Are the best musicians only the best because they were born with a skill to craft beautiful symphonies? Are chess grandmasters so good at the game because they were born with high IQs and brilliant memory? Are mathematicians only born as maths types and not made? Most will often answer with ‘well yes, they just have a gift for their profession’. However, the real answer couldn’t be further from the truth.
It is often too easy to assume the best are only the best because of their inborn talent, a seemingly mystical advantage that only few receive as luck of the draw. Anyone can look towards the greats of their sports and say yes, they’re gifted, that is why they are so good. And generally, you wouldn’t be wrong because those athletes are gifted, but not necessarily in the way you might think. The reality is far from this supposed talent lottery however, with research beginning to shed light on what makes the best of the best just that1.
The gift we all hold
This gift that the best performers have, whether they be a footballer, eSports athlete, or a world-leading innovator, is the core drive to push their boundaries and always be improving. David Beckham wasn’t born with a strong kicking leg and keen eye, he honed these aspects over thousands of hours of practice from childhood sessions in the park all the way through to his free kick seen by millions against Greece in 2002. Nor was Tom Brady born with a natural affinity for playbooks and a strong arm, these skills were developed over a long career alongside hard graft, practice, and grit, with him originally only being the 6th round compensatory pick in the NFL. Even the best eSports athletes were not born with fast reactions or the ability to predict an opponent’s next move, but have in fact been training for years since first picking up a joypad or hitting a keyboard.
What these athletes all have in common is their relentless pursuit of perfection and the ability to practice over and over until they’ve pushed themselves to the next level. This is not a unique trait, it is one we are all capable of, if we are willing to dig deep. This sort of practice, known as deliberate practice2, is not easy nor fun. It takes concentration, energy, and willpower to push for this level of performance.
So how do you craft talent?
Let’s say then that you want to go pro in the tactical shooter Rainbow Six Siege, where do you start in crafting that apparently natural talent that only the best seem to possess? Practice. Not just normal practice, but tough practice; practice which makes you feel uncomfortable and pushes you out of your normal range in the pursuit of greatness. This deliberate practice is what the best in all sports do, whether they know it or not. Normal practice is not good enough for those at the top; sitting in a casual lobby on Siege to warm up and playing ranked games with your friends occasionally will not be enough to get you out of gold, let-alone all the way to diamond. This form of passive practice, where you do the usual and accept losses and wins as par for the course, is good enough up to a certain level, allowing you to engrain the core rules and patterns of the game you play, however if you really want to be the best and push your boundaries you must go that bit further.
In going that bit further, you may choose to start deliberate practice, and to do this you must identify areas of weakness. In Siege, the best teams use the destructible environments, the map, and communication to their advantage when facing opponents. For them, it is not enough to simply be good and win most games, they must win all if they really want to be contenders at the championships. Now this means that to improve, you need to highlight your weakest areas and begin to reinforce them.
The best teams record everything, they look for every single chink in their armour and build themselves stronger around it. This is the easiest way to identify issues in your gameplay, you might not be the best at getting a bomb plant in the closing seconds of the game, may lose your nerve holding angles whilst defending, or react slower than the opposition whilst peaking a corner; it will all be there on film. These mistakes and weaknesses don’t matter, it’s what you do about them that counts. Once you’ve found the chink in your armour, start plating up, and practice the issue over and over. Work with your team to create plant strategies with you at the spearhead in matches again and again until gradually it becomes more natural and you identify threats and patterns faster and less mistakes are made, or even choose a team mate in a custom match to train your reactions through 1v1s until you peak and shoot almost instinctively as soon as you see a pixel out of place.
Whatever your weakness is, once it is identified it can be worked on and gradually ironed out. Sometimes this will be fast, and other times it will be a long hard slog to improve, it is different for everyone, but everyone can improve. What separates this deliberate practice from normal practice, is that it is specific to you and homed in on an issue you have. Instead of the issue coming up occasionally during matches, you are deliberately upping the challenge and actively putting yourself in these tough situations over and over, so you can identify, plan, and respond faster and better.
Let’s return to David Beckham, during his childhood rather than just practice football against his mates in the park or whenever he had a team game, he knew that he struggled with ball control and began to regularly attempt keepy-uppies (where the ball must be kept in the air using the feet only). To begin with he was no better than average, but over time with extensive practice of the scenario and support from his father, this chink in his armour began to fade and soon he could effortlessly keep the ball in the air3. This is the part most rarely see, since it is far more engaging and mystical for a child to be a natural talent with a ball, or a ‘football prodigy’. Rather than the less enticing reality that it takes hard work every day to reach that level.
This is the lesson of deliberate practice and why we all have the gift for it, but few will ever use it. It’s tough, tiring and challenging. It’s hard to sit through the same situation over and over until you get it right, when you could be playing a game online with friends as usual, rather than trying to work out the kinks in your gameplay. Yet this is also why the best are at the top of their game, it’s the borderline obsessive practice and pursuit of perfection that has crafted this winning mentality and seemingly superhuman ability. Because the scenarios have been practiced time and time again, they begin to transfer from conscious calculations and thoughts to the much faster subconscious processing areas, giving the impression that the performer is naturally gifted and sees things others don’t, when in reality they’ve seen the scenario hundreds of times which means it can be identified before it even plays out in full; much like how baseball players know the pitch before the ball has even left the hand.
So then, if you want to be the best you must be willing to put in the work. You need to support yourself and scaffold your development by stepping just outside your comfort zone and building your skills until the uncomfortable becomes comfortable. Then you need to do it again and again until you have strengthened those weak points and continue to achieve your goals. This constant shifting and moving forward is essential in preventing stagnation, and so setting achievable goals can be a brilliant tool in the pursuit of sporting perfection.
This process is visualised in the diagram above, the outer ring represents the comfortable practice where the boundaries are not pushed and active improvement not made, the amber ring represents the potential for improvement with deliberate practice, and the central ring represents the overall end goal which is unachievable without moving through the red and amber rings first. In moving through these stages, the uncomfortable zone will become comfortable, the unachievable goal will become the new uncomfortable deliberate practice zone, and the final goal is moved to an even higher level of performance.
This is how the best become the best. If you can get into the habit of deliberate practice and pushing yourself hard every training session in the pursuit of greatness, then there is no real reason why you can’t be one of the best too. After all if you never fail during training, then you’re not training hard enough.
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Author: Callum Abbott Bsc, MSc, MBPsSS
1Ericsson, K. A. (2003). Development of elite performance and deliberate practice. Expert performance in sports: Advances in research on sport expertise, 49-83.
2Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.
3Reavis, Tracey Savell. The Life and Career of David Beckham: Football Legend, Cultural Icon. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
4 Singer, R. N., Cauraugh, J. H., Chen, D., Steinberg, G. M., & Frehlich, S. G. (1996). Visual search, anticipation, and reactive comparisons between highly-skilled and beginning tennis players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 8(1), 9-26.