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What Is Athletic Talent?

Elite running coaches weigh in on what it means to be talented and how they predict who will run fastest

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There are two types of talent in distance running. One is your baseline: in the complete absence of training, if someone dragged you off the couch and took you to the track, how fast could you run a mile? The other is your trainability: given six weeks, six months, or six years of steady training, how much faster could you get?

That’s the picture I took away from reading David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene back in 2013, and I think it’s a useful dichotomy. But in reality, that’s not exactly what I mean when I say to a friend: “Boy, so-and-so is a really talented runner.” For one thing, I rarely have any way of judging how fast someone would be untrained, or how quickly they improve with training. And for another thing, that definition leaves out all sorts of other factors that might influence my assessment: mental toughness, racing smarts, durability, the look of their stride, and so on.

So what is talent? A pair of recent studies by sports psychologists Kathryn Johnston and Joe Baker at York University in Toronto digs into this question—not by telling us what they think talent is, but by asking what running coaches mean when they use the word. The first study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Expertise, sums up what coaches say about talent. The second one, published in PLoS ONE, moves from abstract to concrete by looking at what information coaches use to decide which runners to recruit and select to their teams. Both studies are based on interviews with ten running coaches in Canada, almost all with experience guiding athletes at the international level.

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I should start by acknowledging that there’s no eureka moment at the end—no pithy definition of talent that will satisfy everyone. It’s a slippery concept, and academics have long wrangled about the differences between talent and potential and giftedness and other intertwined concepts.

The good news, though, is that all the coaches agreed that talent exists. This isn’t a trivial observation, given the popularity of books arguing that talent is overrated as a concept (think Outliers, The Talent Code, and, well, Talent is Overrated). In order to avoid assuming their own conclusions, the interviewers refrained from mentioning talent in their interview questions until the coaches brought it up. Instead, they’d start with questions like: “Tell me about the best athletes you have worked with.” If the coaches mentioned talent in their replies (which they all did), the interviewer would follow up with a question such as: “What does talent mean to you?”

That’s where things got interesting. The first paper extracts some general patterns from the coaches’ responses. For example, they tend to distinguish between raw talent and trained talent, though not always using those words. Talent in running can have different and independent forms, like great speed or great endurance, as well as psychological elements like toughness. It can be obvious to the trained eye, or it can be hidden and emerge only after years of patient effort.

All of these points make sense to me individually. But when you put them together, you start to wonder if the definition isn’t a bit circular. What’s the difference between saying someone is a talented runner and saying they run really fast? In some accounts of talent, what’s emphasized is the existence of latent abilities, even if they’re not presently being used. If Eliud Kipchoge stopped training for a year and got out of shape, a hypothetical talent meter should still start beeping like crazy when you point it at him. Talent is, in theory, a judgment of how fast you could run, not how fast you are right now. It’s a prediction.

The second paper tackles the prediction question by asking the coaches how they select athletes for their teams. The dominant theme in the interviews? They “gather information using their coach’s eye to determine an athlete’s ‘fit’ to the team.” Of course, they did gather objective data like race times. But many of the coaches felt they could get a sense of an athlete’s potential by watching them run and interacting with them, without necessarily being able to articulate what information they were basing this judgment on. “Fit” is a different question, related to optimizing the performance of the whole team rather than the individual runner: a supremely talented jerk might run fast but drag everyone around them down, leaving the team worse off.

Several of the coaches also used movement analysis in their assessment of recruits, putting them through various exercises to measure strength, flexibility, and agility. That was a bit surprising to me, but it seems to be another way of predicting future success, perhaps by getting a sense of injury risk (though I remain skeptical of that notion in general).

After reading both papers, I’m left with two competing visions of talent. The minimalist view is the one I stated at the top: it’s how fast you can run without training, and how much you improve with training. In theory, both parameters are measurable. But it omits tons of other factors that contribute to how fast someone will end up running, so it’s not surprising that none of the coaches in the study subscribe to such a narrow definition.

The maximalist view is that talent is whatever enables you to answer the question: “Assuming they do everything right, how fast will this runner be in (say) five years?” It’s mindset and biomechanics and muscle fiber type and fire in the belly and all the other things that the coach’s eye may or may not learn to pick up with decades of experience. That’s really what we’re interested in, but it’s not measurable and not even really definable.

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These questions matter, Johnston and Baker argue, because the way we think and talk about talent has repercussions for how athletes are developed—and, in many cases, who gets to keep playing. “If talent cannot be seen or measured with reliability or validity,” they write, “what purpose does it have for a coach to use this term when identifying an athlete’s suitability to their program?” It’s not that talent doesn’t exist. It does. But it’s a shame if nebulous judgments about talent—or lack thereof—end up driving people out of the sport before they’ve fully explored their potential. After all, as former American-record-setting steeplechaser George Malley once observed, “The more I ran, the more talented I became.”


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