Staring, Talent Development and the Shooting Gene

During a Duke University game in the NCAA Tournament, Clark Kellogg exclaimed, “It’s in the genes!” when Duke’s Seth Curry knocked down a three-pointer. This is a common perception, as his brother Stephen was one of the best college shooters of the past decade, and his father Dell was an NBA sharp-shooter. Most people believe this statement: the evidence suggests that the Curry clan possess the shooting gene.

I generally do not believe in genetics or innate skills because as soon as someone comments about a player like Ray Allen’s, Steve Kerr’s or Stephen Curry’s innate talent, they proceed to discuss the unbelievable work ethic and time spent learning and mastering the skill. In the video below, Allen says that shooting is “natural” for him, but he also emphasizes the amount of work and practice. His shooting is natural now, after millions of shots, but does that mean that he inherited a shooting gene?

If they possess the shooting gene, why do they need to work so hard? An innate talent is something that endures or varies little, so the amount of practice should not affect this talent to a great extent. A skill is learned and dependent upon practice.

My grandfather was in naval intelligence and spoke five languages fluently. I took 12 years of Spanish and can piece together two sentences. If my grandfather had the language gene, did it skip a generation or two? Is it a recessive gene?

Rather than attribute the Curry’s shooting to their genes, I think Seth and Stephen benefit from something else: a role model. Have you seen the commercial with Dell Curry shooting before a game in Toronto with a young Stephen Curry on the sideline while a fan from the future talks to Stephen? What kind of an advantage do you think a young Stephen gleaned from spending time on an NBA court watching NBA players all day?

Rather than genes, the Curry brothers benefited from staring, as explained in a recent article by Daniel Coyle. Coyle offers three reasons for the importance of staring in talent development:

“First, mimicry. Staring is the fastest, most efficient way to imprint a skill on our brains — far more efficient than trying to learn through the keyhole of words.

“Second, high-quality feedback. Active staring gives us a way to measure our performance against those who are better than us.

“Third, igniting motivation. Staring is the royal road to passion, because it’s the main way we link our identities with other people.”

Seth and Stephen spent their childhoods staring at one of the best shooters in NBA history. Does that experience not account for some of their shooting skill?

Seeing their father in the NBA likely ignited their motivation and assisted with their persistence in a way that most cannot relate. When they were overlooked by recruiters, they easily could have lost some motivation or felt that they lacked the ability. However, their father provided that boost to their motivation. They knew they were good enough – they watched their father. If Dell was good enough to play in the NBA, and told them that they were good enough if they worked hard, their motivation likely increased. For a normal teenager who has never been in the same room with an NBA player, he may believe the recruiters’ opinions and question his skill level, lessening his internal motivation.

Watching their father play in the NBA provided high-quality feedback. They could compare their shooting to their father’s. They could challenge their father in shooting contests and know that beating him meant something. They could watch their father in the NBA, and his teammates, and learn from the experience. They watched their father and his teammates work out and saw the type of work necessary to make it in the NBA. Few teenagers get the opportunity to watch NBA players work out or to work out with an NBA player.

Would it make a difference for a normal teenager if he spent a day watching Kobe Bryant work out or worked out with Kevin Durant? For some, it might lead them to quit, as the requisite effort to reach an expert level would be intimidating, daunting and not worth it. But, for someone with the goals and the work ethic who only lacks the knowledge, how would that opportunity affect them? Now, imagine seeing that on a daily basis. You go one of two ways: (1) You learn from it and embrace it or (2) you see how hard it is and pursue something else. Either way, you know what it takes.

Finally, the Curry brothers mimicked their father’s shooting. They watched him shoot hundreds of thousands of shots, I imagine. If “staring is the fastest, most efficient way to imprint a skill on our brains,” having a father who is an expert shooter is the best way to learn the shooting skill. What could be a better teacher than watching an excellent shooter shoot hundreds of shots every day and copying him?

Do the Curry brothers have some genetic advantages over their peers? Probably. However, the genetic advantage might be different than most assume. In “Sports Genes” from the May 17, 2010 Sports Illustrated, David Epstein writes:

“Scientific research gives us a fuller picture of how we evolved into athletes, and it suggests that some things that appear to be largely genetic (such as East African dominance of distance running) might not be, and that other things that seem entirely voluntary (such as an athlete’s will to train) might in fact have an important genetic component.”

Therefore, Seth’s and Stephen’s genetic advantage may have more more to do with their ability to concentrate on a task rather than any specific shooting gene. In addition to the right role model who provided an example to mimic, high-quality feedback and motivation, the Curry brothers may have inherited an indomitable will or high-task concentration or selective attention, and this genetic attribute may have combined with Coyle’s concept of staring to develop their shooting prowess, as opposed to some magic shooting gene that a person inherits at birth which determines his ultimate shooting skill.

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