Your Talented Intuition

by | February 12, 2014, 7:47am 0

I’m an avid reader of your column, a middle school teacher and administrator, and coach in Seattle.  You might be familiar with The Marshall Memo, a weekly digest of educational research and practice. Daniel Coyle’s article How Talent Can Be Grown caught my eye, and thought that it could be neat to talk about in a “Win the Fields” bit. Would love your view of it.

A little backstory first: Daniel Coyle is the author of the Talent Code.  (Here’s his blog/website.)  His basic idea is that talent can be taught and that there is a commonality about how really great talent is taught.  The commonalities that he found when he looked at “talent hot-beds” around the world are:

• Ignition – An event or role model that provides powerful motivation to work hard and a belief that excellent performance is achievable.

• Master coaching – These teachers are “talent whisperers” who help develop a love for doing something, fuel passion, inspire deep practice, and bring out the best in students.

• Deep practice – Hard, sustained work at the outer limits of one’s current ability, developing physical or mental skill to the next level.

In a lot of ways, this isn’t particularly revolutionary – motivation, great coaching and quality practice are three obvious ingredients to success.

One of the things that he discusses a lot– but without explicitly naming it– is the importance of a culture of excellence.  Let’s run a little thought experiment: take two freshman ultimate players who find the sport through a club sports fair.  Our first player lands on a team that is struggling for numbers, has a local club player who kind of helps out sometimes and no real plan for improvement. Our second player happens into a big-time program – 20+ players, a great coach and a directed, focused plan. Who is more motivated to improve?  Who is more likely to have her efforts directed in a positive way? Knowing that your work will pay off is incredibly motivating, and a culture of excellence makes that path clearer and more possible.

I also really like the idea of ‘deep practice.’  This is where growth happens.  All too often, we fall into comfortable and non-challenging patterns that do nothing to make us better.  The classic example of this is the way in which players warm their throws up before a game.  How often do you see people playing beach Frisbee, casually tossing the disc back and forth and chatting?  You shouldn’t fool yourself that ‘deep practice’ is easy or easy to get to.  It requires an incredible amount of mental energy to make this type of practice happen.  Almost all of Coyle’s examples are of people who are ‘professionals’ at whatever they are practicing.  (I am using professional here in the sense that their practice is the number one priority in their life.)  In the Talent Code video, he talked about the kind of practice kids get at these special tennis and music schools.  These kids are functionally professionals.  Most ultimate players are not.  We are students and parents, teachers and IT nerds, and almost all of us are coming to ultimate as a secondary activity.  I can tell you from experience ‘deep practice’ is really, really hard to pull off in the three hours between work and family.  You can do it, though.  The trick is to compartmentalize so that you have a mental place to go, a particular mental state that you slip into when you get to practice.  This mental space is one where ‘deep practice’ is the norm.

Last week, someone asked for resource recommendations on coaching, leadership and personal growth.  I didn’t really have a source of continuing information, but I’d add Coyle’s blog.  The things he’s thinking about – building talent – are the things we are wondering about.


I wanted to take a moment to riff on statistics.  I ran into this article on advanced analytics on Grantland.  Basically, the idea is that if you have enough data and enough processing power you can assign a value to every possible state (set of positions) for an NBA game.  If you compare a particular state to an ‘optimal state’ you can assign a relative value to players positioning and performance. This idea, that through the miracle of big data and processing you can assign some ‘real value’ to a player is incredibly appealing.  And incredibly hollow.  Even the authors are skeptical:

On the quest for the perfect analytical device, the first discovery should always be the inescapable fact that there is no perfect analytical device. There is no singular metric that explains basketball any more than there is a singular metric that explains life. It’s hard not to improperly elevate the role of “big data” in contemporary sports analyses, but romanticizing them is dangerous. Data are necessarily simplified intermediaries that unite performances and analyses, and the world of sports analytics is built upon one gigantic codec that itself is built upon the defective assumption that digits can represent athletics.

One of the flaws in this system is that it fails to account for ecology.  Sports strategy, tactics and performance exist within an ecology where certain offenses and defenses are more prevalent.  We are currently in a transitional phase as we leave the horizontal dominated era and move to something new.  (I am not sure if we are going back to vert or if we are moving to a richer, more complicated ecosystem where teams employ different strategies.  I am inclined to the latter, but time will tell.) The value of certain states has been assessed using historical data that assumes an ecology that no longer exists.  Take a look at the Seahawks — credit their defense with being great, but also credit it with being great in the current pass-happy NFL.  Swap them with the ’86 Bears and I don’t think either defense is as good.

I am even more skeptical given the framework we operate from in ultimate.  We don’t have SportsVu camera tracking every moment.  We don’t have giant processors cranking all the data.  Even with all that set aside, I am still deeply distrustful of statistics.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I use statistics a lot. I like to track the basics and do some rudimentary analysis, but these are only a tiny part of deciding how to proceed.  Statistics should be a piece of your overall evaluation, along with video working and just watching.  In a lot of ways, statistics point you to questions and places to look.  Barbara Hoover is catching 40% of UW’s goals?  Why?  And then you go to the film or a game for the answers.

Really, I want to make the case for trusting your intuition.  When you are watching and playing, you are unknowingly absorbing a huge amount of data and your subconscious is analyzing all of it.  Your brain is a SportsVu and a building full of processors — let it do its work.  (And I promise a lot more on this topic in a few weeks.)

Feature photo by Terry Nelson (

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