Hard work, talent, and Ben Wiggins

menatworksignIt’s my strong belief that the vast majority of people are intrinsically – genetically, if you like – capable of being truly excellent Ultimate players. It is simply not the case that only a few people are born with the required talents, or that ‘ordinary’ folk like you could never get there.

That’s not to say that there aren’t differences between people; but there are two major reasons why I would argue that these innate differences need not be significant.

First, no matter what you’re born with, you can make huge improvements. If you worked on sprint technique every day, ate the right foods, and hit the gym hard, you could be fast and fit enough to play on a top team. Maybe you wouldn’t be the fastest person there; but you’d be fast enough to do a job, if the rest of your game was stellar.

Maybe that faster person is genetically quicker than you, and maybe they just ran more in early childhood – a study of men who broke the 100m record showed they were born on average 4th of 4.6 children, meaning they presumably had to work hard to keep up with older siblings. But it doesn’t matter how much of someone else’s speed is genetic or environmental – you don’t have to be the fastest, just fast enough. And you can do that if you work at it.

And secondly, Ultimate is a complex activity, one in which skill and anticipation count. And there’s more than one way to be good at it.

You’re only 5’4″? Then you’d better learn to use that short stride and low centre of gravity to outmanoeuvre larger players; you’d better work on quick movements to throw around big lumbering marks. If you’re 6’6″, maybe you work on a wide release and don’t worry too much about faking out your mark. Maybe you throw it over his shoulder. Maybe you don’t worry about handling much at all and just cut deep for the first few years.

You’re slow? Then you’d better become a hell of a thrower, and you’d better learn to anticipate and read the game better than anyone else. And, of course, keep working on that speed.

When you’re all beginners, innate physicality will win out. But with sufficient practice, there will be a strategy you can use to get around any disadvantages. Your body shape, and any other truly innate things that you cannot easily change, may determine some of how you play the game – but they won’t determine how well you play it. Practice and effort will do that.

Wayne Gretsky was neither the fastest, nor the tallest, nor the strongest guy in the NHL. He said himself:

  • —‘I wasn’t naturally gifted in terms of size and speed; everything I did in hockey I worked for’
  • —‘The highest compliment you can pay me is that I worked hard every day – that’s how I came to know where the puck was going before it even got there.’

Fine motor control (skill) does not reside in the muscles, but in the brain – in the quality of the instructions your muscles receive. People are not born with the ability to throw a forehand. Evolution isn’t commonly in the business of promoting such pointless skills. Don’t worry that that person there appears to be learning forehand faster than you; perhaps they have played other sports with similar motions, or perhaps they just luckily hit on decent mechanics the first time and that confidence has enabled them to learn faster in the short term. If you work harder than them, you’ll eventually be better.

There is absolutely no limit to the level of throwing skill you could achieve if you work at it enough. There may be some genetic limits on the power you can generate, but you’ll certainly be able to generate enough power to play on a top team. And the skill, the consistency, the different throws, are all a matter of fine motor control and can be learned to an arbitrary degree. It just takes a huge amount of time and effort.

‘Vision’ in sport has nothing to do with the quality of your eyesight. ‘Reaction time’ is dwarfed by the effect of anticipation. All the things that will make you a great player are learnable mental skills.

bounceI could mention hundreds of anecdotes or pieces of research to back all this up, but this would be a long post. It’s a big subject, and maybe I’ll come back to parts of it later on. If you’re struggling with the whole concept that hard work beats talent, then I suggest you start by reading ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed – a really fabulous book about just this subject.

Anyway, this stuff is always on my mind. But the reason I’m posting about it now is because of something truly incredible I’ve just seen in the Reddit AMA that Ben Wiggins did a while back.

Ben is a seriously good thrower. I had the privilege of meeting him at Rise Up in Amsterdam recently, and I can confirm he’s just as good a coach as he is a player. He’ll tell you himself that he got what he has by working hard, that he had no genetic advantages; but I hadn’t really understood what he meant by hard work until I read this:

“In my best seasons, I missed 7 and 9 days of throwing in the 365 day span before Nationals.”

Think about that. Think about the weather, the hangovers, the birthdays, the holidays, the illness, the unforeseen catastrophes; all the reasons you might miss the chance to throw. Think about the other things he would have been doing – the gym, the sprints, the training sessions, and real life too. And think about the dedication that this takes.

If you seriously doubt that hard work would make you a better player, a good enough player to play on a top team, there’s one way to prove yourself right. Go throw, every day, for about 20 minutes, for a year, then come back and show me that you’re not one hell of a thrower.

“Throw every day.” – Ben Wiggins

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9 Responses to Hard work, talent, and Ben Wiggins

  1. Clifford says:

    Absolute Inspiration!
    Ben – Do you ever plan to come to India on a trip? We in Bangalore would love to have you over for a workshop.
    We have about 8 teams and about 100 ultimate players in Bangalore now..

    – Cliff


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  3. This is an excellent post. Cheers!


  4. Brilliant to see Bounce getting a mention. As I said before, I got worried when I saw the word talent in the title but it went in a really good direction!
    Bounce is the book that set my 16 year old self on the road towards studying Sport Psychology, it’s always worth a re-read.


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