Why do some people become WNBA champions or Olympic gold medalists and others do not? What is ‘special’ about those very few incredibly skilled athletes, and why do they, in particular, get to be special? In this paper, I attempt to make sense of the relationship that there is, in the case of sports champions, between so-called ‘talent’, i.e. natural predisposition for particular physical activities and high-pressure competition, and practice/training. I will articulate what I take to be the ‘mechanism’ that allows certain people to rise to the Olympus of athletic excellence, and what being part of this elite club ‘feels like’. My proposal is based on the idea that so-called talent and practice interact in complex and unsystematic ways. I will also argue that becoming a top athlete involves undergoing a special kind of transformation, which makes such people qualitatively different from any ‘normal’ sport amateur, even when the difference might not be immediately visible to the ‘untrained’ eye.
Cecilia Zandalasini is a 24-year-old Italian basketball player. When you watch her take a jump shot, all you can think about is that she is doing exactly what, if God existed, her assigned mission on Earth would be. Mikaela Shiffrin is a 25-year-old American alpine skier. When you watch her do a slalom run, you feel the way Cimabue must have felt watching his student Giotto draw a perfect circle, freehand. These are only two examples of exceptional athletes about whom you can’t help wondering: they most definitely have a huge amount of talent, and surely they have been working extremely hard… but is this supposed to be enough to explain what they can accomplish on the court or…
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