Need To Know: The Difference Between Talent and Skill

By Winding Road Staff

May 02, 2018

Editor’s Note: we’ve asked our readership for the questions they would most like to have had the answers to when they were starting out in motorsports. We’ve created our Need To Know series to address many of these questions.

In motorsports, as in most complex human endeavors, there is a difference between talent and skill. It is an important difference that many drivers forget about, which hurts their progress. Starting with definitions, just to be clear, let’s define talent as “the potential of a given person to do things”. And let’s define skill as “the actual ability of a given person to do things”.

If we think about these definitions for a minute, we realize that talent is a bit squishy – it is hard to know. Unlike, say, IQ, which can be tested (actually is defined by a test), talent isn’t that easy to assess. Maybe we could come up some tests to measure reaction times and visual acuity and butt sensitivity to yaw, but in the event these tests have not been assembled into a usable motorsports “Talent Quotient”. So, our view of talent in motorsports is inevitably mixed with our assessment of skills.

The problem for new drivers is that they, somewhat naturally, want to assess their talent and the project that assessment forward to decide if they should embark on a motorsports “career”. This could be as a hobby or as a profession, but given the money and time and effort involved, drivers want to consider their likelihood of success. And given that competition is often involved, they want to know in advance if they will succeed. This creates a problem because the answer is to a large degree unknowable at the start. The idea of talent is a distraction.

Projecting future success is a bit of a fool’s errand for practical reasons as well. One practical tripping point that we commonly see is what could be called “talent demonstration syndrome”. Drivers who find that they are relatively fast after only a few sessions on track can begin to focus on showing their talent rather than on developing it into usable skills. Building usable skill usually takes seat time, coaching and drills. Drivers with TDS want to skip most of that. Skipping the skill development steps usually leads to a few tantalizing moments (“I led 5 laps!” or “I got a podium!”) followed by many disappointments (crashes, mid-pack finishes, lack of progression).

The opposite of this can be defeatism. Drivers who are willing to work and have high levels of “grit” can start out near the back of the pack. If they think “talent” is the key to driving success, then they may (mis)judge their ultimate potential as being low and quit. Lots of study in the social sciences shows that skill acquisition generally takes a lot of time and a particular practice methodology.

To follow this path, you have to recognize that skill-building is the thing, that progress is the measure, and that progress normally comes in fits and starts. It also helps to realize that skill-building requires getting out of your comfort zone, not just logging time doing the same thing over and over. This in turn generally requires coaching or schools or both.

And building skill requires a long time. If we think about another sport, say football, we quickly realize this. A player might start in 6th grade pee wee football and play through high school and college. That’s roughly 8-10 years of playing, including summer camps and spring training. Then a player gets drafted, say at quarterback, into the NFL. Those quarterbacks are about the most talented and skilled college players around. And yet, typically, they aren’t good enough to be starting, elite-level quarterbacks in the NFL. They need more skill development, which takes more time.

The implication of the long learning curve needed to master any complex set of skills is to have a business plan that allows for the time involved. One part of that plan is strategic: typically, this means putting together a mix of coaching, practice and racing activities that really helps with skills. A second part of that plan is psychological: keep reminding yourself that skill building progress is the goal and surround yourself with people who will reinforce that idea. A third part of that plan is financial: have a plan to consume money at a rate that you can handle long term; you are unlikely to succeed quickly and if you put your limited funding into “one big year”, you may well be funding your last year.

Winding Road Academy offers a set of programs aimed at novices through advanced drivers. With a focus on skill-building, Winding Road Academy courses, coaches and schools leverage the experience of pro drivers and the latest science of learning to cost-effectively help drivers achieve their goals. For a customized program design, contact: academy@windingroad.com