What Makes A Star Performer?

Stephen Duncan July 6, 2013 0
What Makes A Star Performer?

After years of watching football, shouting at the managers how I could do a better job. I decided it was about time to put myself respect where my mouth was and become a Premier League Fantasy Football manager and to my great surprise came 22,145th out of 2.5 million managers in the world, that’s the top 1% of managers on my first go. Well, I was pretty happy with that for a first attempt!

In order to make such a feat possible. I applied my analytical skills to the challenge. I managed to gleem data from a friend on the premier league, world cup, european cup and champions league including very detailed player and team statistics on everything from fouls to goals. I also acquired biographies of players and managers to complete the data set.

During the course of this research I came across some startling facts. Such as, if you were to examine the birth dates of every football player in the last World Cup, you would find an interesting anomaly: the top players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months. If you then examined the national youth teams that are the feeder for the World Cup and professional ranks generally, you would find this quirk to be even more pronounced. In current English teams, for instance, half of the young football players were born in January, February or March, with the other half spread out over the rest of the year. In the Bunesliga 52 youth players were born in the same first three months of the year.

What could account for this anomaly you ask? Well here are a few of my guesses: a) certain astrological signs make superior football players; b) winter-born babies tend to have a higher oxygen capacity, which increases stamina; c) football fanatic parents are more likely to conceive children in spring, at the annual peak of football fever; or d) none of the above.

After a lot of thought, I have opted to believe in d) none of the above. And would like to ask an important and primordial question: When someone is very good at something, what is it that actually makes them good?

I remember reading a research paper, maybe some 15 years ago, about an experiment that involved memory: it involved training a person to hear and then repeat a completely random series of numbers. With the first person, after about 30 hours of training, their numbers they could recall had risen from 5 to 18. They kept improving, and after about 250 hours of training they had risen to recall over 95 numbers.

This success, coupled with later research showing that memory itself is not genetically determined, led to the conclusion that the act of memorising is more cognitive than intuitive. In other words, whatever the innate differences two people may have in their abilities to memorise things, those differences are overrun by how well each person encodes the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information is a process known as deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice requires more than simple repetition of a task — kicking a free kick a 1000 times, for instance, or hitting squash serves until your shoulder pops right out of its socket. Instead, it is a process that involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on the technique as on the outcome.

So I took to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including business, sales, football, golf, scrabble, writing, chess, stock picking and snooker. I gathered all the data I could find, on performance statistics and biographies of people.

The research suggests a further important point: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should choose what you love — because if you don’t, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it. Most people subconsciously don’t like to do things they aren’t very good at. So they give up, telling themselves that they don’t possess the talent for sales or rowing or chess. But what they really lack is the desire to become good at it and to undertake the deliberate practice that it would take to make them better.

So to conclude, I would like to make an assertion: the trait we commonly refer to as talent is overrated. Or, to put it another way, expert performers, whether in memory or sales, football or maths are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice really does make perfect.

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