Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University
The Tyranny of Talent: How it compels and limits athletic achievement… and why you should ignore it, written by Joe Baker and published by Aberrant Press, is the newest addition to a fairly large family of books on talent in sport. Having read several of his articles and owning a couple of his books, I was really excited to see that Baker released his new book in October 2022. With my own research being situated in the field of talent, I wanted to get my hands on this book as soon as possible.
Baker’s book The Tyranny of Talent consists of 224 pages divided into seventeen chapters (excluding the introduction) making it a relatively quick read. The title of the book is nothing less than compelling and could easily draw the attention of people outside of academia. Considering that many scholars dedicate their lives to important research but not all of us succeed in reaching those we want – or should – reach, I find this a smart move. Not only the title, but also the content of the book is written in a way that could be understood and useful to a wider audience. Participants in my own research project on the utilization of the concept of talent have stated an interest for academic talent research but critiqued that the contents were often inaccessible and usually too difficult to understand. Whether intentional or not, talent expert Joe Baker made the right move in making “everything talent” a bit more accessible to the ‘average Joe’. This is also accomplished by relatively short, yet informative chapters (10-15 pages per chapter on average).
The electronic copy of the book suffers from a few small editing errors. For instance, the table of contents does not correspond to the actual pages (e.g. chapter 10 is supposed to start on page 119 but is actually starting on page 115). Additionally, I discovered a few small spelling errors (e.g. 118) whilst reading. I’m not sure whether the printed version shares issues.
Nevertheless, a few chapters into the book, I immediately knew that The Tyranny of Talent is a book that I wished had already existed when I started my PhD back in 2020 as it provides an excellent overview of the field without being too technical. I will now discuss parts of the content from a more critical perspective.
After decades of talent research and being unable to find a common ground on its definition and essence, it might be time not just to consider the way we think about it – which, Baker argues, tends to be wrong – but instead move away from the term once and for all.
Baker writes that sport is the most prominent arena of human effort embracing the idea of talent. The early discovery and development of athletes with greater potential for success restricts how many athletes in the majority of countries have the chance to pursue their aspirations of competing at the top levels. While coaches are seen as the gatekeepers and ‘engineers’ of the best training environments, youth tend to be considered as commodities to be developed and perfected. Usually, strategies and models for early talent identification are predicated on two premises: 1) talent is real and varies from person to person and 2) we have accurate ways of assessing it. Leaning onto these premises, Baker begins his book explicitly outlining its two major objectives: 1) to persuade the reader that talent exists and 2) that our conception of talent is flawed. Throughout the book, Baker maintains that the definition of talent has to be revised. He argues that youth sport, for instance, is structured the way it is because of out-of-date notions of talent being its driving force and that a need for a balance between “sport for all” and peer comparisons may be necessary to produce and identify future champions. While I do agree, I also think that talent is just that – just another term for the peer comparison of one athlete to another that gives us some, not very complex, but some information about someone’s athletic level or skill. It does not say anything about the desired athletic goal to be achieved. In that sense, potential is probably the better term to use. Joe can have more talent compared to Leah but it only gives us information about the level Joe’s reference group (Leah). It does not give us any information about whether Joe has potential for a specific level of baseball. Throughout the book, it is noticeable that Baker continuously uses terms like ‘potential’, ‘skill’ or ‘talent’ interchangeably. I argue that the book would have benefited from a glossary or a brief discussion of reoccurring and prominent terms within the field to avoid confusion, especially since previous research continues to emphasize the struggle to establish a more universal definition of talent (e.g. Gray & Plucker, 2010; Johnston et al., 2018) and closely related concepts such as potential, aptitudes, gifts or natural abilities (see e.g. Gagné, 2000). While he does ‘untangle’ the word and concept of talent in Chapter 2 to some extent, he does not in fact untangle the term in relation to other frequently used words like, for example, potential. Nevertheless, the chapter gives an excellent overview of how the understanding of the term talent has changed over time, which is an important first step to fathom its contemporary utilization and impact.
