Potential is the scale against which ability should be measured, and in turn, ability is the scale against which a performance should be measured. Why? Well allow me to try and explain.
All too often I see people measure their own efforts in a particular situation against where they think they are truly capable of being, or against where they once might have been, rather than against their real ability in the moment.
Think of it this way; you have a limit according to your potential, in any given field or speciality. Take a 1 mile run as an example. If the fastest human ever to run it is 3:43, we can assume with some certainty that your potential is slower than this (assuming, that is, that you aren’t seriously training for, and heading towards this record, in which case, please disregard this example). We could dig deep into your genetic makeup, muscle fiber type, training history and age, sex, mindset, and a whole host of other factors, but chances are you have the potential, or at least did once upon a time, to reach a fastest time of somewhere between 4 and 6 minutes if we count out any circumstances which would physically preclude this. Now let us say you just tried, aged 40, without having run for a couple of years, sporting a little extra body fat and some trainers you’d normally wear to the pub, to run a mile. You did this cold, shortly after a big meal, uphill, and into a headwind. Obviously some of these factors are external, out of your control, and therefore should be discounted from this scenario, at least on the face of it, however I will later suggest that they play their part.
Even the untrained observer can spot the error in assuming your 11 minute result is a sign of unfulfilled potential. The reality is though, for that potential to be realised, several things have to have occurred, either by choice or not, for you to be in a position to realise that potential. I’d contend at this point that external factors such as wind could prevent one from realising their true potential, so shouldn’t be altogether discounted. So with all this in mind, take a scale of 0-100. Plot where you are along that spectrum in terms of realised potential in a given discipline, or stick to the case study we are using, and estimate where you are regarding a 1 mile run. I’ll go first, I think I am about 75% along that scale. If I’d have made more sacrifices elsewhere, I think I may have been a 4:30 runner at best (I don’t have a small enough frame, or enough fast twitch fibres for faster as I see it). Right now, I’m confident I could still muster 5:30, or slightly faster. I have once run 5 minutes flat, but this was aged 30. Since speed over this distance deteriorates with age, my potential best now is obviously slower than it once was.
So now I have two estimated numbers; a potential best of 4:30, but an ability best of 5:30. I can measure that 5:30 against the 4:30 and say I’ve only fulfilled 75% of my 1 mile potential. But to measure an effort in a race tomorrow against my potential would be foolish. Say I ran 5:45. Measured against my potential, that’’s woeful, but measured against my ability, not so bad. What’s more, factor in some of those external factors, which can limit both the development of ability, and single performances, and things might actually be much rosier.
Of course, all of this could be displayed mathematically, and might look something like:
Performance = (Effort x Ability) - External Limitations
Ability = (Potential - External Limitations) x (Optimised Effort x Time*)
*Where time dedicated to optimisation builds towards time at which potential is biologically reached
These are grossly simplified formulae designed to be illustrative rather than instructive or deductive.