What is Talent?
The other day my eyes transferred some visual messaging from Tigers35’s post to what remains of my brain. My visual processing center way back in the occipital lobe detected some iconic symbols that clearly were mental representations of the words “What is talent?” Then, my dysfunctional emotive center part of the brain replied instantly, “Well that is a real question,” one worthy of even a good brain, let alone one marked “Abby Normal.” The executive function within the frontal left cerebral lobe finalized a decision to proceed forward. And so, away we go.
This is not the first time, nor the last time to define talent. Sometimes a coach is asked this question and the response is, “ If I see it I know it.” That works sometimes, only sometimes.
The quest starts with a lexical (dictionary) definition of talent. Depending on which version is cited, talent involves aptitude and skill, thought by the definers to be natural or inborn, and perhaps a special quality. There is at least one difficulty when applying the above collective definition to high level sports: talent development goes beyond the inborn and natural. In sports, what is thought to be talent must equate to performance, not just be a quality.
While talent is a global/holistic construct, talent can be broken down into several discrete attributes. Coaches may do better in searching for talent using a list of discrete attributes rather than making a quick holistic verdict. The use of discrete skill evaluations is more common now than ever; note NFL testing, college prospect camps (elite 11, etc.) and simple recruit visits (workouts). Sometimes athletes with the best testing measurements do not pan out. So, measurement superiority is no guarantee that overriding talent leads to winning: too many variables.
The discussion now will be somewhat polluted by noting that athletes have both talent skills and attributes. Examples of skills include vertical jump, straight line speed, technique, strength, and the often ignored flexibility. Skills can usually be measured. Two examples of attributes, also measurable, are height and weight. Weight can be “adjusted” somewhat, height is what it is. So, coaches who use the “eye test” see the player first by attributes, and then visualize skills, followed up by a vision of what the player can be if all goes well.
Even though many skills can be quantified, correlating superior skill to achievement (levels of performance and success) is and has been problematic. Tom Brady flunked the measurable skill talent test at his combine. Those tapes will become near immortal. He did have enough attributes to entice the New England Patriots to draft him. Look at a guy like Joe Burrows. Joe has impressive attributes, clear skills, and proven performance at lower levels of competition. He also has a good scheme and high level receivers. Others, with similar traits have come out of college, been run through the evaluation process, and tanked big.
Such gifted and talented prospects are not totally to blame; there are confounding variables. Some are internal variables and include leadership, winner, intelligence, work ethic, being coachable, competitiveness, versatility, field dependency, and motivation to improve and succeed. These attributes are much harder to determine than height and weight. And so we all hear talking heads telling us about a player’s heart, brain, even guts.
There are attribute variables that are external, those that affect success but are out of a player’s control. Examples would include other players, scheme fit, competition level of opponent, coaching, and some old-fashioned luck.
So, Tigers, the search for talent continues, how it is viewed is not universal. From the conversations of Jim Harbaugh, it is clear what he looks for. Coach and his assistants look for talent skills like everyone else. The Michigan coaches, like all others, have a vision of where the player can play and how the player fits in the current scheme.
Then, things take a turn after evaluating talent. Harbaugh gets very excited about attributes important to him. These attributes can be expressed as questions:
1-Does the player want to play for Michigan?
2-Does the player love the Ann Arbor and Michigan culture?
3-To what extent is the player me-centric?
4-Does the player have a high work ethic?
5-Is the player willing to work hard in the classroom?
6-How does the player react to competition and stress?
7-Does the player have versatility potential?
8-Is the player a multi-sport participant?
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