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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Nature vs nurture

Talent vs work: What determines sporting success?

Of the many debatable issues in sport (or in life, for that matter), few are as "unanswerable" as the issue of nature vs. nurture, the notion that people are born champions or made into champions through hours (and years) of hard work. This debate applies to just about anything - your salary, your ability to play a musical instrument, to paint, to play sport. We'll concern ourselves with sport, and that makes the debate a little more complex than it might be for other activities, as we'll see.

Further reading required

I recently did a couple of posts on the Matthew effect, and the logical extension of this debate is the debate about work vs natural ability, born vs bred. That was in fact suggested by a few of you in your comments, thank you very much! And so given the fact that it's topical and relevant, I thought that I'd do a short post today, introducing some preliminary thoughts. I have to do a great deal of reading before I commit to a more detailed, complete discussion about the matter, but this post contains some initial thoughts, with the promise to return to the subject later this year, once I've brushed up on some of the research and opinion.

There are a couple of good books on the subject. The initial discussion of the Matthew effect was stimulated by my reading of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and he devotes a section of the book to this discussion. It's called 10,000 hours, after the notion that this is the minimum amount of time it takes to become world class at anything. It's certainly well worth a read, but came across less than convincingly in the book - intuitively, perhaps as a result of scientific thinking, any dogmatic statement like "it takes 10,000 hours" will be met with scepticism.

Another good book, recommended by Simon (thank you!), is Talent is overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, which is next on my shopping list. Geoff Colvin wrote this article for Fortune magazine, which is something of an introduction to the idea, some preliminary reading, perhaps!

A question of perspective

Your position in the debate depends very much on your point of view and your own experiences. I suspect that every single one of you reading this can relate a story that supports either one of the positions. Perhaps you are yourself an example of someone who felt they did not possess the natural "talent" to excel at sport, but through hard work and training, managed to rise to the level of those who were more talented? (think Michael Jordan here). Or, you are the gifted athlete who has found that with minimal training, you can outperform most of your peers in a range of different activities?

I have to still do a great deal of reading on this subject - I'd be speaking out of turn if I laid all my thoughts down at this stage, with evidence. However, I will say upfront that I believe that both camps are right, within the context of their own arguments and experiences. That is, talent is crucial - some of us are naturally more gifted than others for sport. But talent is a low-resolution microscope, in that it's only good for separating people out into broad categories, on a global scale. Once you look a little more closely at a more homogenous group (that is, you match for ability), then the difference becomes work. The mistake made by both camps is that they tend to over-commit to their position, and discard the (in my opinion) likely possibility that talent and work affect performance differently depending on the group being evaluated. Because it's so context specific, one cannot be dogmatic and too sure of any position - if success was formulaic, then someone would be selling it by now!

I'll never forget a story related to me by Prof Tim Noakes after a trip to Kenya, where he attended the Nairobi marathon. A woman in one of the rural villages was constantly being disturbed by her noisy chickens early in the morning. She rushes outside one morning to see what is causing the commotion, and discovers that the chickens are being frightened by a group of runners out for their morning training run. Upon asking what they are doing running around the neighbourhood at 6am, she learns that they are training for the Nairobi Marathon in three months' time, where they can win money. Jump ahead three months, and SHE is the new marathon champion, having taken up running as a result of the dual inspiration provided by those runners and her noisy chickens! When three months of training can take a previously inactive person to the top of the tree, then you have a strong argument for natural talent.

However, in order to continue to improve and reach the very highest level (international marathons, in this case), she would have to do a great deal more training. That's because talent takes one only so far - without it, you have no chance. But to reach the higher levels, training and work become non-negotiable. The philosophical question, of course, is whether certain people LACK that natural ability to at least reach a given level of performance at sport. I believe the answer to be yes - you'd have a very hard time convincing me that every single person is capable of running a 2:10 marathon, even given enough training. So we have a hybrid of a talent and work model - one is insufficient when looking at the global picture. However, zoom in on a given level, and hard work becomes the separator.

