The Mundanity of Excellence (2): demystifying talent

The Mundanity of Excellence is a 1989 paper by sociologist Daniel Chambliss. In it he draws on his ethnographic research among elite swimmers – and his wider experiences as a swimming coach – to explore the meaning and causes of excellence, and particularly to question the role (indeed, the existence) that talent plays in outstanding performance.

… I am suggesting that athletic excellence is widely attainable, if usually unsought. Many people – let us say, hundreds of thousands in the U.S. – have the physical wherewithal to belong to the Olympic class. While there may be an “entry level” of physical characteristics necessary for Olympic performance, that level may be quite low, and in any case is not measurable…

Talent is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athetic success… but talent fails as an explanation… on conceptual grounds. It mystifies excellence, subsuming a complex set of discrete actions behind a single undifferentiated concept… Such factors [like living in a favourable location for a sport; fairly high family income; height, weight and proportions; the luck or choice of having a good coach] are clearly definable, and their effects can be clearly demonstrated. To subsume all of them – willy-nilly – under the rubric of “talent” obscures rather than illuminates the sources of athletic excellence.

Say, for instance, that one day I turn to the television set and there witness a magnificent performance by Scott Hamilton. What I see is grace and power and skill all flowing together, seemingly without effort: a single moving picture, rapid and sure, far beyond what I could do. … “His skating,” I may say, referring to his actions as a single thing, “is spectacular.” … Perhaps, with concentration, Hamilton himself can feel the details in his movements; certainly a great coach can see them … but to me, the performance is a thing entire.

Afterwards, my friends and I sit and talk about Hamilton’s life as a “career of excellence,” or as showing “incredible dedication,” “tremenous motivation” – again, as if his excellence, his dedication, his motivation exist all-at-once. His excellence becomes a thing inside of him which he periodically reveals to us, which comes out now and then; his life and habits become reified. “Talent,” is merely the word we use for this reification.

But that is no explanation of success. Talent is indistinguishable from its effects. One cannot see that talent exists until after its effects become obvious.

Kalinowski’s research on Olympic swimmers demonstrates this clearly:

“One of the more startling discoveries of our research has been that it takes a while to recognize swimming talent. Indeed, it usually takes being successful at a regional level, and more often a national level, before the child is identified as talented.”

Daniel F. Chambliss – The Mundanity of Excellence

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