It’s something I’ve always wondered. Why do some people end up being so talented they can make it to the NHL, or NBA, or write the great novel, or win gold in the Olympics, while most of don’t come within a country mile. Did they work harder than the rest of us? We’re they born with the proper alignment of muscles and tissues? Or were they simply born with the the right genes that the rest of us didn’t get? And if they were just born with it, it doesn’t seem fair at all.
Lord knows I worked plenty hard as a kid to get to the NHL. Outdoor rinks before and after school. The same for indoor practices when I got older. I took shot after shot against boards propped up against snowbanks. Running at the track and tennis in the summer to get those legs in shape. No lack of desire, that’s for sure. But I didn’t even come close. And then you hear that some, like Yvon Lambert and Butch Bouchard, didn’t even play organized hockey until they were fifteen years old. It wasn’t like they worked harder than me.
And what about the extreme cases? How did Bobby Orr become Bobby Orr or Gretzky become The Great One, or Tiger Woods becoming what he’s become, or any athlete who rose above the rest? Were they born with it, or did they just work harder than the rest of us? Did Wayne Gretzky work harder than Kyle Wellwood, for example. Did Wellwood work harder than me?
David Brooks talks about this in the New York Times. He talks of Mozart, and how his early abilities were far from special, how he wouldn’t have stood out among today’s top young performers. But he says Mozart had the same thing Tiger Woods had – the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and built from there. Just like Woods did, and Gretzky. Brooks says top performers spend many more hours rigourously practicing their craft. So as much as I thought I practised a lot, it probably wasn’t near enough.
The article goes on to say that the mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills, but the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance. Then a young athlete or writer, for example, finds a mentor who provides feedback, views the performance from the outside, corrects the smallest errors, and pushes the person to take on tougher challenges.
“The brain is phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behaviour. It’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”
Apparently the rest of us didn’t do enough, and that’s why you and I never became Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky, or even Kyle Wellwood. But the article never does explain how someone like Lambert or Bouchard can make it to the bigs only a few years after starting to play the game. Maybe there’s no explanation for that.