Recently a sports coach who had suggested to one of his young football players that he would never be "equally great with both feet because he wasn't born with that talent", was severely criticised by another coach. Her position was that anything can be taught and achieved with the right support and coaching.
This whole notion of “be great at anything” is troubling and seems to be on the increase. It is an example of the self help industry hijacking bits from the positive psychology movement and taking it off into another dimension. Everything is possible, everything is positive and everything is achievable providing you have the right mindset. This is neither true nor a healthy approach. Its downside is that if you don’t achieve your impossible dreams you are at fault. [I am reminded of a story from the US in which a cancer sufferer had turned in desperation to a new age therapy in search of a cure, had ditched the conventional medical treatment as instructed, and subsequently died. In the furore that followed, her husband was told that the reason the new age treatment had failed was because she hadn't put enough faith into it...]
Even with the best coaching in the world I would never have beaten Serena Williams at tennis. I wasn’t born with the appropriate potential (physiology or base talent) which could be developed sufficiently to reach those particular heights. And that's fine; we are all different. When we overly fasten onto the ‘nurture’ side of the situation in this way we miss the fact that the ‘nature’ side is pretty critical too. We are all born with an inherited series of characteristics (such as our physiognomy, base IQ, etc) which give us certain potential. With the right support and development we can realise that potential and be the best we can be. That is what coaching is all about: effective coaching is built on uncovering and developing potential – not turning you into someone else or seducing you into thinking that with the right financial investment or effort you can be anything you choose. Our young football player may never be the best “two-footed” player but he can improve his feet skills and be the best he can be.
It seems unpopular to say the least, but we simply can’t be anything we want and to suggest that we can, particularly to children and young adults, is unfair and misleading. A life just spent chasing impossible dreams of achievement or perfection is not a fulfilling one. To be clear, I am not saying don’t dream or don’t follow your dreams, I am saying add a middle piece – 'sense check' your dreams, get realistic by translating them into stretching, but not impossible, goals. Aim high, don’t aim impossible: and then work smartly to achieve those dreams…