Commentary: Talent, or Skill, or Both?

By Dr. Matthew M. Rosman, GSEE
Director of Biomechanics and Sports Science, The Golfing Machine, LLC

How do we know if an observed golfer’s stroke execution display is exhibiting talent, or skill, or both talent and skill?  Does it matter?  Do elite professionals playing on the various worldwide Tours demonstrate talent, or skill, or both talent and skill while in competition? Is talent a resource that can be “instructed” to students?
These are just some of the questions that educators can ponder when approaching the challenge of providing instruction to a diversified population base of aspiring golfers.  Some of these aspiring golfers may endeavor to associate what they observe when watching Tour Professionals in action or read in periodicals as being directly transferable for incorporation into the development of their individual golf Stroke Pattern goals.  “This is how the Pros do it”, is often a phrase that is echoed by a percentage of this aspiring student golfer population.  While these terms (talent and skill) do have a relationship and some commonalities, it is the facets of differences between these terms that provide useful insight for study and exploration.
By consulting with the following definitions were obtained:

•    Talent: “3: The natural endowments of a person.”   “4 a: a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude.”

•    Skill: “2a: the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively or readily in execution or performance.” “2b: dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks.” “3:a learned power of doing something competently: a developed aptitude or ability <language skills>” 
In referencing the aforementioned definitions, it becomes apparent that one point of distinction between talent and skill is that the person with attributes of talent exhibits a natural, inherent, “special”, innate, competent, aptitude and affinity for a selected activity.   For example, when this individual engages in a particular motor activity there is a display of precision, reliability, repeatability, and well orchestrated coordination despite the participant having (at the early stage) relatively little if any prior exposure or experience in the aforementioned activity. The potential for growth and development of highly comprehensive skill in the activity is quite high.   In fact, some of the most talented participants in this classification are often categorized as a “phenom.”  

As an example, think of this “phenom” who picks up a golf club at a very young age and with remarkable dexterity, accuracy, and repeatability, displays very competent golf club-to-golf ball impact contact over and over again.  These individuals displaying very favorable attributes of “talent” often cannot explain how with such athletic proficiency, or without formalized “coaching”, they can display such remarkable affinity for highly desirable “eye-hand coordination” of golf club-to-golf ball impact contact.  They appear to be “maestros of impact” already.  It is this group of participants with this innate attribute affinity favorable for optimal golf club-to-golf ball impact contact that will have a distinct advantage in the potential of possibly playing golf as a Tour Professional. This natural aptitude provides no guarantee, as making it to the Tour Professional level (and remaining there) as a world class player is a very difficult achievement to attain.  

Those golfers, who by definition, possess the attributes of elite talent, that do make it to the Tour level work extremely hard to achieve such ranks of distinction over many years, receiving instruction and player development coaching all along the way.  Once in that domain they continue to work very diligently to remain competitive. They have a synergistic combination of talent and skill. Thus, it takes both talent and skill to make it to the top.  And, those golfers at the Tour level represent a very small percentage of the total number of golfers participating world-wide in the sport. 

In exploring this comprehensive subject, it is helpful to divide skill acquisition into two main divisions: intrinsic-directed and extrinsic-directed:
  • Intrinsic-directed (inwardly directed) skill acquisition involves the infusion of all of the information, knowledge, and principles about “golf”, from the recognized and credible “knowledge based sources”, to the “student” via instruction, study, and evaluation formats. One main focus of intrinsic skill acquisition should include careful observation, feedback, and progression based modifications (supervised by a qualified teaching professional) relating to the desired understanding and intended lawful employment of every procedural component required for incorporation into the development of the Basic Motion, Acquired Motion, and Total Motion, establishing the specific Central Stroke Pattern for use. Included in this process is the ability to produce as efficient and as effective a golf club-to-golf ball impact as is possible.
  • Extrinsic-directed (outwardly directed) skill acquisition involves the “application” of the intrinsic based, acquired, knowledge and information, through a number of means of expression, relating primarily to optimizing all aspects of playing ability, on-course golf situations, and scoring. A key feature of a higher proficiency level of extrinsic-directed skill is the ability to successfully calibrate and apply proper adjustments, relating to mechanical execution solutions, to variables and “novel” situations the golf course presents with during "playing" activities, especially the increasingly more challenging pressures of competitive golf.
For example, learning about the principles associated with a Golfing Machine defined Stage One Basic Motion (12-5-1), including all of the components and procedural requirements, is an example of skill acquisition that is intrinsic-directed.  Executing a Stage One Basic Motion under the watchful eye of an AI (Golfing Machine Authorized Instructor) during a lesson may utilize both intrinsic-directed and extrinsic directed skill application.

This specific AI-Student lesson environment is structured, permitting appropriate, constructive, observation, feedback, refinement, and progressions, leading to improvements in technique and performance competencies. The progressions may include moving from the lesson tee, to a short game practice area, and then to the golf course.  Hence, as the environment changes, and as the focus moves from competency of Stroke Pattern execution to utilizing the Stroke Pattern to tackle an on-course environment based strategic management solution, the application of skill transfers from intrinsic-dominant to extrinsic dominant. (For further insight with aspects relating to skill acquisition, kindly refer to the archived article, " The BIATM Way: The Brain Learns the Habit, not the Body! Part 2")  

When (for example) a Stage One Basic Motion display achieves a redundancy of desired proficiency such that there is accuracy, reliability, and repeatability of the displayed pattern of pose choreography in relationship conformity to the technique pathway blueprint, evolving to more and more of an “uncompensated” motion, the student can then move to utilizing the procedure as needed, on the golf course, as the situation determines. In this regard, the skill application has now undergone a transference to being an extrinsic-directed dominant activity in that the primary purpose of the utilization of the procedure is in response to an on-course practicality for play optimization, as opposed to the application of the procedure for evaluation of the current competency level of the performance execution in relationship to the technique procedural blueprint. 
Thus, those classification of golfers, who by definition, possess attributes of elite talent may spend much more of their development time engaging in extrinsic-directed skill acquisition (player development) because the stages for the attainment of a reliable (intrinsic-directed) and technically proficient Stroke Pattern are usually much shorter in duration due to remarkable, inherent, eye-hand coordination aptitude for optimizing golf club-to-golf ball impact contact.  

