June 21, 2017

Thursday Off
I need a day off to catch up on things – see you on Friday!

Sports Skills and the Myth of the Natural
The following has a table tennis point to it, but starts out in a fantasy world. I’m currently reading Book Two in the Weird West Tales series by Mike Resnick, four fantasy books which feature the adventures of Doc Holliday in a re-imagined west where Americans, led by Thomas Edison, try to use science to battle the magic of Indians such as Geronimo. In Book One, “The Buntline Special,” we learn what really happened at the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Holliday takes on the undead Johnny Ringo. In Book Two, “The Doctor and the Kid,” Holliday, now broke due to a horrible loss in a poker game, needs to hunt down and kill Billy the Kid for the reward money. Alas, he can’t, as Geronimo has used his magic so bullets bounce off The Kid. Okay, as table tennis players, perhaps none of this interests you. But there’s a table tennis angle.

The novel features some very nice writing by Resnick, one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of all time. But a passage caught my eye last night. In the scene, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid are drinking at a bar together. They know that they are going to be having it out sometime later, but until then they have become friends. The following conversation takes place – and it could just as easily have taken place at a table tennis club, where they were discussing table tennis.

“How did you get to be so good with a gun?” asks Holliday.

“I honestly don’t know,” says The Kid. “I never played with toy guns back in New York or Kansas, never dreamed of being a gunslinger, never practiced much with a gun once I got one. I just strapped on a holster one day, and pulled and fired my gun, and hit what I was aiming at every damned time. It’s like pointing my finger.”

“I would say that you’re what they call a natural,” said Holliday.

Now writers can take what is called literary license to change things for dramatic appeal, but this seems to perpetuate the myth that athletes are born, not made. (Doc Holliday, who in the novel is thought by many to be the only gunslinger who might be able to stand up against The Kid, also never seems to practice.) While it is a combination of the two, the consensus of most coaches is that top athletes are much, Much, MUCH more made than born. And yet, to many, athletes are just naturals who become the best because of inborn skills. This may be more true in certain sports, such as sprinting, but not in skill sports.

The reality, of course, is if Holliday and Billy the Kid were truly great gunslingers, they likely spent huge amounts of time practicing their draw and shooting skills. If they didn’t, there no doubt would be others who did, and they would have become the great gunslingers, and Holliday and The Kid would have lost the first time they went up against them.

Look at the top table tennis players in the world. None of them became great because they were “Naturals.” They all spent a decade or so practicing like maniacs. Some might have started out seemingly naturals – compared to other beginners - but any such naturals who didn’t practice regularly would soon be overtaken by those who do.

It’s not just the above passage. Look at the movie “The Natural,” where the whole premise is about a baseball player who is naturally blessed with incredible talent. Or the movie “Rocky,” with the premise that an apparently supremely talented adult boxer can overcome years of not training hard by training hard for just a few months at most. Or “The Karate Kid,” where the same happens in karate, because the kid “has good root.” (Sorry, all the heart in the world doesn’t overcome training long hours from a young age – though that very heart is often what enables a player to do that long training.) Sometimes it’s done just silly. In Conan the Barbarian (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger), Conan as a child is enslaved and grows up doing hard labor. This makes him incredibly strong – no problem – but somehow it also made him an incredible warrior with a sword!!! Just naturally talented, right?

Sometimes it’s done better – in The Princess Bride, the hired swordsman, Inigo Montoya, spends his whole life since he was a kid training as a swordsman, which makes him a master swordsman, who eventually gets to say the immortal lines, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” And yet (Spoiler Alert!) – he loses to Westley in the big swordfight at the top of the mountain, where Westley seems to be just talented. (He did spend years on pirate ships, but only after he’d already grown up, and likely didn’t do daily systematic training there.) Another one that got it right? Wonder Woman, where she is secretly trained to be a warrior from an early age – though of course she also has the “daughter of Zeus” thing . . . .

We have some really “talented” kids at my club. But when you look into their talents, you learn that, for example, that the 8-year-old with the 1664 rating, who seems such a natural, has been training almost daily since age five. (I know, since I was his coach that first year. He did have great natural talent, but nothing would have come of it if it weren’t for the long hours he’s spent training.) The same goes for others. Many see kids like these and think they are good only because of this natural talent, but they are not there when the kids are sweating it out with coaches, hour after hour after hour, developing that talent. There are some that were naturally talented, including that 8-year-old – but I know of many equally talented ones who you will never hear of because they didn’t follow through with the training to make something of that talent.

So next time you watch a sports movie or read a novel about some “natural” athlete who has great skill because of natural gifts, or about some nobody who, due to this “natural talent,” is able to become great through a short splurge of hard training and become better than someone who has been doing so for a decade, or hear someone talk about some top player who got that way primarily because he was “talented” (and ignore the 10,000 or so hours of training it took to get there in a typical skill sport), just smile to yourself because you know better.

2017 ITTF-Pan Am Junior Championships
Here’s the home page for the event, June 20-25 in Buenos Aires, ARG. Team USA is Kanak Jha (seeded #1 in boys' singles), Victor Liu (#3), Sharon Alguetti (#5), Jack Wang (#7), Crystal Wang (seeded #2 in girls' singles), Amy Wang (seeded #4), Rachel Sung (#7), and Grace Yang (#10). We're seeded #1 in both boys' and girls' teams. Here are related articles:

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