On a recent podcast of Radiolab, Secrets of Success, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of:

argued that a key ingredient in becoming genius—the difference between being Michael Jordan rather than merely, say, Ray Allen—is having an almost romantic passion for whatever you are doing. The point is that putting in 10,000 hours into a pursuit is a necessary but not sufficient condition. There cannot be art without extraordinary craft, but craft does not guarantee the imagination required to produce masterpieces.

What made Wayne Gretzky seemingly the greatest hockey player ever was not the fact that he worked on stick handling and skating from the time he was a toddler; it was the fact that he was obsessed with the sport. According to Gladwell, at the age of two he would cry when a hockey game he was watching on TV ended. By the time he was an adult, having put in those 10,000 hours, he was ready to invent the sport not just master it. He would score goals and set up teammates in ways that had never been conceived.

So what can a parent or coach do to encourage genius? The answer, in my view, is to refrain from overcoaching. If a coach pushes a player too hard, they risk turning work into labor. Play should naturally evolve into work, as one becomes more conscious of the ends that she or he is trying to achieve. But it can easily degenerate into chore-like labor if the player is doing it for some extrinsic reason, like gaining the approval of an authority figure.

Coaches also need to create more space to players to experiment during practice and games. Bobby Orr revolutionized hockey by showing that a defender could be an integral part of a team’s attack, but his swashbuckling style has never been imitated. Whenever a defender would start carrying the puck up the ice, his coach would invariably say something like, “You’re no Bobby Orr, stay in your position.” The coach was probably right almost every time, most players are not going to end up being that good. But we will never know how many potential geniuses were stifled because they were not allowed to explore their own limitations.

Gretzky and Orr grew up playing more pick-up games than kids do nowadays and this allowed them to experiment without prying, judging eyes of supervision. Coaches love drills and planning, and control, but they need to nurture rather than discipline. They need to create a space where kids can just play freely. If you can encourage a kid to love a sport when he is young, he will want to work on perfecting his craft. He will become obsessed with it, like Gretzky and Orr did. You cannot force someone to love any activity; it has to evolve naturally.

~ Ken Pendleton