Returning to the discussion of selection within youth sport, Baker (p.169) states that:
A philosophy of athlete development that seeks to limit any policy or practice that narrows choices during youth is all well and good, but we can’t ignore the reality that many sports have resource limitations that require them to make selections (…). This reality is hard to reconcile with the considerable evidence indicating our understanding of a player’s long-term potential can only really be clearly estimated over the long term. A twenty-first century model of talent development needs to capture the complexity of the interaction between stable and unstable factors in determining a person’s potential (…)
On the one hand, this quote is only one good example in Baker’s book highlighting that our work in the field of talent research is not done yet, especially considering a lack of long-term studies. On the other hand, this quote made me think about the more philosophical question of possibility and fairness within talent selection. Is fair talent selection naturally impossible in our culture of competitive sports? Keeping in mind that the careers of athletes tend to be rather short, especially in those sports that are hard on the body, the equation of a fair long-term approach to talent development and fast-paced short-term careers simply does not seem to add up. And while I certainly understand the want and need to predict and control the future of athletes from an economic and nationalistic perspective, and which Baker quickly touches upon in the Epilogue of the book as well: isn’t the ‘mystery of the mastery’ what makes sport so captivating and entertaining after all? Would a 100% fair and accurate prediction of sporting talent contribute to a loss of entertainment in sport? And do we really need to fix talent selection or is it time to redefine and rethink competitive sports once and for all?
Baker makes it very clear that competitive, high-level sports cannot live without some kind of decision-making considering the large number of kids wanting to become the next Messi or Serena Williams. The dilemma of having to make decisions is also discussed by Baker in Chapter 7 (p. 87) in which he states:
Coaches and scouts are aware of the negative consequences of the selection decisions they make, and undoubtedly aren’t comfortable with these decisions for many athletes, but they still need to make them.
In this chapter, Baker argues that the labels of ‘talented’ and ‘not talented’ are too simple and that current selection criteria are focusing too much on such terms. He then continues the discussion of the pro and cons such labels and certain expressions might have for athletes and coaches. While Baker is highly critical of the term, I find it interesting that at no point in this chapter, nor in his book really, he is doubting or questioning the overall usage of the term talent. This might also be connected to Baker attempting to persuade his audience that talent exists. Sounding a bit more critical in Chapter 3, stating that “from a scientific standpoint, the way we think about and conceptualize talent largely remain stuck in paradigms from over 150 years ago” (p. 29), Baker contends in Chapter 12 that evidence from previous studies indicates that skill is at least partially intrinsic due to genetic make-up and traits that are present from birth. Furthermore, he argues that if we do not center talent as reflecting innate tendencies, it is meaningless and indistinguishable from words like skills or expertise. This leaves the question of why ‘words like skills or expertise’ are not sufficient. What if talent simply is a meaningless concept consisting of already existing concepts with nothing deeper to it? Why do we want talent to have a meaning so bad? And why do we continue to utilize a fairly mundane concept to determine the future of prospective (elite) athletes that is used by a variety of different people in a variety of different settings and contexts?
Baker concludes that a better way to think of predictions regarding an athlete’s chance of success is as a kind of likelihood estimate, with some allowance for mistake and inaccuracy in how certain variables should be taken into account. A more successful and evidence-based method to modeling athlete growth (indeed, for any athlete interaction) would have athletes being able to follow different paths in order to navigate the high-performance system. Either way, Baker (p. 188) states that
given the low rates of youth engagement in sports and physical activity, high-performance systems should be doing everything they can to maintain all athletes’ engagement, at any level, for as long as possible.
Revisiting Baker’s two aims 1) to convince the reader that talent is real, and 2) that the way we think about talent is wrong, I was excited to see how Baker would argue to prove his point. While I agree with him on the latter, unfortunately I finished The Tyranny of Talent feeling the exact opposite about the former – convinced that talent might in fact not be real. As we progress through the book, Baker argues that he, like many of his scholarly colleagues, is sitting on the fence – being unable or not wanting to make conclusions about talent. This brings up the critical question of why it is so important to Baker wanting to convince his audience about something he himself, and many other experts in the field, are so conflicted over. I agree with Baker that the selection of athletes exhibiting potential remains difficult and complex and that the story of talent, and specifically talent in sport, is not yet told. However, I also wonder how sports, especially competitive sports, would change if we erased the idea of talent from our minds. After decades of talent research and being unable to find a common ground on its definition and essence, it might be time not just to consider the way we think about it – which, Baker argues, tends to be wrong – but instead move away from the term once and for all.
In conclusion, Baker made me ask new critical questions and even though I might not fully agree with him on every aspect, I will gladly recommend his book. While it might not have reinvented the wheel, nor will offer too much new knowledge to scholars within the field of talent research, colleagues and even non-academics who have an interest in talent in sport will benefit from Baker’s own talent to package complex things in a light-hearted way, making The Tyranny of Talent a fun and quick yet informative read.
Copyright © Leah Monsees 2023