The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about Navy SEAL training which described a categorization the trainers referred to as “race horses and mutts.” This is something I’m sure most teachers encounter in one way or another through the course of their profession.
Race horses are elite, those with an exceptional skill base to bring to whatever is the endeavor. In the case of the SEALS, they quietly recruit athletes at triathlons, marathons, etc, looking for those who are physically fit and mentally tough enough to endure the training.
Mutts are those people who don’t come with a high-octane pedigree. They aren’t gifted in ways that are obvious, but they can be a diamond in the rough.
Whatever category one comes from is no predictor of ultimate success. The SEAL instructors’ comments reflect my own observations, that a superior candidate won’t always have the qualities to ultimately succeed. The fact that physical gifts elevate one to the higher echelons of performance has little to do with the mental and emotional stamina to maximize that potential.
A mutt, on the other hand, has probably had to develop strong inner resources to achieve success. Lacking innate skills, this is someone who has overcome limitations throughout their life by dedication and hard work.
Look at how many legendary martial art masters started out as sickly children who were brought to training to build up their vitality. A surprising number of these guys made it to the top when stronger, more active kids dropped out. I think there is a point where they see they are moving past those to whom they once looked up, and that realization confirms a commitment to the path.
In my years I’ve seen plenty of much better athletes come and go. As the SEAL article describes, guys who've naturally excelled might quit and move on when they hit the point where natural ability no longer suffices. Someone who has struggled stubbornly early on could find their growth accelerating rather than peaking early and bogging down. No guarantees either way; all you can measure are the results.
The JKD folk talk about attributes. Size, strength and speed are physical examples, and fixed by genetics. Intelligence and toughness are harder to quantify. Just think of all the football studs who got drafted high and never made an impact in the pros, while many successful players came from behind through their focus and determination.
Clichés evolve from the wisdom of accumulated observation. Some examples are: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog;” Kung-fu means success through effort over time;" "99% of success is showing up."
Short spurts of growth only raise the level of the dam, but it takes filling in the reservoir of experience behind it to maximize that potential. Only then can the dam be built higher, increasing the capacity for further growth.