Over the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed watching a variety of different athletes in a variety of sporting venues attempt to win titles. Examples of breakthrough moments seem to appear nightly on the evening sportscast. Yesterday I happened to catch the last few hours of the Greenbrier Classic, one of the weekly PGA tour events. Much to everyones surprise, the networks included, all the favored big names had played themselves out of contention, while two virtual no names had surged to the lead. Ted Potter and Troy Kelly ended tied and needing extra holes to decide a winner.
Given the media’s penchant for hyperbole it was a tad humorous listening to Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo attempt to qualify the two playoff finalist’s careers. There wasn’t a whole lot to ‘champion’ because neither had yet to distinguish himself at the PGA tour level. Mind you these weren’t two young guys fresh out of college. Potter, a 28 year old rookie on the PGA tour has only made the cut in six out of fifteen events this year, failing in each of the last five. Hardly a promising entry into the Greenbrier. Kelly is a 33 year old retread of sorts who up until yesterday had only made 7 out of 15 cuts this year, never finishing higher than 37th.
Potter won the playoff, but the drama that unfolded was truly powerful. It was powerful because you have to consider how many thousands of times these two men have practiced, struggled, failed, started over only to fail again. I’m certain that self doubt is a constant for every player on the bubble of the PGA tour or any sport for that matter. I watch a lot of sports and one thing about the game of golf that you can’t deny: there’s no one else to blame when you come up short. Which is why when it comes to titles, it’s so common to see inexperienced players crumble in the heat and stress of a final round.
Which brings to mind a book that I’ve read several times titled “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. In his groundbreaking work Colvin shares why ‘exceptional’ natural talent is a myth. By way of Anders Ericsson’s studies, Colvin introduces the “10,000 hours of practice” principle. From Tiger Woods to Mozart, his studies reveal that in reality, exceptional talent is nothing more than a function of focused practice applied over a long period of time. To be exact Ericsson proves that you need roughly 3 hours of deliberate practice every day over a period of 10 years to truly become world class in any pursuit.
Of course there are plenty of people who would logically prefer that the ‘myth’ of natural greatness be true. After all, it would seem a whole lot less daunting to think you could wake up one day and be an Olympic Champion. Likewise, it removes a whole lot of responsibility for ones short falls in life if we can just ascribe to the theory that we weren’t born under the right sign.
In a few short weeks we will all be mesmerized by the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Numerous hero’s and victors will emerge and the media will ply us with more insight into some than we might care to know. Still I’m fascinated to watch these athletes who train zealously for countless years and then put it all on the line.
Without a doubt, there will be the equivalent of Ted Potter at these Olympic Games; someone who is virtually unheralded in his or her sport but who bursts onto the scene with the performance of a lifetime. Like Ted Potter, their career path will look something like the graph on the right above. There will have been far more down days than up in their life. We’ll learn of tremendous adversity that they’ve faced over and over again. It will encourage each of us to take stock of our own daily challenges and issues. This is what makes sport remarkable and memorable. Out of these major sporting events come the dreams which fuel the next generation of ‘exceptional talent’. Somewhere, someone will spend the thousands of hours of deliberate, hard practice to become ‘exceptional’. And we will watch and cheer them on.