedicated to helping people like Ronda, his own son, Jimmy, Jr. and all the kids he's worked with over the years.

I was doubly blessed in having a lot of good coaches around - Hayward Nishioka, Jimmy Martin, Steve Seck, Richard (Blinky) Elizalde and more. I took every benefit I could from all of them. Ronda had me from day one when she stepped on the mat, and then all of my old teammates and mentors, like Hayward, Blinky, Steve, Tony Mojica and more - and then she went to Jim for even more coaching. And she had her own "airplane fairies" (you know who you are, and thank you).

So --- in all of the mix - how much does God-given talent matter? How much does that innate motivation matter, where you just REFUSE to lose? (As my good friend, Dr. Jake Flores used to say, "I can't put in what God left out.")

I don't know. It may be, as we often say in statistics, "a necessary but not sufficient condition". Or it may not even be necessary. Another thing we say in statistics a lot is c.p. or 'ceteris paribus', which is Latin for "all other things being equal"  (see what you learn in 10 years of graduate school?). If everything else is equal, natural talent can put you over the edge and make that gold medal yours.

But, as Lex said, how often is everything else really equal?


Stephen said...

On talent, I've remarked:

I really think that at a city wide level, or at a level where you can compete respectably in a college sport at the varsity level, practice rules.

In many sports, if you want to go further you need practice and genetics. The knees all world champion butterfly swimmers have are roughly 1% of the population. Still, you can make national elites with normal knees.

Or in beach vollyball, to win the Olympics as a woman you need the "kangaroo woman" build.

Football is going to require a minimum size.

And, the practice has to be mindful practice with a coach who is not counterproductive.

What has been interesting is to watch the changes in the mythology of sports.

Before the 1930s it was all the "natural athlete" which changed to very much a theme of the winner is the person who wanted it the most.

But that also was a time when actual, serious training started to bear fruit.

That has started to fade in recent times. I very much think it is now that both talent and training are necessary but not sufficient to rise about nationals level in many sports.

I think there are still places where work and coaching without significant natural talent will do.

Or where natural advantages can be worked with training to at least get into the Olympics (think Rhadi Ferguson -- his transition from football player to Olympic Judo was quick).

But talent without hard work pretty much doesn't get you out of the first round any more ...

Stephen said...

This review, which was only a one star, really captures Talent is Overrated (and I liked TiO enough I bought copies for people).

The review writer is upset that the author of TiO seems to have springboarded off of some research and some short essays into a book -- and that he slights the importance of family support and great coaching.

But reviewer when taken together with those who respond to the review, does capture what the book is about. Without the responses the review is a jealous shell. With them, it isn't a bad picture.

Chad Morrison said...

I haven't read "Talent is Overrated," but I have read "Outliers," by Malcolm Gladwell, which gets at a lot of the same stuff, if I understand it correctly. Amongst other things, he finds that exposure to better coaching and, most importantly, practice, practice, practice are the main drivers for the "outliers" in athletics, and believes also that talent is overrated. But he overlooks the selection bias - the people who want to practice something long and hard enough to master it are usually those who have some talent and see positive gains from their efforts. Those who absolutely suck will not, if they can at all avoid it. Of course, those outliers exist, too. Those with little to no talent who bust their ass. And they may become decent... possibly even good - but they'll never be the best, IMO. It is the outliers in the talented population that win... they have the talent, and they work harder and longer and better (thanks to their coaching) than the rest of the talented people. They are the outliers that Mr. Gladwell picked up on.

plam said...

I just read Talent is Overrated serendipitously last week after losing at nationals. I did not read the Amazon comments. However, the book does say that coaching is key; if you don't have good coaches, you're not going to win (even if you work hard); in particular, it's hard to carry out deliberate practice without good coaching. Motivation is also a necessary condition, because it's hard to do all the work to get better.

Also, part of his thesis is that there's a lot of elasticity in ability, and by enough training, it's possible to work around (as you said) or to eliminate a lot of difficulties. Talent can serve as a spark for an athlete to start working on a skill, but then deliberate practice will have more of an effect once they start working on it.

I think that judo is complex enough that it should be possible to work around a lot of limitations. People win in a lot of different ways.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Chad's point is a good one I hadn't thought much about but I can see how it can apply to a lot of areas - math, for example , which I've been thinking about a lot. Yes, I've gotten really good at statistics because I've spent hours every day for decades studying. I'm not sure math came 'naturally' to me. I studied a lot and sometimes I had to put a LOT of effort in to get a particular concept - but I had great teachers - kind of like the importance of good coaching.

Since Stephen and Patrick ( the P is for Patrick, right?) have given such a positive review on Talent is Overrated it is now on my to- read list. I have four (!) business trips this month so that is a lot of time in airports to get caught up on my reading

plam said...

Yes, P is for Patrick.

Talent is Overrated's contents are definitely worth thinking about. It's an easy read. I started reading the endnotes but got home before finishing. They're also probably worth reading.

Stephen said...

I thought of an example from my own experiences in wrestling. My senior year of high school I decided to get involved in a varsity sport (I'd been swimming competitively for a while after my dad had been transferred to MH AFB).

So, at sixteen I started wrestling.

At district I ended up paired with a guy who had taken third in California the year before, but had moved to Idaho. He was undefeated for the year.

Not much happened the first round, he would shoot, we would go to the mat and we would end up out of bounds. In the second round I found myself on my back, my head stuck in a figure four, my arms caught in a double chicken wing.

He had won probably 40 matches to that point with that combination.

I bridged, my neck being stronger than his legs, and pulled free from the chicken wing and threw him off. Then I took up the middle of the ring while he ran.

I put my leg out, just the same way I had let him shoot it the first round. Suddenly his eyes got wide and he realized he hadn't been taking the leg, I'd been giving it, and I had not been saved by the way we kept going out of bounds, he had.

Suffice it to say, he did not shoot that takedown again.

Alas, I lost on points. Everyone else who went up against him was pinned.

If he hadn't stopped himself from shooting the single leg in the second round, I'd have pinned him.

Raw strength, hard training and a lot of effort got me a j.v. and a varsity letter in the same year (if I had gotten pinned I'd have missed the varsity letter by one point). But training and experience managed to win out in the end.

At least in that match ;)

Lori said...

This was a pretty interesting topic for me to think about. I took judo for about four or five years as a kid. I was told I had "natural talent" when it came to judo and I won a lot. However, for various reasons, I ended up going on a 17 year hiatus. I returned to judo a year and a half ago at age 28. All that "natural talent" seems to have dissipated. Judo is about a million times more difficult that I remembered and I definitely have to put in the time off the mat to build my strength and endurance just to keep up. Of course, there's a huge difference between how a nine year old and 29 year approach things. But it's strange to remember a time when I could do so well in judo without really putting too much thought into it.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

I think, Lori, you put your finger on it exactly. There is a huge difference between competing against ten-year-olds and twenty-five-year-olds , in tactics, technique, physical conditioning and motivation.

I do think that natural talent will take you much farther when you are young than when you are older and judo (and life in general!) gets more complicated.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting thread.
Surely also judo practice helps a lot developing a muscolar attitude and strenght.
Just to know by your many lbs. could you and Ronda lift in bench press at maximum? record...?
Thank you I follow always you in interesting training perspectives.