Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The "Gifted" Paradox

People who look at the Washington Capitals’ lineup do so and see a collection of extraordinarily skilled players. Alex Ovechkin is the most prolific goal scorer of this generation. Alexander Semin might have a more complete set of skills than Ovechkin on both sides of the puck. Mike Green has called to mind faint comparisons with Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey as a puck-rushing offensive defenseman. Nicklas Backstrom is this generation's prototypical playmaking center with the ability to see passes the average player cannot see, let alone execute.

But there is that word… “average.” And suddenly another word comes to mind and the paradox often attached to it.


In an educational setting, there are some students that by virtue of their innate intellectual abilities are deemed “gifted.” Generally they are categorized as such as a product of their respective “intellectual quotient” – the relationship of their “mental age” projected against their chronological age. We’ll leave the details to the experts in educational testing. The point is that for these “gifted” students whose mental skills are far advanced from students of similar age, a paradox often presents itself. Why do many such students often fail to achieve to a measure commensurate with their skill? Why does the child with the I.Q. of 160 earn a C- in chemistry, despite giving every indication that they can do the work with superior results?

For our purposes, why does the supremely skilled hockey player – far more skilled than other players of his age – often achieve for his team so much less than his “S.Q.” (or “skill quotient”) would allow, despite giving tantalizing indications that he can put in the effort and get the results that can earn for his team ultimate success?

Looking at the Capitals from my seat up in the balcony at Verizon Center, I see a collection of players – not just the “Young Guns” we mentioned, for there are others in this mix – who are in their own ways as much the “gifted” student as the prodigy who can perform calculus at the age of four.

Yet despite the fact that the Capitals have “achieved” a rather impressive 20 points in 14 games thus far (a 117-point pace), they have the look of the unmotivated gifted student, marking time in games in early November with the expectation, perhaps, that they’ll just turn it on for the final exam – in the form of the Stanley Cup playoffs – next spring.

Some gifted students are self-motivated out of curiosity, an internal drive to succeed, or other factors. By the same token, some gifted hockey players are self motivated out of their competitive nature, fear of failure, or other factors. Still it remains that motivating the gifted student is one of teaching’s great challenges, and motivating gifted hockey players can be one of coaching’s great challenges.

There is a lot of effort in the academic literature devoted to the issue of how to motivate the underachieving gifted student. The task in motivating the gifted professional athlete is a more difficult one in some respects. Such athletes are financially well set with early signing bonuses and large contracts. They are of course adults – chronologically. The jobs of those who manage them – coaches, general managers – largely hinge on keeping them happy and productive, something that might not be lost on the player. And there is a world of other experiences to which they can be exposed or that they can seek out that rob them of their focus on or their motivation for success on the field or on the ice.

We aren’t nearly close enough to the players to opine on whether or from what causes they might lack motivation or lose focus. But they do, at times, seem to lack it or lose it. Against teams that can challenge their skill, they can – and do – summon the motivation to succeed and focus on the task of winning. When the Capitals thoroughly dominated the Bruins in Boston in the season opener and San Jose at home two weeks later, they were the gifted students who aced the test.

Then again, against teams such as Toronto – in the home opener two days after dominating Boston – or Atlanta on two occasions, we saw the gifted student lacking the motivation to do anything but plod along with a “C+.” Losing to the Islanders or the Blue Jackets in overtime was like blowing off a pop quiz. It doesn’t really matter, well… too much, in the final grade.

We’re not prepared to call the Caps “underachievers,” not this early in the hockey season and not with the record they have. But there is the faint whiff about them that they are not, as they say, “reaching their potential.” It is a job made harder with Alex Ovechkin out of the lineup, but if motivation – either from within, or from the coaches or management – has been lacking, it should be in abundance at this point. They can’t just do the minimum required for their grade or to do some real damage in the playoffs.

The problem with that attitude – for the gifted student and player alike – is that there will be a final exam coming. For the gifted student it might be that last test of the academic year or an entrance exam to a prestigious school. For the gifted player it is the playoffs. And if one hasn’t prepared well in the meantime, then that last final exam will not go well. And in the NHL, that means a long summer of knowing you failed, knowing you have to repeat the grade the next year.

And for the professional athlete, even the gifted ones, there are a precious few years in which to achieve your success.


I Rock the Red said...

This is a really good comparison. I like it! Well, you know what I mean. I totally understand it, because I was one of those students in school, and my mom, whose IQ is average, has a 4.0 GPA for every degree past her Bachelor's.

daved said...
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