The Greatest of These Is Love

Last week I watched children between the ages of six and eight play basketball. They were of various shapes, sizes, and attention spans for organized sport. Some of them could barely run much less crossover dribble.

Some kids clomp around in heavy lead shoes.

Some try -really- -hard- to make things happen. They dart about with clenched jaw and move with the grace of C3PO.

Others run with flailed elbows or limp wrists.

But some children move with efficiency and purpose, naturally operating in the paradoxical state that all athletes aspire to. I would describe it as tranquil intensity.

It does not take a trained eye to differentiate the clompers and flailers from the athletes.

But where do those qualities come from? Every child on that court was young and moldable, and will remain so for a while. I imagine that most of them were active. Some would say that the 7 and 8 year old top performers are naturally gifted, and I would agree. But I don't think that this "gifting" is primarily physical in nature.

Nobody seems to address the psychological aspects of this "gifting" in top performers of any age. For example, the evidence contradicts what we once thought. It appears that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are not always required and do not necessarily produce high level proficiency. 

For example (click for complete text):

More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.

This study made me think that deliberate practice has its limits, just like every other facet of success.

A person may have the greatest work ethic on the planet...

But they could be working in a far less than optimal manner. All those push-ups and squats, pitches thrown and swings taken while under misguided coaching or poor movement patterns only serve to further ingrain poor movement patterns. Having mountains of drive and determination without proper context or know-how will leave you average or injured.

You may have the greatest environment and coaching on the planet...

But does the athlete really want it? Are they (understandably) unwilling to sacrifice some parts of life in order to achieve an optimal level in one activity? Or maybe there is a physically or emotionally traumatic experience, a serious injury, a mistake or gross oversight in the process of exposure to higher-ups. Without consistent, hard-working grit and opportunity, all the talent and resource will be missed.

And then there are "genetics."

You may have the greatest "natural" talent in the world...

But natural talent will only take you so far. At some point, you run into other talented people who have put in years of hard work. Genetics ultimately determine how far a person may develop a given ability, or the extent to which they may actually succeed despite subpar effort. While no set of genetic cards can be modified, the expression of them can. Athletes would do well to be less concerned with their genetics, and find ways to leverage every modifiable factor to their favor.

If you work terribly hard over a long period of time...And you have proper context and coaching with a supportive environment...And opportunity...

The athlete may not become Champion of the World or even make a living off the pursuit. But chances are that he or she will go very far. And I personally feel that the kind of person they become in the process is far more important than the ultimate degree of success.

But is it worth it?

Regardless of the extent of  natural talent, an athlete who has love will have no problems putting their time in. While it's likely that some of the "naturally" athletic children love basketball, I expect that all of them would show a love for physical movement.
Image result for red wiffle ball bat
If we could rewind the clock and observe those young athletes as compared to their less graceful peer, I imagine that we would witness a LOT more movement. For years, there were jumps to and from the couch. There was ball juggling in the basement, running and climbing, sliding and falling, leaping and tripping. While some children were given a pedometer to monitor their step count, the athletes would have destroyed theirs from getting hit, caught, and crushed.

As a young person, maybe even as a toddler, the athletes simply loved to move. Then they fell in love with a particular set of pursuits.

And that's why I say that before there was any expression of genetic potential, there was love. And all the best environmental factors are worth nothing if the athlete has not love. Without love,  the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will never take place, and sooner or later, all the training and coaching and weekend tournaments turn into an exercise in frustration. But if there is love for the pursuit, even the losses and the failures are a win for the person.

Does the child truly love it?

The greatest of these is love.

Sorrow is better than laughter,
    because the heart is made better through trouble.

                                                    -Ecclesiastes 7:3

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