Is Max Verstappen a ‘born’ Formula One driver? Does he have motor racing in his genes? According to psychologist Anders Ericsson his success is the alsult not of innate talent, but years of ‘deliberate practice’. This theory has turned the talent industry on its head.
It’s not just Verstappen. Many people believe that the world’s top footballers, musicians, academics, film directors and others have innate talent that makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary performance.
Verstappen’s former team manager Frits van Amersfoort says his achievements are down to talent:
‘Look, your computer’s speed is determined by its internal memory. And in motorsports, the more talented you are, the less memory you need to keep the car inside the white lines. So you have spare capacity. It’s like skiing: if you’re going down a blue or red piste, you can hum a little tune as you go. On a black, it takes all you have just to stay upright. You could see straight away that Max knew what he was doing. He had extra capacity.’ (Algemeen Dagblad, 11 April 2015).
Talent is a myth
Van Amersfoort is obviously right: Max does have spare capacity. But is that down to talent?
The answer seems obvious, but Ericsson (2016) says no one has talent. Our brains do have a unique ability to adapt to changing circumstances, but this comes simply from years of dogged practice. He cites the example of London’s taxi drivers, who have to know their way around without using navigation systems. Their licensing exam requires an incredible amount of geographical knowledge, including the ability to find the shortest route from A to B within a ten-kilometre radius of Charing Cross as well as knowing the exact location of more than 20,000 landmarks and places of public interest in the area
This takes years of practice, and appears to involve measurable physical changes in the brain. MRI scans of working drivers who have passed the exam show sharply increased activity in the back of the hippocampus, which is responsible for navigation.
Ericsson says the brain’s physical adaptability is comparable to the increased muscle mass created by intense exercise such as swimming, weightlifting or gymnastics. So although Van Amersfoort is right to contend that Max Verstappen has extra neural capacity, this is the result not of talent but years of intensive training. His brain has developed in a similar way to that of any high-achieving chess player, musician, doctor, or anyone else who has spent years perfecting their art.
In other words, it’s misleading to think that performance is primarily down to talent, because it ignores the importance of what Ericsson calls ‘deliberate practice’. And, he says, the converse is also true: ordinary people can use deliberate practice to achieve extraordinary performance – a challenging thought.
Max Verstappen’s deliberate practice
Verstappen’s is an inspiring story. As a young boy, he experienced the unique environment of Formula One and persuaded his parents to take him go-karting. Despite his tender years, he was determined to become not just a racing driver but the Formula One world champion. This led him to spend years in training with the help of his father Jos, following Ericsson’s principles.
Ericsson says the gold standards of deliberate practice are as follows:
- Having a specific goal
Max Verstappen’s goal was to become a Formula One driver. This was a long way away, so he set step-by-step objectives focused on improving specific aspects of his target performance, such as minimising tyre wear, tuning the kart properly, and actually taking part in races. Step by step means setting particular targets for each day, week, month and year, over many years.
- Expert coaching
To achieve top performance, you need an expert coach and advisor to provide a winning combination of implicit and explicit knowledge. In Max Verstappen’s case, that person is his father Jos, himself a renowned Formula One driver with all the know-how, experience and networks required to teach Max the finer points of the profession.
- Consistently learning from feedback
The only way of learning to perform better based on a specific goal is to get direct feedback – in this case the information you need to adjust your behaviour, correct mistakes, and move on to the next stage of growth. Learning from feedback is crucial. It’s the only way of managing your performance during or after the event, and continuing to grow.
- Learning in your discomfort zone
Making continued improvements means systematically challenging yourself to go one step further than your current performance. As soon as you’ve mastered one thing, it’s time to demand more of yourself and learn something else. This is harder than you might think. Learning in your discomfort zone may cause negative feelings such as a fear of failure and deep frustration – but also great satisfaction when you do reach the next level and set yourself a new and even more uncomfortable challenge.
- Building a strong foundation
It’s easier to acquire new skills if you’ve created a sound basis for learning. That way, you can unlearn bad habits and learn good ones step by step. Max Verstappen makes better use of tyres than any other Formula One driver, a good example of a specific skill that drivers need to win races.
- Being focused and involved
Achieving top performance demands involvement and ownership, not simply listening passively to others’ advice. Deliberate practice requires focus and a willingness to put in years of effort. Without these, Max Verstappen would not have entered Formula One at such an unprecedentedly young age – and that had nothing to do with chance or talent.
- Using mental representations
One important characteristic of top performers is their ability to visualize things in their minds: mental representations. Verstappen has a clear mental picture of each circuit, the bends and straights, and when and when not to overtake. This allows him to monitor his own performance, make decisions at extremely high speed, and adjust his driving tactics where necessary. Visualization serves as a reference model by which you can measure what you’ve achieved.
Verstappen has got where he is by years of training, not by some innate talent.. Talent is a myth, and it’s also misleading, because top performance is no longer the sole preserve of extraordinary people. Ericsson believes ordinary people can achieve it through deliberate practice – though this is less easy than it sounds.
The power of informal learning and 70:20:10
There’s no formal training to become a Formula One driver, which makes it all the more surprising that Max Verstappen reached such a high level of performance at such a young age. He uses a smart combination of learning environments: formal, planned training sessions and races, but mostly learning by doing (the 70) and with others (the 20).
Nature versus nurture
Research has shown that Ericsson’s deliberate practice is important, but doesn’t explain all the many ways in which people attain top performance. You can read more about the variables involved here.
A variety of factors, some biological, others contextual, play a role in the development of expertise. This brings us back to the classic nature versus nurture debate. And that’s how it should be, because it’s about not simply vindicating Ericsson, but using research to gain deeper insights into all the factors affecting high-level performance.
Ericsson’s message is very optimistic. Despite his dismissal of the concept of talent, people are often capable of achieving much more than they and others around them realise. This is essentially a growth-oriented view that offers a different approach to developing expertise.
So I interpret the gold standards of deliberate practice as guidelines for the holistic growth of people and organisations, using work and practice as smart ways of reinforcing formal and informal learning.
The talent industry and deliberate practice
Training and education often make talent development their central focus. This is a misleading strategy in view of Ericsson’s principles. The idea of selecting ‘talent’ questions the whole value of such programmes: what is there to select if talent is not a relevant variable?
And then there’s the time factor. Ninety-nine percent of talent programmes last no more than a few days, weeks or months, and are insufficiently intensive to meet the gold standards of deliberate practice in terms of their length, combination of formal and informal learning (the 70:20:10), expert coaching, visualization, consistent learning in the discomfort zone and so on.
Ericsson has challenged the talent industry to reinvent itself, so that participation in these programmes does actually contribute to improved performance. Clearly, the idea is not to turn all participants into world champions, but rather to ensure that they achieve measurably better performance within the organisation, whatever their roles. They can do this even after a few months spent applying the principles of deliberate practice.
The talent industry should embrace Anders Ericsson’s gold standards, so that the effectiveness of talent programmes becomes a secondary issue. The standards are based on a combination of deliberate training and practice, and can be seen as a vindication of the principles of the 70:20:10 reference model. And I believe this is no coincidence.
Ericsson, A. (2016) Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Arets, J, Jennings, C. and Heijnen, V. (2016) 70:20:10 towards 100% performance. Maastricht: Sutler Media.