PtG Comment 24.09.2010

Sports performances: how talented is my child?

With kids in sports, parents struggle with two images of reality. Either you see your child – or the children of others – as talented or as hopeless cases. Many parents easily see that a child is talented. What most people mean by talent is that the child can be great when she/he enters adulthood. Children’s talents are thus seen in the context of an adult world.

Two books published this year discuss sports talent and opportunities in sports in a very interesting way. And they provide food for thought.

Ping pong philosophy

Regular people often divide talent into natural talents and trained talents. Trained talent is developed by people who make an extra effort to excel, while natural talents only have to take care of the talent they have (which most people see in their child from, well, childhood).

In the book “Bounce. How Champions Are Made” Matthew Syed discusses his time as a table tennis player. Syed grew up in a suburb in the Southeast of England, was one of England's best table tennis players and participated in the Olympics twice. Since he started playing table tennis, he has seen himself as a natural talent and his success as a result of innate characteristics. Now he is an award-winning journalist and writer, has written comments for the newspaper The Times – and has changed his view of himself and his career.

In “Bounce” he analyzes his own – and others' – success, by going back to his childhood looking for what really formed him as a good athlete and by reviewing research on the topic.Practice makes perfectSyed finds that he would not have reached that far had it not been for one of his teachers – who was himself an accomplished player – who introduced him to the sport, for the place they trained which was open all day, and for the fact that his brothers and many of his friends played with him – often on their homemade table tennis table. Syed believes that many could become as good as him if they had had the same training conditions and, not least, trained as much as him. And this is Syed’s main point – practice makes perfect.

Neither David Beckham, Andre Agassi nor Tiger Woods would have been where they are today if they had not trained day and night to become superior and, at the same time, been given some good advice along the way. Or to say it with Syed’s own words "Child prodigies do not have unusual genes, they have unusual upbringings”. He is, in other words, a backer of the idea of talent developed through training, but also of the idea that sport must be able to provide the opportunities necessary in order to practice and develop that talent. In that sense, the mental bit is as important as the physical.

The Perfection Point

In the book “The Perfection Point. Sport Science Predicts the Fastest Man, the Highest Jump, and the Limits of Athletic Performance” Sports Anchor at ESPN, John Brenkus, has a different approach to sports performance than Syed. Brenkus’ ambition is to find the absolute limits of human performances in sport. He takes into account the weather, wind and physical barriers – both human and equipment – and reaches conclusions such as the fact that it is not possible to strike over 496.5 meters in golf, and that the limit in bench press is just over 496 kg, just to mention a few.

Furthermore, he argues that progress of records in running in the shortest distances has been slower than in the longest distances, based on what he thinks is humanly possible. This, he argues, is mainly because we have been more prone to put up mental barriers in the short distances compared to the longer ones. The Dream Mile is one example. It was long believed that it was impossible to run an English mile in under four minutes, but once the barrier was broken, there were many who shortly after ran the distance under four minutes. At the same time, Brenkus states that it is not possible to run faster than 9.01 seconds in the 100 meters. That was the result of his calculations! He is, in other words, less extreme than the Norwegian skater, Hjalmar “Hjallis” Andersen, who said that the only thing that is certain is that there is no way to complete a race in less than zero seconds.

Blame it on the conditions!

Is there any connection between these two books? Well certainly! Firstly, it is important to have optimal conditions in order to get most out of your talent. Secondly, one must train in order to become successful. And finally, there are actually limits to how good you can be. Do the books tell me something about my children's talents, such as in swimming?

One thing is for sure, they have become better and better for every year’s practice. I therefore agree with Syed – practice makes perfect. From Brenkus I have learned that swimming pools are different. Now I am searching for a pool with the optimal depth and width for my children to swim as fast as possible. And if they are too slow maybe we can blame it on the temperature of the pool. The optimum water temperature is in fact between 25.55 and 26.66 degrees Celsius. It is certainly not the talent of my children that is to blame…

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 23 September 2010. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on