It Takes More Than Talent

Talent without long and focused work will yield exactly the same result as no talent at all.

(Source: Bev Childress)

Weightlifting talent is not rare. When I first started to coach weightlifting, back when I still had plenty of hair on my head and none on my back, I thought physically talented weightlifters were as uncommon as rubies. We called them “freaks,” but in a good way. They were outliers, those humans on the far-right side of the bell curve of population distribution, a couple of standard deviations or more away from everyday humans. A coach’s dream. Coach Bob Takano calls them “genius makers,” for their tendency to make any coach look brilliant.

But after almost twenty years of coaching, I realize just how much potential has walked through my gym doors that never amounted to anything. Freakish physical ability and five dollars will get you a coffee at Starbucks. Talent without long and focused work gets you the same result as no talent.

I’ve coached a couple dozen freaks. Only a tiny handful fulfilled most of their potential. As frustrating as it was for them, it was doubly frustrating for me. I am constantly trying to figure out how I can get these athletes to be as good as they should be. To that end, here is some advice for those lifters with freakish physical ability—and really, you know who you are—who could one day be on a World or Olympic team, if they can get out of their own way.

You Are Talented, Not Supernatural

First, realize you are not special. In your small world growing up, you were always one of, if not the, fastest, strongest, and quickest. You picked up new skills easier than your peers. You may have come to think of yourself as different, and that winning was just a normal part of your life. But know right now that there are millions just like you. Just as gifted. Many even more so. If you want to continue to succeed, you’ll have to go through all of the same long, hard work, surmount the same obstacles (perhaps more of them), and have the same luck with injuries as an athlete of average abilities. You’ll just end up having a shot to win Nationals, rather than simply qualifying to lift there.

You will not reach your potential any sooner than an average athlete. Greater ability means you’ll finish higher at the end of your career than the average athlete, but it will take you just as much time to fulfill your potential as it does everyone else. I was told this early on, but it took a while to sink in: it will take you five years to learn how to lift, and another five to ten to see what you can lift. From the day you first snatch an empty bar, count on at least ten years to see what your real potential is. That is true for a hardgainer whose upper limit is a 250kg total, or the perfectly-built natural who has a chance to total 400kg. Time in the sport matters, no matter how much talent you have.

Manage Those Expectations

Stop comparing yourself to the best in the country or the world. Emulate success, try to copy it, but stop making direct comparisons between you and the very best. I’ve had athletes whose frustration boiled over because they didn’t feel they were competitive with the top of their class after three years. Three years of training seems like a long time, but not when you compare yourself to a lifter who has been training for 10-12 years. A little perspective goes a long way. If it took the gold medalist at Nationals 12 years to get there, stop thinking you don’t have the right coach, the right situation, the right genetics, or that they are on drugs because you aren’t going lift-for-lift with them after three years.

This cannot be said enough: time in the sport matters.

Unreasonable expectations can end your career. These have led to the psychological crumbling of many a fine athlete. Expectations are to be distinguished from goals. Goals are healthy. If you know where you want to go, it is easier to find the right path. Wanting to get on the podium at Nationals is a goal. Wanting to get there in two or three years is unreasonable, even absurd. Here is a short, but hardly complete, list of unreasonable expectations:

No Bad Days

Continued progress is a function of many factors, but one of the most important is accumulation of training over time. That means shitty workouts with too many misses add to the total volume of work as much as the good days with personal records. Every single Olympic gold medalist has had a lengthy catalog of bad training days. You will have them, too.

Steady, Linear Progress

Beginners hit a lot of PRs, especially if they have a coach who teaches technique well. That PR train makes a lot more stops as you reach the intermediate phase of your career. Personal records that came weekly start coming monthly, then every three months. The truly advanced elite lifter may train for a year to put five or six kilos on their total. This is normal and standard for freaks and mortals alike.

The Star Treatment

Don’t expect coaches and teammates to accept and excuse your tantrums when you have a bad day. That hole punched in the drywall or thrown chair are not part of your “intensity” and “competitiveness” as a high-level talent. It’s just self-absorbed and inconsiderate. Training schedules will not be changed to fit your schedule. Your coach will not make special trips to the gym if you can’t make the usual team training time. Put that shit out of your head right now. I can say, without qualification, I’d rather coach poor to average athletes exclusively for the rest of my career rather than put up with a freakishly talented athlete who thinks social and competitive norms don’t apply to them.

Shut Up and Do the Work

Stay coachable. Every athlete thinks they are coachable. However, if you find yourself debating your coach’s programming or making changes on your own, you are not coachable. If your coach sees you having a bad day and tells you to stop, but you keep making attempts, you are not coachable. If you scour the internet looking for programs or new exercises to bring to your coach, assuming she doesn’t know this stuff, you are not coachable. Bringing your two years of hard-won weightlifting expertise to your coach and acting like you are peers is not being coachable. But it is pretty damn disrespectful of someone who likely has twenty or more years in the sport.

Here is what I recommend: shut up and do exactly what your coach tells you to do. Ask questions, sure, but only to clarify what your coach has told you. Then do that. For at least two years. After that, you may have earned the right to discuss your training plan and offer ideas. This sport has likely been your coach’s passion for two or more decades. That has earned them your attention and effort. Just do what they tell you to do and see where it takes you.

Any good coach wants as much information as possible about your condition day-to-day and how your life and habits outside the gym may impact your progress. But I have found this to be stone-cold fact: an average coach to whom you have completely committed and in whose abilities you have faith will take you much further than a great coach you constantly question and doubt.

Weightlifting talent is not special or rare. What is rare is a physically gifted athlete who is coachable, consistent, hardworking, and able to properly handle the inevitable setbacks and frustrations of a long athletic career. That doesn’t guarantee national championships and a spot on an Olympic team, but I can guarantee that without those qualities, the only weightlifting medals you’ll ever earn will be at local meets.

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