Therefore, the golfer with the inherent attributes of elite talent commonly develops higher competency for the acquisition of extrinsic-directed skill, becoming a more proficient player as there is much less distractive regard or concern about intrinsic skill  aspects of how to successful impact the ball: something that consumes the mindset of many with-in the aspiring student golfer population.  Hence, the high competency level of extrinsic skill-sets and associated comprehensive player development experience vastly contributes as a favorable factor in the reduction of performance anxiety preoccupations.  This category of golfer has a higher probability potential for both distance and accuracy.

The inherent aptitudes of the elite talent golfer favorably permits the opportunity of progression to the extrinsic-directed skill acquisition phase of mastering play much quicker as well as with a greater ability to remain in an extrinsic mindset of focus much longer concerning strategic management of the golf course and scoring optimization. In general, the combined greater volume of play experience along with the evolved higher confidence level to overcome adverse course situations as they present, often serves as a buffer to periods of poor play and execution. When required, by necessity, the instructional approach to “technical difficulties” may often be a brief “pit stop” of limited intervention so that the elite talent player can return as quickly as possible back to a more paramount extrinsic-directed focus.  
The ability to be able to attain the consistent, highly proficient, quality of golf club-to-golf ball impact dynamics that the golfer with the attributes of elite talent possesses will vary accordingly for the myriad of other golfers, especially the aspiring student golfer.   As a result of this lack of consistency in execution, there will be fluctuating levels of competency in both reliable Stroke Pattern execution display and associated desired golf ball impact dynamics for both practice and play, as well as when employing different types of procedures.  As much as the aspiring student golfer would like to function more frequently in an extrinsic-directed dominant focus when playing, concerns about "at present" competency regarding the capability for consistent, predictable, stroke pattern execution proficiency (an intrinsic focus preoccupation) produces distraction, apprehension, and anxiety about quality of performance when playing. This preoccupation with intrinsic skill competency while playing impairs the ability to both execute proficiently as well as engage in an imperative extrinsic directed skill of strategic course management for scoring optimization.  The current personal functional capacity status of the biomechanical system as well as other health related lifestyle and risk factor demographics may also serve to support or deter the development of proficient intrinsic skill acquisition competency consistency as well.

Talent is an innate attribute; skill is an acquired attribute.   Therefore, skill is developed.  What most of those without the attributes of elite talent spend the majority of their time in practicing, working on, and struggling at, the golfer with the attributes of elite talent can execute with apparent effortlessness, ease, flow, and dexterity. The “how to execute” (make a consistent and competent Stroke Pattern motion/intrinsic-directed skill competency) aspects of participation is not what the golfer with the attributes of elite talent is customarily, consistently, and predominantly consumed with. This classification of golfer, after proper instruction, has developed intrinsic skill competency, at a high level of proficiency, such that the attention of focus may be productively directed into the extrinsic aspects of player development.

“They make it look so easy”, is often a remark that is stated by viewers when watching Tour Professional golfers in action. Remember, this category of golfer (Tour Professional) has also acquired (through many years of diligent hard work and professional instruction) a high level proficiency of both intrinsic and extrinsic skill.  We enjoy watching Tour Professional golfers engaged in extrinsic-directed skill display during competition as they contend with all the challenges presented by the golf course in comparison to their fellow competitors. 
So, what do those who are in the golf education field customarily teach?  They customarily provide comprehensive, relevant knowledge based information, pertaining to all aspects of both theoretical and practical application subject matter, about golf technique and golf performance sciences, which includes instruction of both intrinsic-directed and extrinsic-directed skill acquisition for practice and play.   Golf teaching professionals work with a spectrum of golfers with varying competency profiles pertaining to attributes of talent, skill, functional capacity, and so, on.  What all golfers have in common, and what all golfers must acquire (preferably through professional instruction), relative to all goals of increasing both technique proficiency assimilation and performance execution competency in the sport, is the attainment of as high a personal level of intrinsic and extrinsic skill-sets as is possible, through education, practice, and play.

Therefore, all of us in the golf education field must tailor the course of instruction as a progression of stages that are appropriate to the assessed comprehensive competency profile of each aspiring student golfer.  Then, the lesson plan design can evolve more organically from the intrinsic-directed period into the extrinsic-directed period.  In this manner, the extrinsic-directed approach to player development will be of greater success when the "at present" application of playing strategy skill acquisition is matched to the "at present" assessed competency profile of intrinsic-directed skill-sets of the individual aspiring student golfer.

This strategy of player development approach where the assessed intrinsic skill sets function as one key component for the foundation for extrinsic skill acquisition progression parameters serves the aspiring student golfer quite well, as periodic reassessments permit modifications and progressions in player development supported by objective findings, which deters setbacks and frustrations.  The evolution of the aspiring student golfer is enhanced through this step by step process.   
By exploring the terms talent and skill we can devise the best strategies possible for lesson plan design and application for each aspiring student golfer so that their personal practice and play can be as optimal as possible.

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