Understanding Giftedness and the Development of Talent to Its Highest Levels by Observing World Class Soccer Players

Steven I. Pfeiffer, PhD, ABPP

An interview with the lead author of the GRS-2, Steven Pfeiffer, recently appeared in the 2020 issue of the North American Journal of Psychology. Professor Pfeiffer was asked a number of questions about his views on giftedness, talent development, the new GRS-2, and ways to identify and nurture high ability kids. He has provided a short  summary of his answer to one of the interview questions that appears in the journal to whet the interest of our readers. A full interview is available here.

Interviewer Question: A burning question about giftedness and talent development, Dr. Pfeiffer- is it quantitative or qualitative- and what do you see as the differences?

Steven Pfeiffer: This is a terrific question!  It brings me back to my graduate student days, when I had the good fortune of studying with James Gallagher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Professor Gallagher had a lovely answer to the quantitative versus qualitative issue. He liked to say, and I am paraphrasing him here – “Try to view giftedness like water. At a certain temperature, it freezes into a  solid, ice. But when warmed, the ice melts and turns into something very different, a liquid. And under further heating, the liquid actually transforms from a liquid into a gaseous state.” Professor Gallagher would then ask: “are these different states of water: solid, liquid, and gas – qualitative distinctions? Or are they quantitative differences?”

Professor Gallagher’s challenge to us students – at least how I have come to interpret and understand his view, is that giftedness can be considered both as marked by quantitative and qualitative distinctions. I agree with this nuanced position when thinking about giftedness and talent development. It helped guide our thinking about the development of the GRS and GRS-2.  Let me use a soccer analogy, which readers of my work know I often rely upon by analogy when trying to explain intellectual or academic giftedness. The differences between most good High School varsity soccer players and weekend recreational soccer players, like myself, are, pretty much, quantitative. However, the differences between Division I College soccer players and world class soccer stars, such as Messi or Ronaldo, are, in many regards, astounding qualitative distinctions.

Messi and Ronaldo, and the other world class soccer players, perform, “on the turf,” in both quantitatively and in qualitatively different ways, compared to the rest of us who play soccer. Many things that they do on the field are more than just better or faster or more precise than what the rest of us can only hope to do. They play at an amazingly creative and elite level that captures our imagination because it reflects more than simply quantitative differences! The same is true among our most elite, eminent, and highly accomplished authors, poets, performing artists, scientists, politicians, engineers, mathematicians, physicians, teachers, and psychotherapists.

A second take-away from watching Messi, Ronaldo, and other world class soccer players on the field, training as well as competing, is this: They have an abundance of raw talent, considerable God-given gifts that are critical to develop to the highest levels on the soccer field. No question about this. But in addition to natural ability, to reach the highest levels in their chosen field, in this case soccer, they also need to develop to a very high level a number of specific physical and socio-emotional skills that complement their God-given gifts. Researchers have called these contextual, moderating and mediating factors. Whatever we label them, it is apparent to anyone who has spent considerable time on the sidelines watching elite youth develop, over time, into world-class soccer players, that many factors go into the equation that ultimately leads to elite performance on the playing field.

My point in thinking about soccer, which I love with an unbridled passion, is that the same is true in understanding the development of talent at its highest levels in almost any other field or profession, such as law, politics, the sciences, the performing arts, medicine, research, architecture, engineering… the list goes on and on. Of course, the factors that are uniquely important to the algorithm that creates a Messi or Ronaldo in soccer are not necessarily identical to the factors that create a world-class physician and immunologist such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, or world-renowned writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, or Joyce Carol Oates. The point is this: A great many factors, in addition to high-level ability, go into the equation that ultimately leads to the development of talent at its highest level of expression-whatever the field.

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