The Talent Builders

Two related news items from last week: Tom Martinez died, and Jeremy Lin kept succeeding.

1) Most people haven’t heard of Tom Martinez. The obituaries mention that he coached at a small school in California; he worked with a succession of quarterbacks who became great, most prominently Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Martinez is described as Brady’s “guru” because Brady visited Martinez most years for a tuneup.  They also mention the amazing fact that Martinez also coached  three sports (football, softball, basketball), and achieved more than 1,700 wins, 32 championships, with never a losing season.

I spent a few days with Martinez reporting The Talent Code. Of all the master teachers I met, he might have been the most masterful. I remember him telling me how he taught himself to be a good teacher — “I trained my eyes to be a camera,” was how he put it. I remember how curious he was about the Little League baseball team I was coaching; how he grabbed my notebook out of my hand so he could diagram a drill for me to use. (I did use it; it worked fantastically well.) I remember how much deep pleasure he got in watching Tom Brady perform; I also remember the even deeper pleasure he got from helping a mediocre player improve to become average, or even excellent.

2) Last week, as the entire planet is aware, Jeremy Lin kept succeeding. His miracle story — from overlooked nobody to multitalented all-star — captivates us. But if you scratch the glossy surface, you can see that it’s anything but a miracle. In fact, (as this terrific story shows) Lin’s talents have been constructed with the help of a group of teachers and coaches — Doc Scheppler, Stephen Silas, Kenny Atkinson, Eric Musselman, and Phil Wagner — his own crew of anonymous, invisible Tom Martinezes. Lin’s success hasn’t been fueled by some gift, but rather by a sustained act of cooperation and construction: intensive, targeted workouts over the past two years to build the exact skills he’s now showing the world.

Great teachers and coaches are mostly invisible. But the truth is, nobody builds their talent alone. We’re all standing on the shoulders of the people who taught us, who designed the spaces where we learned. Finding ways to find, define, and celebrate those underappreciated people might be one of the most powerful things we can do.

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