In sports we invest large sums of money into “talent identification” programs, but what is really being identified?  Perhaps the “talented athlete” is just more highly trained than his peers, maybe he has had more competition experience.  Perhaps he matured early or his parents could afford better coaching or equipment? 

When the “talented one’s “path to success doesn’t follow the expected trajectory they can become confused and despondent, not understanding why their peers have caught up and in many instances surpassed them.  The “not so talented” on the other hand, have to have a passion for work and self-learning for ongoing improvement.   

At any given point in time the brain sub-consciously processes millions of pieces of information, but consciously can only handle 40 -150 pieces (depending on the research) before it becomes overloaded.  Human beings, however, have an amazing capacity for pattern recognition. Individuals who are successful in sport and in life have the capacity to take seemingly random pieces of information and chunk them into meaningful little nuggets of gold.   

Take the seemingly instinctive football player who develops his intuition through years and years of deliberate practice.  By becoming intimately familiar with his environment, he intentionally immerses himself in his chosen sport in order to become a master of it.  This deliberate practice builds a mental library based on experience and expertise that is chunked into subcategories allowing him to see and process tiny bits of detail into a predictable action.  Liverpool football star Robbie Fowler explained it this way.

“I worked harder as a kid than I did at any other stage of my career to learn my craft.”

“…go to any football space and you’ll hear a story of a player who had the talent to make it (but) didn’t because he didn’t have the mentality or work ethic.”

“Striking at the highest level is about being very clever, having an alert mind to work out so many things.  You have to have an understanding of who you are playing against, read their weaknesses and their thought processes too.  Then you need to have the intelligence to understand about movement, where to run to, how to run, how to deceive your opponent with your run, how to create space and close space and anticipate space.  You need to be clever enough to work out where the ball is likely to come from and how it will be delivered and where the ball may break…”

“… it isn’t all instinctive, most of it is an ongoing learning process.”  (Sunday Mirror on October 23rd).

The intuitive football player sees that certain pieces of information relate to others.  They pick up information such as eye gaze, the tilt of a head, body tension, small movements in facial expression, tone of voice and chunk this information to predict where a team mate or opposition player is about to place the ball and they act.  What seems instinctive is a learnt ability.  In spending exorbitant periods of time immersed in practicing, training and competing, the footballer is able to take a series of seemingly independent episodes and create a dense web of patterns that he now sees.  To the spectator it appears to be instinctual, but to the player it is a learnt ability to read the game based on years and years of deliberate practice.

The tyranny of telling a young person that they are talented, is that it gives them a false belief that it is always going to be easy and they can end up being left behind when it comes to learning how to be intuitive, because that takes work.

Gayelene Clews is a Performance Psychologist and author of “Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete”.  She has worked with many of the very best sporting teams in the world including Olympic and World Champions.  Clews applies science to success in her “Wired for Success” business workshops for emotionally intelligent organisations.  Contact Gayelene via  To purchase her book