The Truth About Talent

People generally look at talent as some magical quality that you either have or you don’t. Coaches hope to find the elusive talented individual that will become a great fencer. Athletes admire the talent of the top competitors.

Talent, however, is an illusion.

The greatest factor separating the “talented” from “untalented” is their beliefs. While athletes may be different sizes and strengths, and have differing levels of coordination, their ability to perform and achieve greatness is defined by their beliefs. The quality that will determine a person’s ability to achieve something is their belief in that ability. “Untalented” people believe that they are less capable. Because of their belief, they unconsciously limit themselves.

Beliefs are determined by experience. Experiences of failure–especially in childhood–can cause a person to associate themselves with that failure. They believe that they should fail. Similarly, experiences of success have a positive influence on a person’s belief system. As soon as a belief is in place, a person will unconsciously seek to reaffirm it. The student who believes he is bad at math will be very clumsy with numbers; the child who believes himself to be athletic will seek out sports and learn them more quickly.

It’s important to recognize that these traits have nothing to do with “reality”. They are products of belief systems.

An example of the influence of belief on athletic performance can be seen in the phenomenon of “relative age effect” [pdf]. Children born during the earlier part of a cut-off period in an age-restricted sports league generally fair better competitively than those born at the later end due to developmental differences (the physiological and psychological differences between a 10 and 11 year old can be enormous). The result is the older children are more successful and have higher numbers of representation as adults in professional sports. These children grow up experiencing success and therefore come to believe that it should be expected–resulting in greater performance and continued success. The younger children grow up with fewer success experiences and are, therefore, less likely to develop the belief systems that would allow them to excel–and more likely to develop one that would inhibit success.

Other factors can also influence belief systems: parental support, childhood trauma, late onset of puberty, etc.

Belief systems, however, are not unchangeable. The secret in turning an untalented fencer into a talented one (and, for that matter, a talented fencer into a truly exceptional one) is to change the limiting beliefs that are undermining progress.

Some of the limiting beliefs will be very easy to identify. Negative statements like, “I’m a slow learner,” “I’m no good at this,” “I always get this wrong,” are rooted in limiting beliefs.

One way to alter beliefs is through visualization. Much in the way you might employ ideomotor training to improve technique, you can visualize yourself succeeding where you believe you should fail. Imagine yourself using a wide array of techniques and tactics to beat an opponent against whom you inexplicably always lose. Visualize yourself behaving with characteristics of a confident, superior fencer. See yourself as a dominant being. While you imagine these things, you should be creating positive emotional associations with them. When your habitual doubts appear, let them go and continue to focus on the image and the positive emotions. Reinforce new beliefs through the “virtual” experiences that you visualize.

Coaches should recognize that it is their students’ beliefs that are determining their talent. If the coach can help fencers identify and change limiting beliefs, he will find his group progressing tremendously. All of his students will be “talented”.

The only way to alter beliefs is through practice. Recognize that there is no reason that you need to continue to have any particular belief about yourself and practice changing it. You will become as talented as you can believe you are.

An excellent resource to better understand belief systems and how they can be changed is Maxwell Maltz’ Psycho-Cybernetics. Published in 1960 (and not to be confused with the more recent, and commercially opportunistic, The “New” Psycho-Cybernetics), it has had tremendous influence on both the “self-improvement” industry as well as sports psychology.