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Why too much talent can be your worst enemy

I’ve seen many talented riders, as young as 15 or 16, burst onto the cycling scene with early results promising a bright future in the sport; all because of not much more than their natural God given talent. However, strangely enough so many of them fade away shortly afterwards and are never heard of again. Years later you’ll hear the old crowed asking “what happened to that kid?”, or “now that was a wasted talent”. Other words you’ll hear are “pressure”, “burn out”, etc.

On the other hand, you’ll also see many guys struggle and grind away on the average path for years and years (10,000 hours if you’re a Gladwell fan) before only starting to get a sniff of success; and sometimes they even end up beating the more talented athlete. They have very little natural talent and have to work much harder than their fellow talented athletes, for it they’ll get praised for their perseverance, hard work and continuous improvement when they too come out on top.

Of course, here comes the age old question of nature vs nurture.

Well I’m not going to get into that today, as the literature in favour of both sides is as long as Mont Ventoux, and is nowhere near getting decided on, but instead I’ll give more of an overview of the original question and issues that arise from that.

koenesen at the Bellville Velodrome

Why failure and hard times are necessary?

Anyone who has ever gone through a hard time or failure will know, once you’ve gone through it and come out the other side, you’re so much stronger, wiser and experienced than before. You learn more and it equips you for life in a much better way than success ever can. The lesser talented athlete is forced to work harder, get through more failure than the early bloomer. This in turn builds their character, gives them confidence and self-belief, and experience no money can buy. Through this initial period of hard work and persistence towards success, if the athlete can get through it and not give up, it equips them so much more for the future.   They are often more respected because of it, and have a far more humble attitude. It’s also much easier to fail and learn from it at a lower level or younger age, than at a high level and more mature age; there’s less pressure, often the ego hasn’t fully developed, and they are still doing it purely for the love of it – recovery is much easier. If an athlete never fails in the beginning, and miserably at that, they never learn how to fail, they never learn how to learn from failure, and they never learn how to accept it. Many a guru and motivational speaker will speak of this, and they’re all right – one thing that every champion has in common is failure. It is one of the crucial steps along the ladder to success. If you don’t experience it early, it could be your end when it does eventually come your way.

Credit: Casey B Gibson

Why some quit?

Unfortunately, many kids give up and quit the sport at a young age, before ever even getting close to their true potential.   Some just aren’t that into it, and that’s okay, you can’t force someone to love a sport and dream bigger, some just don’t have it, or some find it in something else. That’s all perfectly fine. I think now’s a perfect time to mention something: parents should never try live their own dreams through their kids!

Of these athletes, the less talented might give up due to early failure because they fail to persist. The more talented early bloomers might choose to quit after their initial success, as once the high settles it’s a bit of an anti-climax, the hard training to go to the next level is too hard, they get distracted by other things, or they get lazy because they don’t understand what training is and how it works. They might go to the next level, but the athletes there are too much for them, and they simply can’t handle the pressure and failure; all because they’ve never experienced it. Often you’ll also find these early bloomers don’t take latter amazing opportunities when presented to them. Why? Fear of failure is the obvious, fear of the pressure, etc.

I think now’s a good a time as any for a personal confession: I don’t respect someone who doesn’t take an amazing opportunity when it’s presented to them for pretty much any reason, or who always make excuses for their performance (I’ve dubbed this the “excuse syndrome” and think an article on this at some point might be good!), and bring other unrelated issues into their performances. The reason to follow…

I think when you look at all of this; there are 2 types of athletes, and the 2 paths they tend to take to success:

  • The early bloomer who builds on their success, but still value hard work and the reward thereof, and at some point in their development stage learns the significance of failure.  They are able to use their early success and talent, couple it with hard work, and achieve their goals.
  • Then you’ll get the athlete with lesser talent, who has to work harder than their counterparts right from the get go, learn to get through and value failure from an early age, and uses their experience of that to achieve their goals.

Of the above mentioned 2 athletes, I think the question of who wins at the end of the day, or who is the better athlete and person, is not the correct question. What we should draw from the above is that the Individual goals of athletes, and to transcend one’s own unique circumstances are more important than simply winning. As through this personal journey is how one’s character, winning mind set and overall outlook of the sport are formed. The aspects of mental toughness and personal growth are developed. But most importantly, the preparation for success in later life, not only in sport, takes place.

Kristina Vogel at the UCI track world cup in LA

So, the answer to my personal confession above: everyone goes through tough times, everyone experiences failure, everyone has to work exceptionally hard, and being an Olympic champion or even reaching your athletic potential is by no means easy! Look at all the great athletes: on the track, the likes of Anna Mears, Josiah ng, Vicky Pendleton spring to mind, then there’s Graeme Obree, the brutal training regimes of the great Eddy Merckx, and just recently I heard of local South African rider Willie Smit’s path to becoming African Champ. All these athletes transcended their unique circumstances on their own path and came out on top. A more blunt way of putting it, they get over whatever or whoever is in their path, and do whatever it takes to be successful!

