Suprise – Success Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Many ‘successful’ people who break through and start making seven or eight-figure salaries abide by the mantra that “it took me ten years to become an overnight success.” Athletes and coaches are not immune to the perception of naturally talented trumping honed skills.

Sure, these individuals seemingly sprung up overnight. But rare is it that they got rich quick. Before they became superstars, they had to focus on honing an incredibly specified skill set over time. They did so by creating a unique formula that worked for them.

That myth of overnight success is very similar to misconceptions about talent in sports.

The Myth of Talent

Talent on its own only gets you so far. “Naturally talented” athletes learned how to work smart over time.

long term athletic development
Gulbin, Jason & Weissensteiner, Juanita & Oldenziel, Karen & Gagné, Françoys. (2013). Patterns of performance development in elite athletes. European journal of sport science. 13. 605-614. 10.1080/17461391.2012.756542.

Individuals like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are undoubtedly tremendous athletes. Still, if they didn’t have the ethic and focus on honing their own winning formula, those gifts would mean nothing. In Range – David Epstein describes both men growing up in two drastically different scenarios under the guise of ‘naturally talented’.



Tiger emerged early on as a precocious prodigy with a roadmap to success from his father. Roger found his stride closer to his teenage years with support from his family.

His story is completely different than mine. Even as a kid his goal was to break the record for winning the most majors. I was just dreaming of just once meeting Boris Becker or being able to play at Wimbledon some time.

Roger Federer – The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection

A Story of Sensitivity vs Specificity

For some more perspective, let’s talk about NBA superstar and resident curmudgeon, Kevin Durant.

When he was drafted, this behemoth of a 7-footer couldn’t even bench-press 185 lbs. Not to say that’s an incredibly lightweight, but we tend to have certain expectations of top athletes.

Guess what? Durant’s measly bench-press numbers didn’t stop him from getting drafted no. 2 overall. Perhaps the bench press is not directly related to specific basketball performance, much like Brady’s 40 is nearly irrelevant to being a pocket quarterback.

For one thing, at his height and with such a monstrous wingspan, his center of gravity would work against him while bench-pressing. Plus, chest muscles and pushing power mean virtually nothing in the NBA, where explosiveness, leg strength, and various plyometric movements are of a far higher priority. And he possessed those attributes in spades.

Also, when last checked, a basketball didn’t weigh 185 lbs.

The Specificity Principle of Training

The correct term for the way professional athletes train is specificity training. You’ll notice that specific athletes generally have a frame, physique, anthropometrics catered to their sport and position.

That’s a symptom of training distinctly for the purposes of their athletic performance thats often coopted into a perception of naturally talented.

specificity of training

This specificity training might involve a combination of fitness components, such as strength, power, and endurance. While an MMA fighter my train speed and endurance, a powerlifter is going to focus strictly on strength and power, for instance.

However, these differences can be on display in the same sport. To reuse the MMA example, one fighter may focus more on endurance for long fights. While another fighter zones in on explosiveness in search of a quick knockout.

Regardless of your goals, it’s the need to specify a given skillset and combining it with the overload principle to challenge an athlete’s body and mind.

Naturally Talented vs. Acquired Skill

In the game of raw talent versus a crafted set of specified skills, the latter wins every time. Solely relying on your talent as an athlete means when your playing days are done, it’s unlikely that you’ll remain active. 

Meaning, you might fall victim to the reversibility principle—losing all the physical abilities you once had. 

Conversely, developing the good habits of specificity training will lead to a more focused approach when your playing days are just beginning, evolving into competition and eventually turning to lifetime participation.