The Illusion of Talent

August 16, 2008

With a healthy diet of Olympics coverage this week, I’ve been having some deep conversations withmyself on talent vs training. It always gets under my skin when people make comments about an athlete’s “natural born talent” with their training as a mere side note.

Sure, it may be genetics and specific body proportions that turn Phelps from what would otherwise simply be a world class swimmer into the freak of nature (in a good way) that he is today, but it is very dangerous to overemphasize the impact of genetics in his success.

If Phelps had picked up football in High School, he may still have the same general body proportions, short legs and huge wingspan, but his flexibility and strength would be like from an entirely different animal.

My point is that personal physiology is not a static element in someone’s life. The human body is insanely adept at reacting to the environment that you put it in.

Personal physiology is not a static factor. The human body reacts to the environment that you put it in.

Train, live and eat like a marathoner. You will have a marathoner’s body.

Train, live and eat like a weightlifter. You will have a weightlifter’s body.

That is not to say that if you train like an Olympic runner, that you will necessarily be taking home gold, or even making it to the games, but you will certainly take on some of their physical characteristics.

For example: In High School I was a running machine. Cross Country was my thing. That is all I did. I was 6 feet tall, 140 pounds, ate like a bird and you could see my ribs when I ran shirtless. I ran 5-6 days a week almost year-round and could pull off 17 minute 5ks. I was never fast enough to break any records, but did pretty well for myself.

Flash forward to today. After realizing the whole skin and bones look wasn’t exactly what the ladies were looking for and taking a few years off in college from running to become a gym rat and drink Keystone Light on a regular basis I completely changed my body. I balooned up to about 195 pounds, actually got chest and arm muscles and I barely looked like the same person. Since college I’ve slimmed down to about 175 now that I’ve gotten in to triathlon training, but you get the point.

There is no way that, with the body I have now, I can pull off runs like I did in High school, but also I probably couldn’t climb hills on a bike or zip across lakes as smoothly with the body that I had then.

My point is that natural born talent is an illusion. Most of us may never break the tape at Kona, it is key to remember that our bodies are products of the environments that we choose to put them in.

And now for the movie that is reponsible for helping to form most of my views on “talent.” If you havent’ ever seen Without Limits, go rent it now.



  1. NICELY put Jamie! I am often thinking too long and too hard on the genetic thing… my mom was a water ballerina and my dad drove tractors as a farmer… not exactly the combo I would think could get me to where I want to go in sport… So I am hoping that as genetics play “some” part hopefully not all or I might end up in a pool on a farm!

  2. Michael Phelps is, without a doubt, the face of his sport just like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, Brett Favre, Roger Federer and Babe Ruth. However, for all that he accomplished in this years Olympic games, I still don’t think he ranks in the top 5 of all-time Olympians.

    Here is my TOP 5 All-Time Olympians:


  3. True, Erick. But that is a whole different argument all together that could go on forever.

    Comparing different athletes in different sports, even though they all may be olympic sports, is a completely apples and oranges. Even trying to compare Lance Armstrong and Eddie Merckx, two of cycling’s greats, is a futile effort in my eyes.

    I’ll save my energy for that argument for another day. 🙂

    To be even in contention in arguments like those is an amazing accomplishment in my eyes.

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