Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teaching and Greatness

I've been following along as Wayne Bryan, Pat McEnroe and tons of commenters over at Zoo Tennis debate the efficacy of USTA Player Development.  I've written a few posts about that here, including a post on talent ID just below this one.  I'm skeptical of large scale systems for producing world champions.  I think world champions, and especially all-time greats, are fundamentally Black Swans, rare and unpredictable.

What occurred to me, though, in thinking about all this player development stuff is that the truly greats in most fields became great without much aid from teachers of any kind.  Perhaps chess is a counter-example and perhaps greatness in the future will be different from greatness in the past in such way that teachers or coaches will play crucial roles in player or scientist or mathematician or poet development.  But as I look back, I see so many examples of greatness emerging without the aid of teaching and coaching that I wonder if coaching has any role at all in true greatness.

I'm thinking specifically of how the all-time greats seemed to go off on their own, fueled by their own passions, independent of teachers and coaches.  Einstein had a notorious disdain for traditional schooling.  Richard Feynman, too.  Feynman learned algebra and calculus on his own from books he borrowed from the local library.  He did experiments in his room on his own.  Nobody taught Newton calculus.  He developed it on his own.  And so discovered laws of motion that, at human scales, still hold sway today.

Ben Hogan found his swing in the dirt.  Same with his contemporaries Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.  Who taught Larry Bird to shoot, pass, and see the court as well as he did?  Walter Gretzky told his son Wayne to look where the puck was going, not where it went, but Wayne developed his skills on his own on their backyard rink.  Gordie Howe came off the sloughs of Saskatchewan to dominate the NHL.  Bobby Orr honed his skills on the ice of Parry Sound.

Rod Laver got his start on the anthill court in his backyard in Rockhampton, Australia playing with his brothers.  Sure he credits Harry Hopman for developing him, but I think Hopman's role is minor compared to Rod's own passion for the game.  Laver was able to get some mentoring from Hopman because he was great.  Hopman didn't make Laver great.  Laver's greatness preceded Hopman's coaching. Same with John McEnroe years later.

My view is that teachers and coaches can help the masses get a bit better at things.  We can show them better ways of doing things.  We can teach them the rules for doing algebra. We can encourage them.  We can offer suggestions that accelerate their learning.  But when it comes to the rarest of the rare, the truly great in any field, my best guess is that coaches are more likely to retard than to accelerate their progress.

Fortunately, it's very unlikely that any of us coaches or teachers have ever encountered any of these one in a billion people.  So we can sleep easy that we most likely haven't deprived the world of the next Newton, Einstein, Hogan, or Laver by ruining them with our input.

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