Learning New Lessons About Talent


Pop quiz: Watching the most talented athlete in the NBA fail on the big stage after he spit in your face was:

  1. Ironic
  2. Tragic
  3. Hilarious
  4. None, this is a trick question

Besides being hilarious obviously, maybe the answer is also #4, a trick question, because we’ve become accustomed to defining talent as solely the physical characteristics an athlete is born with. Maybe there is more to it than that.

“His God given talent,” we often say, which has nothing to do with his wits.

In football we say, “talent wins games,” which really means: the New York Jets have more game changing athletes physically, so they will beat the Browns who have less athletic roll players.

True, physical talent alone can often determine who wins (the Jets defeated the Browns 26-20 last year), but if you watched the 2011 NBA Finals you learned a new lesson about talent.

Webster’s defines* talent as:

a : a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude
b : general intelligence or mental power : ability

What do you know, mental power counts too! And after watching LeBron James poop himself again, I think we would all agree that referring to talent as just physical ability seems suddenly outdated.

I mean if your mental weakness submarines your physical strengths, are you really talented overall? If the point is to win, and you lose, how can you be more talented than the guy who beats you?

How interesting then, that we would leave the 2011 NBA Finals on that lesson and move over (hopefully) to an NFL season where Colt McCoy will be the Browns starting quarterback. His physical talents are perceived to be limited, while his mental talents are perceived to be great.

Suddenly the latter seems awfully important.

During the draft the Browns passed on the obvious physical talent in Julio Jones to add extra picks and depth. Is there a lesson to be learned here two or three years down the road? **

With that, the foundation players the Browns drafted instead (Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, and Greg Little) all come to town character concerns. *** Do the Browns value the mental makeup they see in these guys?

Will Little, Jordan Cameron, and Owen Marecic, be able to learn new positions at the NFL level?

Either way that’s a lot of question marks, and that’s what makes the division of mental and physical talents so interesting.

With physical talent, it’s there, you can see it. You can’t teach it, you either have it or you don’t. Mental talent is more ambiguous, more rare, more attractive. It can enhance physical strength.

We also believe we can control mental power, like it can be acquired over time while physical strength diminishes over time. That’s why under the old physical-specific definition, an athlete can waste their talent. Mental shortcomings are perceivably correctable.

The hard part is being 6’8”, 250 lbs; you don’t have control over your genetics. But in theory anyone could improve their mental game to get the most out of their physical game; that’s the easy part.

JaMarcus Russell was a waste of talent because he refused to study and stop eating Twinkies. Pacman Jones is a waste of talent because of his affinity for strippers and breaking the law. LeBron James is a waste of talent because he refuses to learn how to play in the post. We assume they could turn these things around if they just tried.

But maybe these new lessons about talent are teaching us this is actually impossible. If LeBron had mental strength, wouldn’t we have seen it by now? Didn’t we see Tom Brady’s right away? Maybe it takes special skills to overcome your faults. Maybe we learn this earlier as opposed to later. Maybe not as many athletes learn to be clutch over time as we think.

With that, isn’t the door open for the Browns to be more talented than we think?

Colt McCoy was a rookie last year, he’s just been given the chance to lead this year. We’ve all seen that Joe Haden has character too. Ahtyba Rubin came out of nowhere to become a good 3-4 nose tackle, maybe he learns to play the 4-3 just as easily. All the Browns draft picks could turn out to be solid guys who get the most out of their potential.

All I am saying is, mental ability makes a difference too, so maybe the Browns can be better than we think.

Maybe this year Colt McCoy teaches us a new lesson about talent…

*I understand beginning a sentence with the phrase “Webster’s defines” is usually a prelude to the most boring presentation ever. Sorry.

** Everyone pretty much agrees trading down was prudent, but you get the feeling they need to draft an athletic gem with their extra first round pick, so doesn’t it all even out?

*** Taylor got kicked out of Penn State for fighting, Sheard threw a guy through a window in a fight, Little was suspended for a whole season for receiving improper benefits. Sheesh.