The Myth of Michael’s Talent

by Casey Barrett

Questioning God-given Gifts…

It’s easier to chalk it up to talent. It’s that unfair distribution of destined-for-gold genetics that a rare few are awarded with in rich supply. Some got it, most of us don’t. Or so the thinking goes…

And one guy was born with more of it than any human being ever dipped in water. You’ve seen this movie, right? The one about Michael Phelps being so perfectly born to swim that it’s pointless for mere land-dwelling mortals even to try to compete? Indeed, four years ago, at the start of the Beijing Games, NBC ran a feature about his freakishly flawless proportions. They called it “Designed to Swim.” (Check it out on You Tube right HERE if you missed it.)

The piece was well done, and hard to dispute. I mean, they were dealing in facts: stands six-foot-four; wingspan is six-foot-seven; short legs and a super long torso; size 14 feet; hands the size of dinner plates – ok, that one might not be technically fact, but you get the idea. At the top of the piece, Dan Hicks’ voice-over tells you that “If you were to build the perfect swimmer, the finished product would look just like this.”

Fair enough. The resumé speaks for itself.

Yet, even with all those physical facts, something essential has been lost. And it’s probably the single most important element that explains Phelps’ greatness. It’s not those one in a million genetics. In fact, I’d argue that his genetic gifts aren’t really one in a million at all. They’re one in a lot, no question. Say one in a couple thousand? But he’s not the only guy walking around who looks like that. Hell, hang out on deck at any national meet; you’ll see plenty of guys with proportions not so different.

Nor is it his work ethic. As has been well documented (by Phelps himself), that work ethic comes and goes. When he’s on, it’s scary, we know this. The guy has done sets that are superhuman. But the guy has also missed a boatload of workouts over the past eight years. During the same period when he established himself, beyond all doubt, as the greatest swimmer of all time.

So, what the hell is it?

It’s what happened a long time ago – back in the mid to late 90’s, when Phelps was a kid, from age 10 to 15. If you want to understand Michael Phelps’ greatness, stop looking at his God-given “gifts”, and don’t put too much stock in the many workouts he might have missed in the years since Beijing. Instead, go back about 15 years, back to a time when the kid never missed a day. Ever. For thousands of days in a row.

He hasn’t been coasting on his talent these last few years. He’s been coasting on perhaps the greatest base of training and aquatic education that a kid can receive.

There’s a powerful book out there that breaks down this theory beautifully. It’s called “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.” It’s by a Fortune magazine writer named Geoff Colvin. A business book in nature, it should be required reading for every coach who reads this. Buy it on Amazon right HERE. (Mr. Colvin, if you see a slight bump in sales, you’re welcome…)

Colvin’s thesis centers around the notion of Deliberate Practice. That is, doing specific things over and over and over again, with constant feedback. Identifying exactly where you need to improve, and obsessing on every last detail with brutal commitment. If you’re like me, you’ve responded to that thesis like this: No shit.

Every swimmer and coach knows the necessity of deliberate practice in his bones. Nothing groundbreaking there. It’s beyond obvious to swimmers. But like all good reporters, Colvin takes something that should be basic and peels back endless layers. To reveal that most of you do it all wrong — over and over and over again.

Phelps did not. Correction: Bob Bowman did not let him. During Phelps’ most formative years, Bowman, by every account, was a grand master of deliberate practice. So much so that I was truly surprised to find no mention of Bowman or Phelps in Colvin’s book.

Here’s who Colvin does analyze: Mozart and Tiger Woods. Two other guys who’ve long carried the mantle of God-given Otherworldly Talent. Of course, we soon learn that, though plenty “gifted”, both Mozart and Woods were the creations of early, obsessive – and flawlessly designed – training in their youth. Mozart’s father was a composer himself, who retired when baby Wolfgang was born to devote the rest of his life to teaching music to his son. And we all know the story of Earl Woods and his all-too-deliberate golf practice before Tiger could walk. These two prodigies were made, not born. And so was Michael.

This should be good news, for all involved. For Phelps and Bowman, it should give credit where it’s due — to the years when the ultimate foundation was laid for a swimmer.

For everyone else, it should be good news for the opposite reason: It should confirm that you are not racing someone who’s “just better.” Who has infinitely more talent than you, so why even try… The playing field might be a lot more level than you think. It just takes a level of commitment – from a very young age – that few are willing even to consider.

If you’re having a hard time buying all this, I can relate. As a swimmer, I used to carry around barrels full of bitterness for swimmers I deemed “more talented” but less willing to work as hard as I was. This is defeatist thinking, to be sure. It also misses quite a few points. Some aren’t so easy to admit – like maybe I was doing the wrong thing over and over for many thousands of yards of fly sets. Or maybe that some of those sprinters over in lane eight, dicking around doing workouts that seemed like a joke — maybe there was something a whole lot more deliberate in their practice. Things that produced results when shaved and tapered, but not necessarily things that looked tough or impressive at 6am on a random winter Tuesday.

I realize talent does indeed exist. It’s not all myth. And no amount of perfectly deliberate practice starting at infancy is going to help a swimmer compete with a Phelps if they stop growing at five-foot-six, with small hands and feet. There is a limit to all this overrating of talent. But it’s also time to demystify that word.

God might give out plenty of gifts, but he doesn’t give away gold medals.