Navigating the World of Talent

Talent versus skill is a question that has been debated countless times, across a variety of subjects.


Talent is something that is rare, and it is achievable only through hard work and effort. However, that does not mean it provides the only means for one’s success. Photo Credit: Etienne Girardet / Unsplash

Talent and skill are concepts that, in application, can be indistinguishable. Both correlate to success in some way, shape, or form. However, skills are learned through practice, experience, and time. They require hard work in order to grow and maintain. Talent, on the other hand, comes strictly from birth and refers to natural aptitude or the ability to pick up a set of skills with ease.

Examples of talent can be excellence in a sport, having perfect pitch, or a photographic memory, among many others. In the past, these talented individuals were often guided towards their profession by talent nurtured from a young age. For example, famed composers such as Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin were known to compose their first pieces before reaching the age of ten. Throughout their childhood, they performed and composed masterpieces. These composers were some of the earliest “child prodigies.” 

Child prodigies are prime examples of talented individuals being recognized and showcased for their abilities. As talent tends to appear before skills can be learned, young children who possess talent are set notably apart from the rest. Unfortunately, this attention leads to high expectations and public attention from an early age. Numerous child prodigies have spoken about their experiences with fame and publicity throughout their adolescence. Many struggle with high pressure and continuous stress before fading from the public eye. 

As David Epstein in a New York Times article notes, there is a difference between nurturing talent and force-feeding excellence. Tiger Woods, who was the best golfer in the world at only 21, started golfing before he could even walk. Despite his father’s thorough coaching and training, Woods notes that it was never forced upon him. “It’s the child’s desire to play that matters, not the parent’s desire to have the child play,” Epstein notes. 

Epstein draws comparisons between Tiger Woods, who had only ever known golfing, and Roger Federer, who became the oldest tennis player to be ranked #1 in the world. As a child, Federer was given the space he needed to explore other sports before eventually pursuing professional tennis. Though he reached fame at perhaps a slower rate than Woods, there is much to be said about the “Roger stratagem.” Federer’s success points to a trend among top athletes, who spent their childhood exploring their options rather than being pushed into grueling training and practice from their toddler years. Epstein concludes that “the most promising often have a period of sampling and lightly structured play before finding the instrument and genre that suits them.” In turn, these athletes are better-rounded and confident in their sport of choice, rather than restricted and confined. 

Though the Tiger Woods story points to unmistakable success and profit, there is scientific evidence that supports the freer approach. Talent snatched up from childhood leads to burnout and, often, quitting entirely. Skill with the help of aptitude or less-intense talent allows athletes to build a stronger support system and to flourish in the long run.

This mindset can be applied outside the sports world as well. As Epstein writes, “students who have to specialize earlier in their education — picking a pre-med or law track while still in high school — have higher earnings than their generalist peers at first, according to one economist’s research in several countries. But the later-specializing peers soon caught up.” Having a diverse and more stable background, rather than a pinpointed path of ambition, is an advantage for multiple reasons. For one, it allows the individual to experience life outside a profession, and understand the joy in pursuing something out of fondness and passion, rather than necessity. Secondly, it prevents the high buildups of stress and expectation that are the source of anxiety, isolation, and depression for many within the “early focus” category.

For some, that never-ending anxiety and stress can lead them to make poor decisions. Whether it is talent that no longer allows a person to stand out, or honing a skill that simply won’t improve, the frustration and desire to succeed can push someone to engage in high-risk situations.

Major-league sports are some of the world’s largest hotspots for performance-enhancing drug usage. It becomes incredibly difficult to stand out upon reaching the big leagues, as the constant travel and culture associated with sports such as baseball lends itself to slipping up and relaxing rules for oneself. Party culture, exacerbated by the general mood and feelings of celebration, is also a well-known side effect of being a successful player. 

Baseball is, for multiple reasons, infamous for the number of players found to be utilizing steroids or other drugs in order to boost their on-field performance. One reason for this is the nature of the sport. Baseball is physically demanding, but even more so, it is one of the most technically difficult sports. Players are instructed to hit a small sphere flying towards them when given a time frame of mere milliseconds to react and begin swinging with enough power and force to send the ball where it needs to go. Additionally, pitchers are throwing this small ball at speeds near or even surpassing 100 miles per hour. Here is a short video that breaks down the science behind intercepting a fastball. 

Baseball, as many sports, has a well-known upper limit for a player’s age. Here is where one idea of talent versus learned skill may arise, in regard to the age restrictions. Many baseball players, as well as other athletes, have been brought up from a young age with the proper knowledge and training to align them for the path of a professional athlete. By the time an individual has surpassed the minor leagues and been drafted for the major leagues, their biological clocks are already counting down. 

Sports is not a profession for the fragile or for those unwilling to put in the hard work. It is not unusual to see players spend their entire lives training for even a chance at being drafted to the MLB. Unfortunately, all of that hard work is seen by the world for less than a decade. After a certain age, players simply reach their peak in performance before declining. In fact, no MLB player has ever remained on a team past the age of 60. In 1965, Satchel Paige pitched a game at the age of 59, which was nearly unheard of. Today, the oldest MLB players are in their early 40s, as with many sports. Compared to the United States’ average retirement age of 65, it is evident that sports requires a lot of upkeep and effort to maintain their standings and players. 

