What is Talent?

I’ve had a lot of time to think – and occasionally talk (more than to just myself) – during the long miles of my recent training escapades. I have been riding with many of the same old stagers that have kept up company during many Ironman campaigns since 1999 (Damien Angus, Laurence Basell, Charlie Bottero) and some new faces (Chris Papakostas, Daniel Quin and Dan Podbury) providing colour and spice to old ingredients. Most of the conversations haven’t been groundbreaking (usually due to the exercise intensity), but sometimes they did get pithy. It’s a lot like Reality TV; you have to watch a lot of mundanities to get some gold!

Dr Dan Quin is a sport (and general) psychologist who coincidentally works at my clinic – he also happens to be my brother-in-law and a former elite runner (sub 30-minute 10 kilometre track PB). We first chatted in Lismore in 1994, when we both competed in the University Games discipline of cross-country running. And in case you’re wondering, yes, he towelled me up. Dan is a good provider of gold (vs. mundanity)! We agree too much, which isn’t my peak mode of conversing. I don’t mind getting the blood up and doing some barking to really agitate the ides… but Dan wouldn’t stand for that. So, we agreed about lots of elements of talent. Here is what we came up with.

The prism of our hypotheses is my current pursuit of the world 24-hour cycling record. As I have stated before, I don’t believe I could have undertaken these attempts (12 or 24) as a 20 nor 30-year-old athlete. Irrespective of my physical improvements elicited by years of training and performance execution over the last 25 years, I simply didn’t have the necessary psychological weaponry (maturity) to tackle the superimposition of the psychological battle over the exhausting time span. So, what’s more crucial: the motor or the grey matter running it? Truth be told, it’s both.

What’s in the box?
Having a Frodeno or Ryf level of talent is rare. They have both the physiological make-up matched with the psychological brutality to harness what they possess. But each of these talent manifestations is an analogue scale, made up of many different cogs. It’s not just off and on. There needs to be a combination of urge and ability. For instance, a necessary ‘brake’ on training is crucial for self-preservation (injury prevention and stacking), so the talent of being able to push has limits. That same brake can limit race day performance if self-preservation over-rides performance authority.

Splitting talent into its composite parts is a useful way to identify weaknesses, but probably not indicative of overall ‘talent’. Similar to any discipline in triathlon, it’s worth isolating swim, bike and run and working on each leg as a way to improve your overall performance. Being a great swimmer is no way to win a triathlon if you can’t ride or run at a commensurate level. But a great swim and run may (and probably will) get you there! So, mixtures of various talents are required for excelling, regulating and optimising your own performance.

Psychology vs. physiological
There’s a clear demarcation in conversations about talent and if you live in Victoria and follow AFL, you will completely understand when I ask who the better player is: Gary Ablett Senior or Junior? Senior played the most exceptional brand of football and had the skills, leap and big day performance to outshine any other player. In contrast, his son has dominated his own generation but won three premiership and Brownlow medals as a team player. So, while my heart says Senior, my head says Junior. And it’s his combination of talent that sets him above his father. In the team game, your ability to lift and involve others should be commensurate with your own expose of panache. So, relating this to triathlon, the ability to use your physical talents over a range of different skills is crucial. You must learn and adapt swimming technique in open water, nutrition, pacing, and equipment malfunction just to name a few.

Even in a more basic sense, if you have a huge aerobic ability but can’t harness it with a high pain threshold, you won’t be able to get the most of your genetic blessing because you have missed on another. Most weigh physical talents far higher than grit, even though each relies on the other to carry the body forward.

Mitch’s 12hour cycling record: Mitch contests that he simply didn’t have the ‘box of tricks’ in his earlier days to attempt such a feat.


Demonstrating impulse control is a key aspect of psychological talent. Impulse control is the ability to resist an urge or temptation. Indeed training is the ultimate exhibition of delayed gratification, regulated by impulse control. If you can hold back (in the case of over trainers) or ignore feelings of wanting to stop (in under trainers), then chances are you can get the intensity and duration at an optimum level to prepare for racing. Let me illustrate with an example.

A group of runners, who all did long runs and efforts together, had one of their members run a stratospheric marathon time, which caused both congratulations and some excitement amongst the best runners in the gang. “If he can do that, then surely I can run a similar time …” came the hushed response from a few in the group. One of the best of the group could run amazing training sessions that didn’t quite match with his race times. Was he destined for greatness or was he leaving it all out on the track? Probably the latter. The ability to pace according to feel is a vital aspect of performance in training and therefore racing. If you can’t hold back in the former, what chance is there you will get it right, on race day?

Regulating body weight and composition also relies partly on impulse control. Some people are just lucky and have their limbs and torso match their chosen sporting pursuits, but for others, willpower is involved. There are some factors like genetics, basal metabolic rate, socioeconomics, and somatotype, but your ability to self-regulate caloric intake is largely reflected by your body shape. While training will help morph and sculpt the human body … it’s a talent in itself to modulate energy intake and allow the hum an body to deform with training – rather than deform because of the calories.

In the end, there are a huge number of factors building up the talented athlete. Looking forward to hearing your ideas on the next long ride …


Mitch Anderson

Dr. Mitch Anderson is one of the premier sports doctors in Melbourne working out his practice Shinbone Medical in North Melbourne. The former professional triathlete is your go-to triathlon doctor.

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