Our Fascination with the Natural

In the Academy Award winning film, Good Will Hunting, 20-year-old Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) is a genius, working as a lowly janitor at MIT. He gets the attention of math professor, Gerald Lambeau, after solving one of his most difficult problems left on the board for his graduate students. The professor takes it upon himself to not only save Will from a prison sentence but mentor him into becoming a world-changing mathematician.

Now, one of the most striking aspects of this film is the professor’s obsession with Will’s natural talent and intelligence.

Professor Lambeau is a man of slightly above-average intelligence who has become world-renown for his contributions to mathematics. His achievements have been a product of his hard work and determination.

But instead of finding another version of himself to mentor, he chooses to obsess over a young man who is everything he is not. He chooses to invest in the “natural” talent of a reckless and unmotivated Will Hunting, instead of his own gritty, hardworking, and loyal graduate assistant.

As coaches, how often are we like Professor Lambeau, allowing our obsessions with natural ability to blind us from those who really want it?

Grit versus Natural Ability

In Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, she shares Stanford researcher Catherine Cox’s study, revealing that the most accomplished people in history over the last few centuries were smarter than the average person, but there was little relationship between their level of intelligence and their level of influence. Whether they had an IQ of 190 or 130, it did not determine the level of their success. For instance, Sir Isaac Newton only had an IQ of 130, which is below the average IQ of Harvard students today.

So, what was the determining factor? Cox calls it “persistence”, and Duckworth calls it “grit”.

Research has also shown that while most people claim to value work ethic and persistence, when it comes down to it, we recruit, chase, and select people with the most talent.

Duckworth explains it best: “The ‘naturalness bias’ is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. We may not admit to others this bias for naturals; we may not even admit it to ourselves. But the bias is evident in the choices we make.”

What are the things you believe that you value most in your players? If you ask most coaches, we will claim traits like “hardworking, responsible, positive, and respectful”.

In reality, those traits are often just an extra bonus in our minds because when it comes to making cuts, recruitment, or even who we put in the game, we end up valuing the more “talented” players. We see the athletic and naturally gifted individuals, and our eyes light up at the “potential” we see in them.

Shouldn’t a positive attitude and a good work ethic be among the first things we look at when we try to determine potential?

Change How You Assess Talent

Talent = Ability X Character X Culture

UNC women’s soccer coach, Anson Dorrance—who is one of the most winningest coaches of all time—said, “Talent is common; what you invest to develop that talent is the critical, final measure of greatness.”

In response to those who believe his success is due to his talent pool, “That’s simply incorrect. We’re out-recruited by five or six schools on a regular basis. Our extraordinary success is about what we do once the players get here. It’s our culture.”

I know; we can’t ignore talent. But we can’t keep ignoring attitude and effort, either. Duckworth believes that effort counts twice. So, let’s at least make it equal to talent.

Imagine what would happen if we:

  • Stop chasing the entitled recruits, and instead give some “gritty” less talented individuals the opportunity they’ve worked for;
  • Made our team selections this season by leaving off a few of the more talented players, so we can keep some of the grittier players; and
  • Set our lineup or depth chart based on those who have worked the hardest and had the best attitude in practices leading up to the game.

Parents and fans may lose their minds and might even call you crazy, but there will no longer be a question about what you value.

Early on, you may lose some games that you could have won, but you might just have a better team by the end of the season.

When you don’t play the less gritty, more “talented” player, they may quit or be upset, but if they persevere, they will become less entitled, grittier, and might just fight their way back to the top.

The grittier, less talented player will most likely surprise you by becoming a lot more talented and even grittier. Remember, effort counts twice!

Oh, and don’t forget that you will enjoy coaching a great deal more! The players will work hard, listen, and come to respect you more than ever because they will believe you when you claim to value hard work, leadership, and a great attitude.