Matt Waldman’s RSP: The Talent-Work Ethic Question

Matt Waldman’s RSP examines the talent versus work ethic question as it applies to football and the NFL Draft. 

What is the nature of talent?

How much of it is inherent? How much of it comes from persistent training?

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule in his publication Outliers is a popular and hotly debated idea.

I agree with Gladwell’s essential point that it takes dedicated and well-crafted training to become good at something. However, it would be simplistic to state that there’s no such thing as inherent talent.

According to Gladwell, Mozart was composing “garbage” at 11 and didn’t create something great until his early 20s. Even so, an adult in his early 20s composing great music is still unusual.

I wonder if attributing an artistic level of master solely to 10 years or 10,000 hours of time spent on a topic diminishes the value of an individual’s ability to assimilate what he knows about the world and himself into a higher artistic expression that logging a specific volume of time may not account for. That skill of assimilating stimuli from the world around you is also a talent — whether it’s inherent or a part of accumulating hours of practice remains the root question.

We debate this question in football. A month ago, I debated Mike Renner, a writer at Pro Football Focus about the nature of the running back position.  Mike argues that running back is an intuitive position of inherent talent. I argue that what he, and others, think as inherent are a series of learned behaviors.

As with every position in pro football, there is a physical baseline to perform the role effectively. However, that baseline is lower than people presume and they often place too much emphasis on the wrong skills. They also discount that, like boxing or a martial art like jiu-jitsu, there is a heavier intellectual component than credited.

While not on the level of jiu-jitsu, the chess of martial arts, running backs must learn a variety of intellectual and physical skills and there is a diversity of archetypes at the position with various combinations of skills that deliver production. This leads us back to a discussion about the weight of inherent talent versus developed talent through work.

World-renowned trainer Firas Zahabi discusses this in this podcast below. Essentially, Zahabi believes that the greater the number rules in an endeavor, the more room there is for talented that’s acquired through persistent work. In contrast, the fewer rules in the endeavor (think weightlifting, sprinting, or throwing a javelin), the more inherent talent plays a role.

Apply this to football and it underscores the idea that the NFL Combine is a good exercise for testing athletic baselines but bigger, stronger, faster, and quicker is not the recipe for better. It’s where a lot of teams go wrong and then reinforce these biases with how it divides practice reps and unintentionally grades performance based on draft capital.

Football is a craft, not a product off an assembly line. There’s value in examining process with data but taking a strict, manufacturing-based approach starves an organization of its potential to develop an understanding and appreciation of craft that’s rooted in a holistic view of each position.

The best talents in football often have great physical talent but on top of that, they are most often the best decision-makers before the snap, immediately after the snap, and in the present moment. They rely on technique and the ability to combine a variety of technically-learned movements to do their job.

Players with sustainable production and long careers who aren’t the best often lack great physical talent relative to their peer group but possess a higher degree of learned skills. Rarely do we see long-term starters (who do more than one thing well) lean mostly on great physical talent while lacking a refined level of skill. This should tell you immediately that many positions in football are as much (if not more) intellectual, technical, and craft-like in nature than purely physical.

These arguments may be right but they won’t be proven as such as long as the NFL still takes a wholesale approach toward evaluation with an overemphasis on bigger, stronger, faster and reinforces it with draft capital bias. Still, if you are evaluating talent as opposed to guessing how the NFL will evaluate talent, this is the path you must consider if you want to see beyond the back-end of a herd.

Get the most in-depth coverage of quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends available to the public with the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. If you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2018 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each. You can pre-order the 2019 RSP beginning in December. 

2 responses to “Matt Waldman’s RSP: The Talent-Work Ethic Question”

  1. Once again, pure education and reinforcement of not allowing “mainstream ” bias to rule judgement

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