What Is Talent?

Photo of Jean-Michel Saive

Jean-Michel Saive - is it talent or hard work that got him to the top and kept him there? (Personally, I think it's the shorts!)

Photo by: Mariann Domonkos, courtesy www.ittf.com

How many times have you heard other table tennis players saying that a fellow player has heaps of talent for the game? Or read on a forum that a professional table tennis like Jean-Michel Saive has no talent? Or thought to yourself that if you had Jan-Ove Waldner's talent, you would have been a better player than he is?

More than once or twice? I'm sure you have. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about talent? Are we all talking about the same thing? Or does talent mean different things to different people?

In this article, I'm going to start by stating what talent means to me. I'm then going to pose and answer a few of the questions that I've come across about talent in my 20 odd years of playing table tennis. Finally, I'll ask you, the reader, to feel free to put your own point of view across regarding your definition of talent and your own answers to the questions I have asked (or more questions as well, if you have thought of some more).

What is Talent? - Greg's Definition

So without further ado, here is Greg's Definition of Talent:

He who is on top has the most talent.

For me, that is pretty much it. At the end of the day, if you are the winner, you are the most talented overall.

Rubbish, you might be saying. I know plenty of talented players who aren't the best. They just don't work as hard as some of the other players I know.

And that is exactly my point - note that I did add that the winner is the most talented overall. For me, talent is more than just how easy you make the game look or much aptitude you have for hitting strokes - it is whether you can win. If you don't have the desire or ability to do the work to be the best, then you are missing a crucial part of your overall talent - the talent to do the hard yards and make the most of what you've got. If you are not the best, then you have got no way of proving that you have the most talent.

I've got one disclaimer to make - this is mainly talking about players with similar amounts of free time for table tennis - there is not much point taking a person working 40 hours a week to support his family and comparing him with a professional table tennis player - it's not a level comparison due to the extra training available to the professional.

What is Talent? - Other Definitions

Feel free to add your definitions of talent or other comments below for all to see (and agree with or ridicule, as the case may be!).


Saturday 5th November

Rick Anderson wrote:

Hi Greg:

Re: Your comment: "at the end of the day, if you won, then you're the most talented".

This is demonstrably false. I will give a true example to back up my position.

Last night at Bridgeport Sports Club I showed up early to hit with whomever was around. No one was, just the juniors taking up most of the tables training. I ended up playing someone who I had never met or seen before. A penhold righty. From the get-go it was quite clear who the more talented player was...me. He missed basic stokes all too often and I put the ball right to his fh power zone every time...just to help keep the rally going. Just like any player who is completely outmatched...the other guy controls pretty much every rally...extending it or finishing it...at will. To my surprise, this gentleman asked me if I wanted to play a few games. I didn't really see the point, considering the obvious difference in our skill level/talent. I agreed to play however but we didnt agree ahead of time how many games were to constitute a match. During the first game I easily went up 8-2 and thought that this was like shooting fish in a barrel so I made a decision to let up and let him hit on me to make it closer. The score went to 8-4. I THEN decided what my personal goal was going to be in regards to this match at this moment. I suggested that we play "first to win five"....and he agreed.

My goal (which I did not share with my opponent) was to lose the first 4 games...yet be within two points and then to win the next 5 in a row...beating him by a margin of 2 pts each time AND to do all this without him saying something to the effect: "you're not trying". So, as part of the goal..I had to convince him that ALL scores were legit.

He went on to win the next 4 games (read: I controlled the entire 4 games and let him win by an exact margin of two points on every single one of his *wins*). I then told him discreetly that I would win the next 5 and that he had better "jaap jone ging sun"..."pay attention and focus"...I went on to win the next 4 by an exact margin of two points. In the final game (game #9) he was up 10-9 and smashed a ball to my backhand....and almost made the shot for the win. I had accidently given him a freebee set up and should have paid the price...but I got lucky..as his clear winner sailed a shade long. I buckled down and finished it out 12-10....winning the match 5-4..achieving a goal that only I knew about.

Now, my question to you is: Do you really think that if he had landed that one shot at 10-9 in the 9'th and won the match that he was therefore the more talented player?

Rick Anderson

Greg replied:

Hi Rick,

You make an interesting argument - but to answer your question - I think your example still bears out my basic definition at the start of the article - 'He who is on top has the most talent.'

Sure, I am coming from the point of view that you would want to win - but even with your example I still think the basic definition is not far off. Weren't you the player on top? Didn't you control the match pretty much how you wanted? We only have your say so that that was what you intended (not that I'm arguing), so I still think winning the match is the easiest way to measure results, but assuming you are correct that you were directing play then you were the player on top - and thus the most talented. In this particular case the result is not the best measure - but I'm not sure what would be a better one!




+1 #1 RE: What Is Talent?mathias andersen 2012-05-31 03:08
I can see what you mean, but i dont agree. To me, being talented and being the best isnt the same. to me talent means you have the ability to improve your ability faster than the average person, and nothing else than that. You dont need to be the most talented to be the best, is what i...
0 #2 RE: What Is Talent?Greg Letts 2012-05-31 03:10
True - but kind of hard to measure in concrete terms. Talent is one of those ethereal things that is hard to pin down in actual measurements and statistics, IMHO.
0 #3 RE: What Is Talent?Erwin Van Looy 2012-05-31 05:57
Both me and my brother are tabletennisplyers (he in England, me in Belgium); He got me a rather interesting gift for my birthday. he gave me a book written by Matthew Syed, a former commonwealth tabletennis champion and Olympian for England. The book was named "Bounce, the myth of talent and the power of practice".

It gave me a totally new insight in what people regard as "talent", is a wordclass performing player really talented or has he just practiced for thousands of hours. What are other aspects of being "talented".
In his opinion : talent doesn't exist. Being a good player (worldclass) just means 1) thousands hours of meaningfull practice 2) the right circumstances (venues, trainers, parents,...) 3) intrinsic motivation and many more. Not just talent.

me and my brother started playing tabletennis at 17 and immediately were discribed as "talented for the game". They had never seen two guys who had never played competitive tabletennis, play so fluent.

What they didn't know, was that we had a tabletennistable at home, both our parents played tabletennis and we played each other at home for hours and hours.
At international level, we are nothing, not even at a national level. As soon as we joined the club, our parents removed the table at home, limiting our gametime to 2 hours a week. We still play the game as "talented players" but I got to understand that talent isn't everything!

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