Sports performance - a little more complex than just work

So now we focus specifically on sporting ability. And even here, not all sports are created equal. In the Fortune article, Colvin points to Tiger Woods as an example of hard work, from the age of 18 months, allied to a desire to constantly improve, as the force behind Woods' success. Perhaps golf lends itself to this.

I'm not as sure about running and cycling. Is it as simple as hard work equals winning? Can we conclude that Haile Gebrselassie is the record holder because he has trained harder than anyone else? Or did he train harder because he possessed some cluster of characteristics that set him off in that direction? In sport, the decision to train is rarely made without some assurance that the training will deliver a result and reward - that means that a natural predisposition to a sport is often the first requirement on the path to hard work, so the two are in fact inter-related.

Having said this, hard work is undoubtedly important, and in a sport like running (or any endurance sport, which we're obviously biased towards here at The Science of Sport) there is no substitute for training. But many athletes would not cope with even half the volume or intensity of training done by a Gebrselassie or Sammy Wanjiru. And even if they did rack up 200km weeks, running a 2:04 marathon would be beyond them, for reasons that are at this stage still unknown.

You've all heard of slow-twitch fibres, lung capacity, the genetic determinant of VO2max. These "limiting" factors are often put forward as reasons why some athletes simply cannot cut it. Conversely, whenever a great athlete comes along, we seek explanations in these numbers - "he has a VO2max of 85 ml/kg/min, his lung capacity is 5.8L and he only produces 3mM lactate at 80% of PPO" is a common argument for why a cyclist or runner is dominant.

This is the other extreme - the notion that great athletes are born, not made through training. As I've pointed out, it's likely to be just as incorrect. The fact of the matter is, if I gave you a list of elite cyclists or runners and their VO2max values, you would be unable to rank them in order of performance using that VO2max. Sometimes, the best cyclist doesn't have the highest VO2max, the best efficiency, the most slow-twitch fibres and the largest lungs.

The situation might be even more drastic for sprinting events - speed is without doubt the result of genetically determined factors meeting training effects. If you took a random sample of children from West Africa and another from a western European country, I have no doubt that on average, the West Africans will be faster in a sprint race. That's natural ability, physiologically determined, though the exact genes and physiological characteristics that go into this performance remain inconclusively known.

That's as much a reflection on the fact that sports science hasn't fully worked out what determines performance, and that performance is the result of a cluster of physiological, psychological and environmental traits that are currently too complex for us to analyse. Hard work and training is one of them, and when one looks at the very top level of performers, the difference made by hard work becomes the tiny difference between victory and defeat. But to tell people that they can achieve anything, regardless of their genes, seems to me to be misleading, when it is applied to sports like running and cycling.

However, I'm open to change, and plan to read up and find out much more - perhaps next time I post on this topic, later in the year, I'll be singing a different tune!



Unknown said...

Malcolm Gladwell talks mostly about sports involving neurological prowess. That's why arguments against talent seem irefutable, because we don't exactly master that domain. It is damn hard for someone to look at your CATscan and tell you what kind of activities you are gifted for. It's not like looking at a kenyan runner and see he has no legs, just something kinda like matchsticks or whathaveyou.

Now, all is not lost, people have been studying elites for a long time, and have seen how they differ from the general population. Simple things, like the conspicuosly large percentage of left-handers in different fields of activity do suggest brains that are wired a bit differntly are more succesful-talent, anyone? It is just so very cute and politically correct to say that if you work harder than everybody else you will be the best.

Anyway, I believe Malcolm Gladwell provides motivational literature, or what we call consumer literature, at least where I am from. That would always mix truth, but also cherry-picking and generally telling people what they already know, to connect with them, as well as telling them what they want to hear, to reassure them. They are not very sound. All for the purpose of selling more and more and authors becoming rich and famuous.
So it's not science, maybe pseudo-science. Someone compared mr. Gladwell with Reader's Digest, that would be appropriate.
I recall recently I was very disappointed when I found out my sister is an avid consumer of this genre.

