The Pitfall of Natural Talent

Photo of the 2006 Greco National Finalists at 140 Pounds

My heart is heavy as I write this. Several days ago a young man, let’s call him Frank, with tons of pure talent died in a motorcycle accident running from the police making a routine traffic stop, and his girlfriend lies in a coma fighting for life. She has two small children at home wondering where she is.

It was the first really nice day of the spring, and his the last day of his life.

This young man had tremendous potential. He was a natural athlete. Even in a tough sport like wrestling, he made winning look easy. He loved the attention of his success, and he always had a ready smile for the parents and teammates who were happy to be his coach or friend.

He was a charmer, and he knew it, but that charm didn’t keep him out of detentions or trouble with the law as he got older and adventurous. The free flowing, unrestrained way he wrestled didn’t translate well into academic discipline, or disciple of any kind, for that matter.

I only knew him from afar. I wasn’t one of the better or more gregarious coaches. My boys were younger, and they didn’t have as much natural talent. My older son didn’t have a winning record until his third year in wrestling, but he dreamed big and worked hard at it.

I used to tell him that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I wanted him to believe that. I wanted to believe that.

At the same time, I took consolation in the character that was being built into him, and I tried to instill the importance of character in him. I would like to say that character should always be the priority, but who doesn’t long to win, be successful and have the attention of the star athlete? Like Frank.

But things didn’t go as well for Frank as he got older. He had as much talent as any wrestler who set foot on the mat at his high school, but he was never a state placer. He doesn’t hold any career records. He qualified for the state tournament twice, but he  never placed. He could have done much more. He had that much talent.

My son, the average athlete who worked hard, was never the best wrestler even on his own team. But he got better as he got older. He caught up to and passed many wrestlers with more God-given talent. He went on to be a four time national finalist and two-time national champ in Greco, one of the international styles of wrestling.

In Greco, natural talent is more easily overcome by hard work, toughness and sheer grit than folkstyle or freestyle where Frank shined as a budding young wrestler.

But, I don’t write these things to boast or to judge. My heart is heavy.

My son has made his own share of mistakes. He was no angel, and he paid a price for those lapses in character. He, too, ultimately did not live up the his potential because of choices he made.

As I think about these things, I picture myself in Frank’s father’s shoes, blaming myself for being mesmerized by the undeniable ability, knowing that it’s too late to build the character into him that might have saved his life. I think of my own son and the longing I had for him to have the kind of success Frank had as a young boy.

Taking a step back, I count myself blessed to have had a hard working kid with average athletic ability who just loved the sport of wrestling enough to work harder than most others. He was fortunate to have had to earn any success that he achieved. Not that Frank didn’t earn his success; it’s just that it came easy.

As I carry the heaviness in my heart, I consider Lauren Carlini, who graduated after my son from the same high school. She just received the 2017 AAU James E. Sullivan Award as a volleyball player for the University of Wisconsin. The Sullivan Award is known as “the Oscar” of sports awards. No volleyball player had ever won it.

Described as having “the grace of a prima ballerina and the intensity of a linebacker”, she was that rare combination of natural talent and hard work. But her most distinctive characteristic, according to her coach, “is that she’s 10 times the better person than she is a volleyball player”.

We idolize our youth athletes. Frank was a perfect example. He had a following wherever he went when he was a free-spirited youth wrestler with an uncanny athleticism that oozed from every pore. Everyone else was a tag-along trying to fit in. He was the leader of the pack.

He might have been a victim of his own natural ability and easy going personality. Few people could hang with him and bring him back down to earth. His ability freed him from the constraints that bound lesser individuals to mediocrity and the drudgery of hard work with incremental results. He flew close to the sun.

We all want to be Frank.

We will miss him.

In the meantime, we might do well to reconsider those constraints that tether the rest of us to this earth. Lauren Carlini tethered herself, and she is now soaring higher than a young girl might ever dare to dream. A kite cannot sustain its altitude when it becomes untethered. That tether is the tension necessary for the kite to fly high.

Lauren Carlini might have always been the most talented girl on her team, but she didn’t count that natural advantage as success. She worked hard to better herself even more, in everything she did.

There is a danger in natural talent that few of us see until it is too late. There is a danger in comparing ourselves to others. That comparison causes some, like Frank, to confuse talent for success. That comparison misleads others into confusing less natural ability than others for failure.

The only success is in working hard to make the most of what God gave us. The only failure is in failing to make the most of that natural ability, whatever the measure of that ability is.

But more important than success, we should all strive to have someone say of us: she/he is ten times the better person than she/he is a ________________. You fill in the blank. The blank ultimately doesn’t matter as much as the person we become.

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