On the Tuesday after the Easter weekend, anyone who cared about footy at work was talking about Patrick Dangerfield. Everyone was excited about the Hawks/Cats game, but it was Dangerfield that stole the show. He was eye-catching – strong, powerful, skilful and determined. You simply couldn’t not notice him. Even Hawks fans would’ve had to acknowledge his presence.
Then again, with the way all were talking, you’d think that the folk of my office, situated in Melbourne’s outer east, had never seen the man play before despite the fact he has spent the past eight years starring for Adelaide. It certainly was a stunning display by a man in his first game for a new club, but obviously those that have followed him would not have been surprised, such is his talent.
Talent is an elusive concept. To continue with the discussion, I must define my terms, so talent can be understood as “natural aptitude or skill”. It can seem so obvious: Dangerfield, Gary Ablett, Lance Franklin, Nathan Fyfe, Dustin Martin, amongst many others can do some things that far more many just can’t. That is a major driving force, I think, for people to watch sport. We want to see the things that talented people can do, and we like to see it happen in a competitive environment.
It makes for an exciting experience to see extraordinary things being performed under duress, especially when that thing is something we have attempted ourselves and found difficult. Still, while the talent of these men seems obvious, how exactly can you label someone’s talent without taking into account the determination and practice that has gone into the fulfilling of the talent? How do you know when the talent has stopped, and the hard work has kicked in?
My argument for that instance is that determination is a talent in itself, and that all of the successful, and more notably talented sportsmen also possess above average quantities of it themselves. Tom Liberatore and Anthony Miles may be blessed with less of the noteworthy skill of the Aussie Rules code, but they are blessed with the intangible ability to find the ball, and to want it more than those around them.
Over Easter, I noticed something about my two sons, Richard and Jack, that had me thinking about talent. I recall in the late 2000s Gary Ablett Jnr talking about how his father, the great Gary Snr, had taught him from a very early age to kick with his non-preferred foot. He had spoken about how that had set him up with a point of difference that he has capitalised on in his footy career. I don’t think, from memory, that I had tried to kick a footy on my wrong foot until I was at training when I was about 13 or 14 years old.
I remember being instructed to do so by our coach and heading back out to the witch’s hat with my heart thumping. Would my foot even strike the ball? Would everyone laugh at me? When I actually tried to execute the skill it was the most awkward thing I had ever done and I felt myself go beetroot in humiliation. I spent some time in my backyard over the next years just trying to attain some level of basic coordination at the left-foot kick just so I could perform it without embarrassment at training, not in a game.
Twenty odd years later, I’m still playing and, through my years of doing every third kick at training in the warm up on my left, I am able to use my left to get out of trouble in a game. I even once kicked a goal on my left when I came out of a pack and found myself completely out of position. It was my crowning achievement and a huge tick to my determination to improve. Still, compared to my right, my left is hopeless, and I’m not great on my right.
I watch him with admiration. He’s obviously spent a lot of time kickin’ the chicken, as he will beat me quite easily in banana shots at goal from the point post. The fact that he beats me at age seven may be one reason why he always wants to do it, but still, he beats me. Bananas are for eating. That said, I’d given myself credit for teaching Richo to kick on his wrong foot.
For some reason however, even though I play with Jack at the same time I play with Richo, I had forgotten to get him going on his wrong side. No big deal, he is just a tiny bloke at only three and a half years old, but he spends all his time with me and his brother kicking the footy, so I’m not sure why it slipped my mind. It didn’t slip his.
On Saturday over the Easter weekend, he said, “Daddy, how do I kick on my left foot?” I’ve never even spoken to him about it, so I can only assume that Richo had said something to him. I thought I’d just do the same as I did with Richo, and kick it on my left, show him which one his left foot was and let him go. Nup, no good.
The poor little bugger was really trying, but all he’d do is hold it over his left foot, run up and kick it on his right. It actually would have been quite funny to watch if not for the fact the little fella was so frustrated. That itself was probably funny too, because he’s so little. Well, his Mum did laugh. It was at the point where I was holding the ball in front of him, holding his right leg in place and getting him to swing his left foot at the ball, and then cheering like crazy when he just struck it and it dribbled about two feet to the side.
It turns out that Richo is just naturally, as my Dad would say, “amphibious”. When I think about him now, he bats left handed in cricket, although it took him a while to stop batting right handed every now and then. He writes right handed, but for a while bowled either hand before settling onto his right. When you study the way he does things, he just uses whatever hand is closest to the thing he wants to use and then uses it with that hand. Me? I’m right handed for everything. It would seem Jack is too.
Jack, though, is pretty determined too. By the end of the week, I was in the kitchen preparing something and I heard this little voice piping out, “Daddy, watch this?” I looked down, and there was Jack with a balloon in his hands. He dropped it and it slowly moved down toward the floor only to be struck by his left foot and to fly into the air. His face beamed up at me. He’d spent the week teaching himself to kick on his left foot with a balloon, aged three and a half. Determination is definitely a talent.
Being a father is a bloody interesting experience. Moments like that really reinforce that your kids are their own little people, with their own drives and interests and talents. The fact that their interests, at least at this early stage, seem to mirror my own can blur that a bit. But it is true. Richard can kick on both feet because he naturally can, and Jack, I’m thinking, will one day be able to, because he wants to.
Whether my conclusions are accurate or not, I think it is all fascinating. This kind of thinking has added a level of wonderment to the experience of watching sport. How do they do the things they do? How, indeed.