I can see some bashing coming my way, as this might be a sensitive subject to some, but the books you mention are rather tangent to the discussions on this site which are mostly about running. I have my opinions, other people have theirs, let's just respect and tolerate each other's.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to express here something that may only look like my own history, but it is, in my life, the best argument I founded against "hard work".

In the last 16 years, I ran 100+ km every week. I became a certified coach for not too bad young athletes (I do believe that, with their obvious talent and big hard work, some of them will be at an international level around 2015...), I have au Vo2max, laboratory tested, of 76. I am ready to discuss with any high level athlete who claim is work ethic is better than mine. So, the problem is that my PB on a 10km, when I was 24, is 36:35. It is not impressive. Why ? Because I had absolutely no talent. I have training knowledge, I have trained for a while putting all required element into it and even that I will stay "slow". You can't tell me that without talent you can run, for example, a 32:00 10k. And I don't even talk here about under 28 minutes.

I am not good, but I did improve a lot. My first 10k, with one year of training, was a 45:37. In 10 000 hours or so, I came with all techniques (strengh stuff, psychological prep, etc.) to 36-37. So, it is a 9 minutes improvement. I guess it is nearly more than what we could see from elite athletes. At 16 years old, mostly on talent, Gebressalassie could probably have run a 10k in 34.

For all different factors (efficiency, body composition...) there is an obvious limit to what someone can achieve with works.

Thinking otherwise would mean for me telling I could have run at an international level. Nothing is more untrue.

Yes, we should never overemphasised one size or the other of the debate.

End of my story.

Anonymous said...

Another variable is that not only do our initial capabilities vary, but the ratio of initial to max. performance also varies.

By this I mean that people respond to training differently. In my limited experience I've seen athletes with little apparent ability train hard with only some improvement. I've seen others with limited apparent ability become national-level athletes. Sure, they worked hard, but their bodies also seem to respond better to training than others. Maybe they trained smarter as well as harder; who knows.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Thanks as always, some good comments and thoughts.

To Mircea

You're right, in many respects. And there'll be no bashing from me - your argument is well thought out and explained, and that's what we want to see, so I appreciate your sentiments.

I think it's a little harsh to accuse Gladwell of simply pandering to the market's desire to hear cute and politically correct messages. Much like your sister disappointed you, it would seem that you might be disappointed in this series and interest in Gladwell's points! I love Gladwell's books, because they inspire thought and a view of the world that I wouldn't get any other way. It's not the content so much as the method that is valuable.

I enjoy it when one can look at the world and provide a different view of it, by thinking laterally and gaining a different perspective. It's challenging and eye-opening, and that's important. It's what we're trying to do here, in fact, on this site. I fear the day when I become too narrow to learn from people in other disciplines, even if they are Reader's Digest types!

Not that I'm trying to defend him (or anyone else, for that matter), but it struck me as interesting that you feel that his books are tangent to the discussions on this site. They're not, actually. This site is trying to take the same approach as him and a host of other writers (Levitt, Dubner, Harford, etc) and think critically about sports science (not just running), and then express opinions - think Freakonomics meets Exercise Physiology. And then to facilitate debate. These first 3 posts of 2009 are especially debatable, and because they were inspired by his book, I'm all for continuing along that thread! But you're right, we need to tolerate and hear other people's positions.

To anonymous

Well put, your story is right on. As Mircea says above, there is probably a difference in the interpretation of the debate when you apply it to things like running, and your case illustrates that nicely. So thanks for the story!

Finally, to Sphynx:

Absolutely, you're right. The adaptability is another trait that is no doubt determined by a cluster of factors, both physiological and environmental. I think also there is a mental and emotional factor, in that some people stick with things for longer, and maybe overcome that initial barrier. That is also difficult to quantify, just as training adaptability is. The problem is clearly very complex!

Anonymous said...

Great disacussion Ross!

I like the fact that in the Colvin article you link to there is a picture of Tiger Woods playing golf - at age 3.

