As with any approach to having an open mind, I have to consider both sides of this argument. It has always been fascinating to me that people will develop general overviews of something that they only possess a fraction of information about. I'm going to deconstruct my personal information about this, then make a conclusion based on just three sources.
I started my slalom career around the age of fifteen. As in, I got in a slalom boat for the first time. When I was around seventeen (practising slalom for two years by this point, around 600 hours), I was told by a performance coach that I 'didn't have a natural feel for the water, so we're going to have to do some extra work on technique. It will be more difficult for you, because you aren't very good at reading water.' So I now think I can conclude from that expert statement that 600 hours of water time, elevates an athlete from novice, to beginner.
At around the age of 19 (practising slalom for four years by this point. I also began training full time at the age of 18. So I can estimate the practise time at around 1500 hours), I was told that I had very good fitness and strength, but again had not developed 'consistent technique because you train hard, not smart'. Now I can see the benefit of keeping a training diary, because I'd like to be able to say how many hours of training had been overseen by a coach. But I didn't, so I'm going to make a generous estimation that around half of my time on the water had been guided. I will conclude from this section that around 1500 hours of practise elevate an athlete from beginner to slightly more experienced beginner.
At the age of 22 (practising slalom for seven years, training full time for four years. I'd estimate around 5000 hours of water time by this point) I put down one of the best full runs of my life as a forerunner for the 2015 World Championships in London. I was commended by British senior team athletes (and a few others as well!) for having displayed consistent technique (after several practise runs on that course - which is not common practise for racing!). A coach, at this point, referenced me as 'talented'. So I would like to speculate that 5000 hours of practise elevates an athlete to intermediate level.
I'm trying to be as objective as possible here, because while slalom is an extremely dynamic, unpredictable sport, there are trends in improvement and mental development that are consistent with the amount of time an athlete has spent being guided through the processes of technique and mental approach. I also think that variety of training and being away from 'comfort zones' - not in the conventional sense of pushing hard, but altering routines and feedback systems, is important. I have never been to two races that have been laid out in exactly the same way, and so the physical environmental factors cannot be analysed in the context of peak performance.
Now I'm 24, and based on my quality hours of coached water time, I would say as an athlete I am elevated towards advanced/professional level. I often get referred to as 'talented' by people without previous knowledge of my background or racing experience. The reason I find this interesting is that the 'audience' of canoe slalom gets regular opportunities to observe and judge singular racing performances. We don't often get opportunities to see other athletes in the most critical, exciting parts of their development - everyday training. In the same way we never get to see the amount of hours that get put into mental preparation, and developing concentration endurance.
The three sources I can relate to in this discussion are 1. myself, as a professional athlete. 2. Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practise by Matthew Syed. 3. The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success by David Epstein. The two books are, in general, opposing sets of research as to the word 'talent' in high performance sports. Both reach a similar conclusion; with measurable factors of physiology, hours of practise, and ability to learn techniques, and less measurable factors of mental attitude and capacity, innate understanding and previous experience in similar environments, sports success can be predicted and measured.
Now I can (sort of, sorry!) get to the point. I'm not really writing this as an autobiography of my experience in slalom. I wouldn't change the way I've gotten to where I am, because I've learnt so much and developed so much high quality experience that it would be unjust to say otherwise.
I want to throw this discussion into the open, because there is a misconception by young athletes that there is a pre-determined rule of how much they can achieve. I want to say, that there is no such thing. If anyone says 'not talented', they aren't making a statement about you. They are displaying the amount of opportunities they've had to observe you. It is so very important that you understand that to take full responsibility for your training, you have to do just that. It has never been about what other people think. Your coach (if you have one) is an incredibly important part of your life. But only you know how hard you have worked in every hour you've been on the water. Were you concentrating for the whole loops session? Or were you too tired to think, and let your body go into 'auto-pilot'?
At this stage I would say role models are incredibly important. It's far too easy to neglect this with an attitude of 'oh well they live here, and have this coach, or this team...' instead, athletes have to consider the amount of focus that has gone into the sessions, every day, for that athlete's life. There are no anomalies - just normal people who have worked exceptionally hard. Ability to concentrate is also something I believe is not innate. I believe it also comes down to hours of practise. Having a 'poor memory' or 'short attention span' is learned in the athlete's environment. Taking responsibility for this incredibly important part of development, looks a lot like removing those preconceptions, and identifying ways for you to practise something you know you could be better at. Because mental health and development are under-supported in modern sports, it can be tricky to find the right pathway for yourself to exercise this kind of practise. But that's what I mean by taking responsibility. You really, really want this!
It's very easy in a blog to project my opinions as facts, but in reality they are my own thoughts. I understand the thousands of approaches to this discussion - and I love hearing about all of them! So in a slightly unusual conclusion, I would like to invite further discussion with myself and within the slalom community about this stuff!
I know it's cold up here, but it's still the most beautiful sport in the world! X