I have never been fond of the term “gifted athlete.” It seems to indicate that it comes easy for a person with certain physical attributes and abilities.
It does not.
The innate talent has limitations. It will only carry you so far.
In order to maximize his or her ability, the athlete has to develop other qualities to sustain them when the raw talent is just not enough. Faced with fading success, the young athlete must begin to cultivate the peripheral additions to their sheer ability: control, discipline, expertise- that their early explosion of natural talent made unnecessary.
Tom Seaver, who passed away last week at age 75, understood this early.
As a high school senior in Fresno, Calif., he stood 5’ 9” and weighed 160 pounds. He was the third fastest pitcher on his team, and compiled a record of five wins and four losses. He did not pick up speed until he took the advice of a friend, and began lifting weights in college. He grew to 6’ 1” and 190 pounds. He worked diligently on the parts of his body that related to his talent. He developed a pitching motion that took advantage of his thickly muscled legs, a low, drop drive delivery that often resulted in the right knee of his uniform soiled by scraping the top of the mound.
He would say that having physical limitations early on was a blessing for him. “Pitching has always been hard work for me. Even at USC [University of Southern California] I had to work hard to be a starter.”
Pitching became for Seaver, at a very young age, not only a physical activity, but a mental one.
Because he could not just blow batters away, he was forced to become conscious of all aspects of his craft. He discovered, for instance, that batters fed off of pitchers’ mistakes.
If he could not throw the ball past hitters, he could at least throw it where they could not hit it solidly. If he could not strike them out, he could at least, not walk them. “Walking hitters bothered me even then,” said Seaver. “It was so free.”
So when his physical growth matured, Tom Seaver already had the mental qualities to succeed at a high level. This is the exact opposite of how most athletes develop.
Take, for example, Sandy Koufax. He reached the major leagues on the strength of his extraordinary left arm, but then struggled for seven years to develop the qualities, primarily control, that his raw talent had earlier made unnecessary. He became a great pitcher, but he had to learn those qualities at age 26, while Seaver was learning them at age 14.
When Seaver debuted with The New York Mets in 1967, he was already fully equipped to excel. One of his early managers, Solly Hemus, announced that when he came up he had “a 35 year-old head to go with his 21 year-old body.” He was an instant veteran.
In his first five years he won 95 ballgames, more than Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, and Koufax did in their first five seasons. He would total 311 wins with a 2.86 ERA ,with the pinnacle of his Hall of Fame career being when he led the Mets from “lovable losers” to the World Championship in 1969.
With success came fame, but it did not change Tom Seaver. He continued to work on his pitching even after he had lost some speed off his fastball, and bite off his curve. He could get by on sheer guile, always two pitches ahead of the hitter.
With his boyish good looks, he was christened “Tom Terrific” by the writers, but he never sought attention. Conservative by nature, he was devoted to his wife Nancy and two daughters.
“I appreciate my talent more than most,” said Tom late in his career. “I appreciate the things it’s brought me. I had to put a lot of hard work into it. Some guys never know the gift they have.”
Tom Seaver did have some God given natural gifts, but his real strength was his understanding of his talent, and how, by hard work, he could refine and improve it. He wanted to be the best, and was willing to work for it.
A great lesson for the athlete that wants to maximize his potential, or for that matter, any of us in life.