And with the average baseball career being only 5.6 years long, it is easy to understand why players want to make the most of their time. Unfortunately, this ambition has a tendency to manifest through the use of prohibited performance enhancers such as steroids, or more specifically, anabolic steroids. 

Anabolic-androgenic steroids, also known as anabolic steroids, are synthetic imitations of testosterone, the primary sex hormone for males. Estrogen, the primary sex hormone for females, regulates the functions of the body responsible for health and reproduction. Apart from their inherent purposes, both can be used for a variety of other means. 

Testosterone can be used to treat sexual dysfunction, help an individual medically transition genders, and most commonly, build muscle and increase skeletal cell protein. The hormone is well-known for its rapid muscle growth, which benefits athletes regardless of their sport.

The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, which was later amended to include other types of steroids or steroid precursors, declared over twenty anabolic steroids to be controlled substances. Controlled substances are only available through prescription, and fines up to $50,000 dissuade most people from violating this law. Most professional sports organizations have strict regulations in regard to testing athletes and preventing “doping,” or the act of using drugs to enhance one’s performance. While several cases reached court over concerns about an athlete’s right to privacy, most athletes understand the justification behind randomized or selective drug tests.

In addition to the devastating blow to a player’s reputation that drug scandals elicit, there are also numerous health issues with anabolic steroids. Side effects range from external, such as acne, abscesses, and male-pattern baldness, to cardiovascular, such as increased blood pressure, heart attacks, and stroke. With such unpredictability and high risk, it is best for athletes to stay away from steroids, even if it means losing their edge or artificially enhanced talent. 

Additionally, it is important to note that talent cannot always guarantee success. Simply having certain assets and tools within a field does not always equate to having the opportunities and other means of achieving success or rising from the ranks. Economic opportunity, as well as other requirements, may hinder a talented individual from being able to pursue something they might enjoy. Time commitment is among other factors that may determine the likelihood of reaching true success. 

Skill and hard work can overcome the advantage that talent provides to a person. Though talent creates a natural-born inclination and a good vantage point for improvement, there are many people already strongly motivated, with the drive and right mindset to achieve greatness and success.

For many, there may be even greater pride in accomplishing something without the use or aid of talent. Learning a skill is no easy feat, and any skill requires time and effort in order to improve before performing. Becoming naturally excellent is even more valuable than accomplishing greater things with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.

Though the use of steroids pervades many sports, as athleticism tends to benefit from additional strength or power, certain sports are facing different issues as of late. The world of swimming, during the past couple of years, has erupted into controversy regarding transgender swimmers and the possible advantages they possess when competing. Lia Thomas, the first openly trans swimmer to win first place in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) swimming division, took the brunt of the media blow. When Thomas began swimming for the women’s team, critics and transphobes were quick to draw attention to the supposed unfairness of the situation. Even her own teammates had harsh words for her, though they shared their thoughts anonymously — an attempt to project their identities while actively critiquing their own teammate’s identity. 

However, it was swiftly proven that Thomas had very little advantage over her competition. Many trans people, like Thomas, may choose to transition medically through reconstructive surgeries as well as hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Thomas, by the time she began swimming for the University of Pennsylvania, had already been on HRT to reduce her levels of testosterone for over three years. By that point, she had undergone evident physical changes as well as hormonal ones. In addition to losing an inch of her height (putting her at 6’3), Thomas also lost muscle mass. 

Furthermore, both the NCAA and the Olympics have regulations and rules put in place, allowing transgender athletes to compete after undergoing HRT for at least one year. And as many have pointed out, there are no rules or regulations that prevent cisgender (people whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth) women with naturally higher levels of testosterone from competing in swim competitions. 

In fact, the situation only grows more unfair when one observes men’s sports. Certain athletes are already inclined to perform well in sports based on their physical abilities or genetics. Michael Phelps, the most decorated and celebrated Olympian, was born with many physical characteristics that allow him to excel at swimming. 

Phelps’ wingspan is longer than his height, an incredible advantage in a sport where excess body weight is a disadvantage and powerful arms are an extreme advantage. His double-jointed ankles allow his feet to bend up to 15 degrees more than competitors, which allows his anatomy to mimic the function of flippers. The list only goes on; he has twice the lung capacity of the average male, and he produces half the amount of lactic acid as other athletes. 

Yet these traits are celebrated, earning him 28 gold medals and headlines singing praise to his unique physiology that gives him a near insurmountable advantage over others.

Phelps arguably has much more of an advantage than swimmers such as Thomas. But despite his gifts and incredible fame, Phelps chose to speak out against Thomas when asked for his opinion. Phelps cited the idea of creating a “level playing field,” heavily implying that Thomas should not be allowed to compete because it was unfair, ignoring his own physiological traits that arguably make the competition unfair.

Whether it is over issues of medically transitioning, performance-enhancing drugs within major-league sports, or child prodigies who find themselves losing their talent, the question of natural talent versus learned skill comes into play. Though talent can provide extreme advantages, such as in the case of Michael Phelps, Mozart, and Chopin, hard work will continue to pay off. In some ways, learned skills may carry one farther in life, especially when they remain a source of constant and strong motivation for an individual.

Skill with the help of aptitude or less-intense talent allows athletes to build a stronger support system and flourish in the long run.