Thoughts on Athletic Expertise

In discussing Expertise, practice, and the myth of talent it is inevitable that someone asks if they could be the next Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. Is it possible, at their age, to drop everything and learn to be as good or greater than two of the most iconic players of our age. And they groan when I tell them yes. They stomp their feet and they clench their fists–that would explain the typographical errors. The disparity seems so distant when they compare their (self-assessed) non-existent skills with those of phenoms.

Why is it that these names are legendary?

Are they indeed Experts?!


They are freaks of nature. NO. They are unnatural.

You see, if we attribute their skills to pedestrian ideas like

interest, practice, and coaching

then what you are saying is that anyone can do it.

Well, guess what?

You can.

Unfortunately, you cannot do it the way that you read about in newspaper articles and in books written by newspaper journalists.
You have to work at it. If you want to be like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or any of other wonderful male or female athletes in the world, you need to possess (or decide to possess) the one thing that put the needle on the record for these individuals. You need to have interest.

Interest is a key component to developing a level of Expertise in a field. It is the thing that sustains you through mistakes and failures. It is also the thing, strangely enough, that goofs up the retelling of that early story of more and more practice. Why? Because when you have interest, practice does not always feel like practice. Other activities that contribute to your skills seem less of a chore when you know that you will get to enjoy the object of your affection shortly thereafter.

Hard unfortunate truths

Interest pays off, too. You see, when you are interested and the practice seems like fun and the supporting activities and decisions do not seem so bad and all the exercises come together in the moment of performance…

…bang goes the dynamite–you have gotten better and that feels really gooooooooood…

and the next time you practice, which is probably that night or early the next morning–assuming you are not practicing in your mental space while lying in bed–you cannot wait to get better again.

What will be the next great thing that appears?

When someone tells me that they’ve tried basketball or golf or singing or martial arts or visual arts or writing or whatever…
and they stink at it
and they “don’t mind admitting it

my first thought is that they are not really interested. And my advice is to find your interest and pursue it.

Find that thing that feels like nothing at all and do that

…do that really well.

And often.


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  • I don’t think any serious scientist debates that an extended period of training is required to become an expert – the sticking point is whether training is enough. Despite a lot of rhetoric there have been no appropriately designed studies to examine this claim. Even Chase and Ericsson’s study of SF, which offers some of the strongest evidence, should be seen as the starting point for similar studies across a range of domains, but these haven’t happened. Moreover, the notion of ‘genetic equivalency’ – the notion that everyone has the raw material to become as skilled as anyone else – doesn’t make sense with basic evolutionary theory which is grounded in the need for genetic variation in a population to ensure continued evolution of the species.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    You make a great point. There are many journalists who would suggest that there is one thing that you could be done to attain Expertise–I do not think that anyone (with sense) is arguing that training alone is sufficient. There are many issues with that type of approach. Most compelling is that when discussing Expertise, competence seems inadequate, which is untrue. Most (lower case) experts we know are competent and that is plenty. Regarding genetics, we have to look at how this plays into the system of values within a group of people to encourage interests–when basic physical attributes are in conflict with interest, Expertise could be jeopardized or could become a ‘tale for the ages.’ I look forward to our dialogue and your input on the subject. When this series of articles is complete, it is my hope to have compiled an easy-to-understand rebuttal to some of the misconceptions that have been propagated in the media. In the coming weeks, I will be exploring the steps that come after interest has been established. Thanks!

  • Seems like we’re on the same page for the most part. I’m still a little irritated with most of the popular press interpretations of the state of expertise research and it reinforces to me the need for the scientific community to take a larger role in interpreting science for the masses. I’m not sure what your thoughts are on this, and I’m sure it won’t be a task the scientific community would relish (where the journal article is king), but it would prevent the overly simplistic (mis)interpretations of the research. Hopefully the sort of dialogue your starting here will make its way into the mainstream discussion.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    We are. You are spot on regarding the misinformation that abounds. I am sickened by journalists who report on their version of science and do not have the same standards for reporting. There is a need for dissemination of accurate science and that is where Social Media such as twitter and blogs can have a great impact. I would enjoy talking more about this subject. I have a few colleagues who have interest in Athletic Expertise and you are an ally. Thanks for the discussion.

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