Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Talent is overrated

Had the chance to get through most of Geoff Colvin's book "Talent is Overrated" this weekend. One section is particularly relevant for players and coaches.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

Jerry Rice was the greatest receiver in NFL history, and some football authorities believe he may have been the greatest player at any position. His utter dominance is hard to believe in a league where the competition is so intense and conducted at such a high level.

For example, the records he holds for total receptions, total touchdown receptions, and total receiving yards are greater than the second-place totals not by 5 percent or 10 percent, which would be impressive, but by about 50 percent.

What made Rice so good?

With regard to most players, that kind of question usually guarantees an argument among sports fans, but in Rice's case the answer is completely noncontroversial.

Everyone in the football world seems to agree that Rice was the greatest because he worked harder in practice and in the off-season than anyone else.

In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers will trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home.

Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part.

In the afternoons, he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of them got sick before the day was over.

Occasionally, someone would write to the 49ers' trainer asking for the details of Rice's workout, but the trainer never released the information out of fear that people would hurt themselves trying to duplicate it.

The lesson that's easiest to draw from Jerry Rice's story is that hard work makes all the difference. Yet we know -- from research and from just looking around us -- that hard work often doesn't lead to extraordinary performance.

We also know that even after an excellent college career, Rice did not possess outstanding speed, a quality that coaches generally consider mandatory in a great receiver.

So there must be something else lurking in Rice's story.

There is. Note several relevant points:

1. He spent very little time playing football.

Of all the work Rice did to make himself a great player, practically none of it was playing football games. His independent off-season workouts consisted of conditioning, and his team workouts were classroom study, reviewing game films, conditioning, and lots of work with other players on specific plays.

But the 49ers and eventually the other teams for which Rice played almost never ran full-contact scrimmages because they didn't want to risk injuring players. That means that of the total time Rice spent acutally playing the game for which he became famous, nearly all of it was in the weekly games themselves.

Of course, it's true that all NFL players devote most of their work-related time to nongame activities. In the case of Rice, one of the greatest players, the ratio was even more extreme.

2. He designed his practice to work on his specific needs.

Rice didn't need to do everything well, just certain things. He had to run precise patterns; he had to evade the defenders, soemetimes two or three, who were assigned to cover him; he had to outjump them to catch the ball and outmuscle them when they tried to strip it away; then he had to outrun tacklers.

So he focused his practice work on exactly those requirements. Not being the fastest receiver in the league turned out not to matter.

3. While supported by others, he did much of the work on his own.

The football season lasts less than half the year. A team sport obviously requires that the players work together a great deal yet most of Rice's work was in the off-season. He had the important advice of coaches and trainers, but he did most of his football-related work by himself.

4. It wasn't fun.

There's nothing enjoyable about running to the point of exhaustion or lifting weights to the point of muscle failure. But there were centrally important activities.

5. He defied the conventional limits of age.

The average NFL player leaves the league in his twenties; playing at age thirty-five is an unusual achievement. Wide receivers, who run like hell on most plays and frequently get crushed by tacklers, aren't supposed to last twenty seasons or play until age forty-two. None but Rice has ever done so.