It’s widely known that by our early teenage years, most children have developed a hobby that they enjoy and feel passionate about. You could argue that these years, somewhere between 10-16 are the most important years for developing an elite level of skill that can result in the hobby becoming a full time career. Many elite performers of today, first applied their trade when they were under 8. Kobe Bryant starting bouncing a basketball when he was 3. Tiger woods was putting at the age of 2, and both Venus & Serena Williams first picked up a racket when they were just 4 years old. This is an incredibly young age to start, yet extremely important in terms of their development. Did Venus & Serena know they were going to be multi grand slams winners at age 4? Probably not, however by the time they were 11 and 12, they had developed seriously high levels of skill. Meaning that by the time they were 16, they were already on the WTA tour competing against the best in the world.
But this doesn’t mean that everyone has to start young to make it to the top. There are also numerous athletes that started acquiring their skill at an older, more developed age. America Ladies soccer player Alex Morgan started kicking a ball at age 13. James Blake, although played Tennis at a young age, didn’t play seriously until his late teens.
So what is it that makes some athletes more talented than others? Are these athletes “born” with this natural ability? Has Federer been born with the ability to play the way he does? Of course he hasn’t. The simple answer as to how these athletes have obtained this high level of skill is through the development of “Myelin”.
Myelin is part of a cell that grows in the human body around nerve endings. It is responsible for skill development and grows when it’s being ‘fired up’. What’s interesting is that Myelin is found in every single human person across the world. Myelin doesn’t care who you are, it cares what you do. Therefore, EVERYBODY has natural ability. But this natural ability is only fired up when it’s being used, and only if it is being used in the right way. This natural ability can develop high level skill, which in turn can develop highly skilled athletes and champions.
Unfortunately, when it comes to growing and enhancing Myelin and skill, age matters. In children, Myelin arrives in a series of waves, some determined by genes, others by activity. These waves last into our thirties during which time our brain is extremely receptive to learning new skills. Anyone who has tried to learn a language later in life can agree that it takes a lot more time and energy to build up this skill circuitry.
To fire this Myelin requires various elements. The two main elements are: Practice – hours and hours of it – as well as a system called “deep practice”.
Deep practice is something that a person can enter within their own ability. Deep practice is doing things wrong, and correcting them, time and time again. It is learning the nitty gritty areas of a craft until it gets tedious and autonomous.
To make it easier… split it up. First of all, think about the biggest chunk which is the task as a whole. Is it easy for someone to learn a skill as a whole practice or does it need simplifying? Secondly, this big chunk can be divided into small chunks called part practice that breaks down into its smallest areas. These areas are slowed down and sped up so these skills are finely tuned through the full examination of its architecture.
There are also other aspects that help enter deep practice. Slowing things down and repeating it numerous times help us enter deep practice. Lastly, athletes at the top level have an inept quality of “feeling” of what they are doing. They can use very descriptive words to explain how they hit that specific ball, or how they throw a pass or kick a ball.
Let’s talk about Alan, a 26 year old male Tennis player that has achieved success at county and national level. Although not a world beater, he has every right to see his career as a positive one. Alan started late, playing Tennis simply for fun at the age of 11. There is one thing about Alan’s game that he says stands out. He loves his volleys, and is well known at his club for his confidence at the net. Alan doesn’t know why he can volley so well, he simply says “I feel comfortable there, I’m just good at it, I can just do it.” After questioning further and further, it’s become known that at the age of 7 onwards, Alan spent most evenings in the garden with his Dad, hitting volleys to each other, whoever let the ball bounce was the loser.
This is incredible evidence, as it proves that, subconsciously, Alan had been practicing this skill and firing his Myelin from a young age. When he was 8, he was too young to know what career he might take; however, he had been practicing deeply for hours and hours which in the end, has resulted in him having a high level of skill when volleying.
Most athletes have a similar response to these questions. “I don’t know, I’m just good at it”, is a very common answer. Yet, subconsciously, somewhere down the line at a younger age, they would have applied their skill in a very simple yet linked form.
Did you know, it’s been found that children who are born last in the family tend the be the quickest at running? At a young age, young children are told to “hurry up and catch up”. This requires them to compete harder with their siblings and over time become the fastest. This is another example of a person firing their Myelin subconsciously.
To answer the question, “are athletes born with natural talent?”, the answer would be no, but they are born with Myelin, which when used the right way can progress into talent. Talent is something that has to be used and ignited from a young age, most commonly in a subconscious way. Therefore, no matter how old you are, it’s important to remember that talent isn’t born, it’s grown but you have to be the one to grow it.