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Viola Spolin on Athletic Talent

What kind of vague notion bubbles up during, oh... let's say a long solo ride training build for a 2020 IRONMAN event likely to be cancelled?


For me, a 50-54AG athlete and coach, it's pondering the connection between improvisation and IRONMAN. How did individuals influence modern brands? How did Viola Spolin influence Second City? How did John and Julie Moss influence IRONMAN?


Aficionados (nerds) of modern theatrical improvisation know Viola Spolin kinda the way age-groupers know John & Julie Moss--impressive oddballs from the distant past who had the nearly unrecognizable, yet fundamental idea that led to two multi-million dollar brands--The Second City and IRONMAN, respectively. No relation.


This entry follows the vein we're mining on connections between improv and Ironman, with this Viola Spolin quote:

"We must reconsider what is meant by 'talent.' It is highly possible that what is called talented behavior is simply a greater individual capacity for experiencing. From this point of view, it is in the increasing of the individual capacity for experiencing that the untold potentiality of a personality can be evoked."

In this quote taken from Chapter 1 of the seminal book of her life's work, "Improvisation for the Theater," Spolin is talking about misunderstanding the word "talent." There's an awful lot of hippie bing-bongery packed into three sentences. Let's break it down.


Most people then, as now, loooove the idea that talent cannot be taught. "They've just got 'it,'" an indescribable, unteachable quality that flows effortlessly out of the subject. Talent scouts (both theater and athletic), critics and color commentators, as well as lazy directors and bad coaches all use "talent" as a cop out. As in, "He's an incredibly talented singer." or "She's a very talented swimmer," or even, "You can't teach that." This attitude leads many people--for our purposes, age group triathletes--to shrug off their own massive potential and resign themselves to being lesser-than because talent is "genetic." As if talent is both measured out and affixed at birth.


Pffft. Nonsense.


In her bing-bongy way, Spolin says that "...it is highly possible..." to rethink talent as something that can be developed. Talent is not just current capacity (what we start with), but also potential capacity to experience (what we can add). Through games. Game play. Playing.


Viola Spolin learned creative group play at Recreational Training School at Chicago's Hull House from 1924 to 1927, later applying what she learned at FDR's New Deal WPA Recreational Project at a local settlement-house theater. During and after the Great Depression, she developed game-based techniques for teaching theater to immigrant children and adults. In other words, coaching less culturally acclimated populations of immigrant families, during the most economically difficult decades of U.S, history, dealing with major major obstacles... to play games and have fun.


Good coaches agree with Spolin's approach: talent can be developed. Great coaches take this to the logical extreme: if we all have massive capacity to experience, massive potential, then the coach's job is to maximize athletic potential, regardless of conditions.


There's no way I'm the only coach who thinks this way, even though I suspect I'm the only one to have gotten from Viola Spolin to triathlon training. If I'm not the first, please contact me! Nerdery loves company.


Spolin goes on to say,

"Experiencing is penetration into the environment, total organic involvement...on all levels...when the right answer 'just came' or we did 'exactly the right thing without thinking.'"

Again, while she is talking about theater, it applies to triathlon. When we are fully present in the moment--during training, while racing, heck...even just being aware of our exertion, our breathing--we are capable of realizing our expanding our potential. In the same way actors practice to relax and be fully present, athletes seek flow.


For the next blog chapter, we will get into flow. (Ha!)


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