The Natural Talent Myth- And How This Is Great for your Swimming
I’m in the midst of reading a book called The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, which is about how greatness is not born, it’s grown. The author uses many examples from the world of sports to show where some of the so-called “super talents” have come from, and why it’s much more about “deep practice” than any kind of innate skill.
Granted, if you are 5’3, your odds of making the NBA are pretty much zero (although, 5’3 Mugsy Bogues even proved this possibility several years ago as an NBA guard!).
And look at some examples in the sport of swimming. Was it likely that 5’2 Sheila Taormina would win a gold medal in swimming in the Olympics? Or compete in triathlon at that high level? Was it natural talent that led to Janet Evans setting world records with her unconventional stroke that went against what people thought was proper freestyle?
The idea of deep practice involves these concepts:
1. Practicing your new desired skill in chunks. The learning first needs to develop a vision of what that particular performance looks like- whether it’s learning to ski, learning a new song on the guitar, or going from a back of the pack swimmer to hitting a nice stride in the open water. From there, the learner needs to break the skill down into chunks, learning each segment at a time, gradually adding the pieces over time, then putting it together for a smooth performance. In the book, Coyle emphasizes that the skills should be practiced slowly, so that the learner fully understands each of the chunks and how they fit together and flow. (sound familiar with swimming??)
2. Rinse and repeat. In his best-selling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the now-famous 10,000-hour rule. Simply, a person needs about 10,000 hours of practice to master a desired skill. The key is dedicating the time and energy to the deep practice that it will take to pay off. Individual, high intensity practice sessions will dramatically increase this skill acquisition. Since we don’t all have 10,000 hours to spend in the pool, we can spend less time on very specific drills, and use video to allow visualization to expedite learning (such as what I’ve put together in Tri Swim Secrets). The point here as it relates to swimming is that practicing often, and practicing correctly, will more quickly lead to your desired outcome- as opposed to simply swimming laps or reading books.
3. Really “feel” your mistakes. “Learning to learn” is the key here. What I mean is, the pros, experts, or Olympians were just as bad as the rest of us to begin with, however, they were able to first identify their mistakes, then correct them. (This is why I’m so in love with swim video critiques!). When this cycle is repeated over the course of time, mastery begins to develop.
Bringing these 3 elements together results in the learner finding a “sweet spot”- where a “flow” state is achieved, and each chunk or step of the way requires no thought to execute.
To bring this to swimming, you may see the pro triathletes, or Olympic level swimmers, or even some of your fellow masters or lap swimmers who make it look easy. And it’s very easy to be of the mindset that they were simply born with more talent than you were, or they have some genetic advantage that you were unlucky not to get.
Admittedly, it is harder to learn swimming as an adult than as a child. (Coyle would say this is because children have a higher level of “myellin”, or the material that forums around neurons as we execute deep practice). But this myellin does not even begin to decline until age 50, and even then it does not drop off rapidly.
And swimming is a perfect sport to test out the whole theory presented in the book.
If you are reading this article, you may be preparing for a triathlon and struggling with swimming. How can this information help you? Well, once you have done 10,000 hours of practice, come talk to me! Seriously, it comes down to this:
In order to get better at swimming, you must break it down into segments, or chunks. Then, you must practice each of those chunks for many hours in the pool, as well as understand how they fit together. Watching video, and watching live swimmers with good strokes can really help you along in this process. Finally, putting all the parts together and developing your stroke gradually, going back and fixing mistakes (or stroke flaws) by isolating them and practicing specific drills will result in personal success.
And by personal success, this doesn’t mean winning the swim, making the Olympic team, or even qualifying for the Ironman. You get to define what this is, and just letting go of all the thoughts and talk of natural talent will go a long way in getting you there.
What do you think? Has believing in the talent myth held back your swimming?