Great Discussion About What Talent Means

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I was really excited to visit the Bay Area for several days last week. I attended a wedding where my dear friend and former doubles partner (we finished third place at the US Open in 2009) and Olympian, Jackie Lee, just got married to Jonathan Nielson.

Jonathan and Jackie have an amazing story. They met in Denmark in 2008 while Jackie was playing table tennis professionally. Jonathan was playing during that time as well. They only spent two months together in the same city and managed to keep a long distance relationship going for three and a half years. They made it! They overcame many challenges inherent in a long distance relationship. They are an inspirational couple and a strong team that can achieve whatever they want together.

During their wedding, I met Matilda Ekholm again. She is a very good friend of Jackie’s, a pro table tennis player from Sweden, and currently ranked 67th in the world. We had a match back in 1999 at the European Championship and we haven’t seen each other since then. 15 years! Matilda remembered me, since I had the victory over her in our match ;). During our conversation, she shared how she how her performance peaked at a later age than other players. It was really nice to catch up with her and reminisce our childhood memories during the time we competed against each other.

Also in attendance were Sean O’Neil, Jackie’s former coach, Director of Communications for USA Table Tennis and USA Paralympic Table Tennis and Avi Schmidt, the head coach and founder of the Alameda Table Tennis Club. The three of us had a great discussion about the subject of talent. The question was raised: which matters most to become an elite table tennis player, talent or personality traits?

Sean stated, “As a coach I focus on gritty skill sets, talent is useless and often counter productive.” Sean looks for certain personality traits and the first thing that he does with a potential student is to sit down with him/her and with the parents for 1.5 hours to discuss the student’s motivation and to see the larger picture.

Avi saw it a bit differently and wasn’t that extreme. He stated, “Yes, personality traits matters but you need some hand eye coordination skills as well”.

I believe that everything starts with a coach or teacher because it has a huge impact on a kid’s life. When coaching sports for kids in their early childhood we educate them not just about the sport, but also building up their character as well. Kids can learn so many different skills through sports and most importantly how to have grit.

My first coach was all about having fun and he was really cheerful. In my opinion the most important thing when we start teaching a young kid is to have fun and make her/him love the sport. Then we can focus on techniques and teaching discipline. I believe that we need a motivated a kid to create the appropriate circumstances to empower and to bring out his/her best. This can only be accomplished if we cooperatively work together with the parents.

We all concluded that personality traits, parents and practice hours matters the most.

Here are some of the takeaways from the conversation:

  • Talent doesn’t really exist, we have to put 10,000 hours in everything if we want to be exceptional
  • Focus on the fun part when we start teaching a really young kid
  • Motivation and passion matter the most in the long run
  • Working with the parents is very crucial, be on the same page. Understanding cultural differences is very important.
  • Create an optimal motivation climate that empowers the athlete and matches the player’s personality. Everybody is different and different personalities react differently to the same situations. This is driven by personal history, temperament and cultural differences.

Great books to read on the topic:

Share your comments and email me if you have any questions. Also, read my new book about how to handle high level pressure situations in table tennis and develop life style choices to achieve peak performance in table tennis! Be a Champ For Life!

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3 Responses to Great Discussion About What Talent Means

  1. Sean O'Neill May 28, 2014 at 12:27 pm #


    It was a great evening celebrating Jackie and Jonathan wedding! It was fun discussion with you and Avi. I will say my biggest issue with the talent debate is how people define talent. It seems to me each time they bestow the title on some kid all they are doing is pointing out a successful skill set that has been learned or nurtured often outside of the sport. A well rounded athlete will do well in table tennis for sure. I look at Kanak Jha as an example, but don’t tell me he has a natural footwork when I know he has played countless hours of soccer from the time he could walk. Often we must look a little deeper than just the current framework to understand the whys?

    Another misconception of the 10,0000 hour rule is that if you do 10,000 hours you will be the best, not true. For most at 10,0000 hours in an international sport that gets you to the starting line. Desire, Courage, Creativity, Persistence and other winning traits can all be the fuel to win the next match which will create the confidence to continue to drive on in the face of adversity. Also the 10,000 hours don’t have to be all sport-specific as you are trying to amass traits of a winner not pure repetition. As a full-time coach I am light years ahead of where I was as a player and each new student teaches me something new.

  2. Dora Kurimay May 28, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    Thanks Sean for your great insight! There are so many layers and perspectives to approach this subject.

  3. DR.SOMSHANKAR CHATTERJEE June 3, 2014 at 5:43 am #


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