Being a champion isn’t easy! If it were, everyone would be one, and it wouldn’t be special at all. Champions are born with a great inner-conviction to be their best, but most importantly, they act on this conviction with perseverance towards their own goals and get through anything that comes across their path. Of course, not everyone has this, and that’s okay!

This is not only applicable to Olympic champions or pro-tour riders, but to everyone. If you can transcend your own circumstances, and come out as a better athlete than you started, as close to your athletic potential as you wish; and most importantly be satisfied with your own progress and the person you’ve become while doing so, then you win! You are a champion! Cycling isn’t about being the best, it’s about having fun, the freedom of the road, and associating with the history of this incredible sport – saying “this is who I am” – a cyclist!

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves

  • Viktor Frankl

So back to Olympic champion or pro-tour rider: what is the recipe for success?

Well, it has to be talent, early failure that can be learnt from, character, loads of hard work and perseverance, and a deep inner conviction to be the best. We must also not forget the importance of a good support network and resources, but that’s not the topic today!

To me, the most dangerous athlete (and person for that matter) is someone who is born average, with a fear of staying average.

So can early success and talent overload be your worst enemy? Yes, ironically, success itself can kill an athlete with the best chances of it.

Can you make a champion? Yes, you have to be born with the genetics, and they are necessary, but circumstances and environment determine your mind set and path towards it. The bottom line – a champion transcends their unique circumstances and becomes the best they can be! Whether that’s an Olympic champion or finishing the coffee shop ride on a Sunday morning. You are your own champion!

Some advice: when you get a talented athlete, teach them about hard work, the importance of learning from failure, and staying humble. When you get a lesser talented athlete: teach them to persist, not give up, and learn from their failure. Build their character and self-confidence. Often the longer path to success, is the better path; the longer the initial building phase, the higher the peak of their success.

Note: no bias towards either nature or nurture. I think most will agree both are necessary, one without the other won’t get you very far at all…

Matthew de Freitas

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2 thoughts on “Why too much talent can be your worst enemy”

  1. Adel Grobbelaar

    So waar! Mathew. Die belangrikste op hierdie stadium vir my in Daniel se lewe is dat hy fietsry moet geniet en soos jy gese het dat hy lesse leer wat hom sal help in sy persoonlike lewe, en glo my dit het sommer al vroeg gebeur. Om terleurstellings te verwerk en hoe om dit te hanteer want dit gebeur deur ons hele lewe. Ondersteuning is die belangrikste en om altyd dankbaar te wees deur failures en winnings. N ander groot aspek is hoe om onregverdigheid ook in die lewe te hanteer, vir my bly dit nog een van die moeilikstes goed en ek moet eerlikwaar se my seun hanteer dit beter as ek, hy laat dit verby gaan en gaan net aan want hy is mal oor fietsry, dan moet ek net sy voorbeeld volg (ironies ne?). All for the love of sport!!

    Dankie vir n baie insiggewende blog.

  2. Matthew de Freitas

    Baie dankie, ek’s bly jy geniet dit!!

    Dis baie waar wat jy daar se. Dis hoekom ek beklemtoon dat mens (veral op ‘n jong ouderdom) moet nie vergelykings maak met die ander ryers nie, en moet liewers fokus op persoonlike doele en die individuele groei prosess. Almal is anders en kom van ander plekke en is op verskillende paie van groot word, party is natuurlik groter en ander natuurlik slimmer, so om net volgens resultaate vergelykings te maak is glad nie wys nie. Dit moet die eenvoudige vraag wees van: is ek vandag beter as wat ek gister was? Indien nie, moet ons verstaan hoekom nie en daaruit leer, indien so, moet ons dankbaar wees sonder enige ander vrae nie. As mens ouer raak is dit ‘n ander storie.

    Raakende die onregverdigheid in sport, dis maar deel van die sport, en ‘n faktoor wat ons geen beheer oor het nie (‘n uncontrollable) en sal seker keer na keer gebeur deur sy loopbaan, somige tye in guns van hom, en ander in guns van die oposisie. Dis hoekom hy moet foksus op die goed waaroor hy beheer het, en op sy eie deurlopende verbetering.

    Maar soos ja gese het, hy moet dit net geniet! As hy doen, sal hy van self groot word as die beste moontlike ryer en mens wat hy kan wees, en van self druk tot sy doele, en ook sy hele lewe (na sy belowende pro loopbaan) aanhou fietsry!


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