Grit or talent? Sports’ enigma.

Guest writer Alexis Christodoulou talks to us here about the controversial talent versus hard work. Whichever side of the debate you sit on the inspiration of those accomplishing greatness in their sport is always worth watching.

Our love affair with sports icons is enduring and runs deep. Messi, Federer, Wellington, Mickelson, Bolt. But, there are more.

What draws us to their magic, and do we admire them for their grit or their talent?

We need a frame of reference for such an expansive question. If we delve into the debate of nature versus nurture, we involve biology, psychology, chemistry, and other sciences. It gets complicated. The discussion will rage on for years to come.

There is another way to examine this dilemma. Let’s, instead, consider what happens in training, and the romantic narrative sportspersons create.

At professional level and in one particular game, a football player will typically perform for one and a half hours: a tennis player for three, an Olympic distance triathlete and marathoner for two, and an Ironman triathlete for eight. These athletes will compete, on average, 200 hours per year off 2,000 hours of annual training (source of data for estimations: UEFA, LTA, BTF, and Strava).

The ratio of training to competition is around 10:1. The ratio of what we don’t see to what we see is 10:1. 10 accounts for the narrative which we love. 1 represents the exciting spectacle which we see on our screens. In my mind, those ten parts, the grit, and determination cultivated in training are what composes the stories which we love:

“…I must have taken hundreds of thousands of free kicks. I would go to the local park, place the ball on the ground and aim at the wire meshing over the window of a small community hut. When my dad got home from work, we would go over to the goalposts together. He would stand between me and the goal, forcing me to bend the ball around him. We kept going even when the sun had gone down, playing by the light coming out of the windows of the houses that surrounded the park…”

That was David Beckham. Here is Serbia’s tennis star Ana Ivanovic revealing how she started out hitting balls in an empty swimming pool:

“…I grew up playing in a swimming pool,” she said. “It was a club where they had an Olympic pool. It was costly to keep it warm during the winter, so they emptied the pool, put carpet inside and placed two tennis courts. That was the courts we had during the winter…”

 
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We love the story. The story of hardship and those early signs of dedication and mastery. We like the flair with which they become exceptional. They develop, secretly almost, until they appear on our screens. Few would take a look at David Beckham practising in the park with his father. Few would have craned their neck to glance at the bottom of the pool. But because they did what they did so well, we got to see their magic. It took grit and determination.

Grit and determination is the fire in the stove. Talent is the sauce. Talent whets our appetite, and we gave them a world ranking because we fell in love with their fire. While sauce makes things taste good, it’s the chef’s persona we relish. We can identify with sports icons (and chefs, but let’s stay with sport), we understand them, and we have empathy. We admire their resilience and respect their exceptional talent and sass. Grit.

If an athlete has talent, but no grit they are more likely to end up in the scrapheap. You can be a competent sportsperson with grit, but you cannot be a successful talent without application.

We use the term talent as much as we misunderstand it. What is talent after all? The fairy sprinkling the DNA dust for some not others? A high VO2 max? Long legs and long arms? All that is for the men and women in white coats in the lab to decipher.

That is when they are not busy dealing with dopers. You can never equalise talent, but you can dope. But you cannot dope a mind, not for long enough anyway. Grit is in-dopable.

As we listen to radio commentary or watch the sporting magic live, what do we see? Do we see rates of oxygen uptake, or, humanity, courage, and a story?

Grit and determination create romantic narratives, and talent creates the spectacle we enjoy. No athlete would be on our screens without both ingredients. But then the romantic narrative is essentially their personality. We have sports’ personality of the year not sports’ talent of the year.

 
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The romantic narrative gives hope. Hope is one of the most important aspects of sport, and for life. The parallels between sport and life are many. Either as a spectator or a participant, hope is what brings us to the stands or start lines. Hope is what attracts sponsors and makes our sport viable and accessible.

An athlete with grit and determination inspires. An athlete with talent alone can be dull and uninspiring.

This notion bounces well with authors Matthew Seyd and Malcolm Gladwell. They explored the myth of talent and the power of practice. They concluded that growth only comes from grit and determination. It is this growth which makes athletes limitless in what they can achieve.

Grit and determination build resilience which meets head on the challenges of failure in life and sport. Talent alone will not cut it when the pressure is on: the pitch, the start of an Ironman race or the boardroom.

Grit and determination control both process and outcome. Talent helps the outcome only. Only by a little mind you.


Alexis Christodoulou

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Alexis Christodoulou works in the private sector industry and is also a writer on  upgrading our human operating system through self-improvement and applied psychology 

Alexis holds a BSc in engineering from Imperial College, London and an MA in psychology from the Open University. He has competed for Imperial College at Henley Royal Regatta in the Temple Challenge Cup. Before completing five Ironman races and numerous shorter courses, he was a Greek Army Ranger and platoon commander during the Balkans' crisis and the first Gulf war. He has coached cross country runners to national standards and rowing crews to Henley. Read more of his work

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