Tom Brady and the myth of natural talent
If you’re the type of person that only watches football on Super Bowl weekend, you might notice something familiar about Sunday’s game: the New England Patriots. This is their 6th Super Bowl in 15 years for the Pats, and 39-year-old Tom Brady has played in every one. That kind of longevity and success have some calling him the best quarterback of all time.
The thing is, if you went back to the year 1999 and told people the solid but unspectacular Brady would become a New England sports legend, most (if not all) would have considered you certifiable. And yet here we are.
But instead of turning Brady into a demigod that towers over us mere mortals, his success is actually a testament to hard work, dedication, and self-belief. In fact, it might just prove there is no such thing as “natural” talent.
Here are some reasons why, and what we can learn from them.
Brady and the 10,000-hour rule
You may have heard about the 10,000-hour rule. This is based on a 1993 study led by psychologist Anders Ericsson, which claimed that practice time was the difference between elite musicians and amateurs. The study specified that ‘deliberate practice’ – most often involving immediate feedback and a focus on weak spots – was the crucial component.
In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell used the 10,000-hour rule to underscore how long it takes people to achieve greatness. To illustrate this, he zeroed in on the Beatles’ early period in Hamburg, Germany, where the Fab Four played seven-hour sets on a nightly basis. Gladwell believes this was fundamental to their success. “By the time they returned to England, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them,” Beatles’ biographer Philip Norman is quoted as saying.
Which brings us back to Tom Brady, a player drafted in the sixth round of the 1999 NFL draft. To say he was an unheralded prospect would be an understatement, but this was nothing new. Consider the first impression he made on Tom Mackenzie, his high school football coach: “When I first laid eyes on Tom Brady, he was slow as molasses and had baby fat.”
Unsurprisingly, Brady did not play as a freshman, but with Mackenzie’s guidance, he continued working on his game until he took over the starting spot in his sophomore year.
“I talked to Brady and his dad, I said, ‘Tom needs to do whatever he can to improve his quickness, his agility, his speed, in the next year and a half. Whatever you can do to make that commitment,’ and he did it. By his senior year, he was absolutely determined,” Mackenzie said.
Brady then moved to the University of Michigan, where he started seventh on the team’s depth chart. Let’s repeat that: there were six quarterbacks deemed better than Tom Brady at the University of Michigan. What followed was a long struggle over the next two years, in which Brady never saw the field. He hired a sports psychologist and worked with assistant athletic director Greg Harden to improve his performance. He eventually won the starting spot in 1998, which he held for two seasons before turning pro. In the NFL, though, he was again forced into a backup role, this time as the fourth-string quarterback. He only got a chance to play in his second season, after he had spent a full year adapting and refining his game.
Notice a routine? At every level, Brady started slowly, figuring out what he needed to improve, and then working to accomplish it. In other words, he put in his 10,000 hours, using deliberate practice to become a better player.
“I always joked there was a reason I was the 199th pick,” Brady has said. “I was never really, in a way, the most talented physically. I just try to continue to find ways to improve.”
Brady is proof that you really do get what you put in, especially when it comes to career objectives. The trick, though, is to be smart about your work. Just like Brady needed his high school coach, you too need guidance and support. If you’re feeling stuck or uninspired, look for learning opportunities and reach out to more experienced colleagues and peers to make sure you’re always “practicing” in a beneficial way. It’s also important to set short-term and long-term goals. Remember, Brady may have always dreamed about winning four Super Bowls, but it all started with a short-term goal that was decidedly less ambitious: he just wanted to make the high school football team.
You are what you eat
Brady’s commitment isn’t limited to the field. Just consider the way he (and his family) eats.
“80 percent of what they eat is vegetables and whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, beans,” Allen Campbell, Brady’s personal chef, told Boston.com. “The other 20 percent is lean meats: grass-fed organic steak, duck every now and then, and chicken. As for fish, I mostly cook wild salmon.”
The Patriots QB also does not eat white sugar, white flour, caffeine, dairy, or nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, eggplants – they cause inflammation), and Campbell only cooks with coconut oil. “Fats like canola oil turn into trans fats … I use Himalayan pink salt as the sodium. I never use iodized salt,” he said.
Based on this, do you think Tom Brady is having fun? No. The man can’t even eat a tomato. But he is fully committed to achieving his goals. Yes, I know; not everyone can have a personal chef that cooks with coconut oil. Understood. But you can still find ways to commit fully and completely to achieving your goals – even if it means giving up on tomatoes.
Competition can be healthy
Thanks to the NFL Players Association’s lawsuit, we were able to see private emails that Brady had sent to a childhood friend. What these revealed was that aside from winning championships, Brady also wanted to outlast and outperform Peyton Manning.
You can read the whole exchange here.
Apart from the bad spelling, the emails reveal Brady’s competitive streak, which has clearly fueled an ambitious long-term plan: he wants to play another five years and retire as the best QB of all time.
How is this relevant for us? Everyone needs someone to inspire them. Who’s the best in your industry (or your company)? Do you have a plan for the next five years? Sometimes finding the one can clarify the other.
The right system
Brady missed the first four games of this season, but the Patriots still won three of those games. This lead to the assertion that Brady was a “system QB.” The idea, for lack of a better term, was that these victories proved he was an easily replaceable cog in a greater machine – one built by the true genius of the team: coach Bill Belichick.
Others have argued against this much better than we can, but it’s clear that Brady found the right team to maximize his talents. You can argue, in fact, that he’s found the right environment every step of the way, and then worked like a maniac to excel within those support systems. He may have been blessed with good genes, but he continuously built on that base, seeking out guidance and expertise and relying on the talents of his teammates and coaches to elevate himself.
The lesson for us all is to rebel against boredom, obstruction, and neglect. Do you feel stifled and unmotivated on the job? It’s time you looked for something else. You never know, you just might find your own coach Belichick (or Mackenzie).
Whether or not you find your own Gisele, though, is another story.