That buries the nature vs nurture argument, at least as it might apply to Tiger Woods, right there. I mean, think about it, how can anyone be "born" to play golf? Running, jumping, throwing, even maybe swimming, but golf? It's a made-up game that doesn't give us any kind of evolutionary advantage that we need be physiologically equipped for. (Golfers may disagree :) )

So this natural "talent" thing. If we define talent as, say, "having the physiological equipment for", then it is obvious that someone with a shot-putter's body is not going to challenge Haile over a marathon, whether he puts 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" in or not. And vice versa. But will either be an Olympic champion or world record-holder WITHOUT that practice? No. As you say, at that level it's a given.

But a question that needs answering is, can we tell how much of an elite athlete's so-called "natural" talent is actually not born, but bred - or developed in response to focused activity that begins at an early age while the body is still growing?

In other words, if that "shot-putter" had started running six miles to school at age 6 (like Haile did), would he have then been declared a "natural" runner?

What about Michael Phelps? He has a well-publicised crop of "genetic gifts", but most people walk straight past the fact he started swim training at age 7 (he is 23 now).

And that's leaving aside the mental, emotional, tactical and technical skills parts of the success-in-sport equation.

Ross, you identify the limitations of the current knowledge in sports science... well, genetics as applied to potential sports performance is even "younger" as a discipline, to the point where it is mostly guesswork. So when you say "But to tell people that they can achieve anything, regardless of their genes, seems to me to be misleading, when it is applied to sports like running and cycling"... I can only partially agree with you. I thnk what's far more misleading is to tell people that they won't or can't succeed, because they're simply not "talented" enough.

As Colvin says, the importance of talent in sporting success has been over-rated.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that recent research papers have shown considerable plasticity in muscle-fiber type. By using electrostimulation a few researchers have shown that it's possible to convert slow twitch fibers in fast twitch fibers and vice versa. So even the "natural genetic endowment" (genotype?) of an individual's fibers can be modified.

XLCR Technologies said...


The 'nature vs. nurture' debate is seems to have no end. In my opinion, the problem is that the premise is wrong. We should start thinking in terms of 'nature via nurture'. It's not a matter of one versus the other. One acts through the other.

10 years and/or 10,000 hours may be a requirement for achieving expertise. This would explain why there's a compelling body of supporting evidence. But there are at least two necessary preconditions:
• The "template" needs to be in place - i.e. the requisite IQ needs to exist
• The athlete must also have the willingness to commit that much time and effort to regular, deliberate, guided practice


Steven Plisk
Excelsior Sports | Shelton CT
Prepare To Be A Champion!

Anonymous said...

I think one area that is often overlooked in these debates is a given elite athlete's ability to recover and remain injury free long term in training when comparing elites with similar isolated performances. This may just confound the debate over nature versus nurture, or nature via nurture. Is this one more "natural" ability that another of similar ability does not have in his or her genetic predisposition, or was this a "nurtured" result from years of differing developmental activities, such as walking/running to school, or playing a variety of sports as a youth, etc.?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Again, thanks for the comments, some good food for thought!

First, to Simon:

Agreed on the golf. And it strongly suggests that nurture beats nature, but I wouldn't say it buries it - until you find someone who goes through EXACTLY the same environment as Woods, the argument will never be completely buried! And of course, that's impossible, so the debate rages on!

One thing I think I could stage with 100% certainty is that someone who becomes a great shot-put athlete would never have become an endurance athlete - they have the wrong body type and no amount of training, even at the age of 5 or 6, would likely have changed this. So I feel that there is a genetic element that precludes certain people from success in certain events (and of course, this same factor predisposes them to success in other sports - shot put athletes could well have been great 100m sprinters, for example. But not marathon runners).

A very obvious example of this is the Polynesian population who tend to be meso-endomorphs, whereas the east African tends to be ectomorphic, and that is a genetic difference that 10,000 hours and years of training won't change.

As for Phelps, he's a champion because he has natural gifts which he has maximized through hard work. Many others with the same physiological capacity (body dimensions, biochemistry, mechanical, cardiovascular) will not achieve what he has because they have not put in the work. Similarly, there may well be those out there who possess this cluster of physiological traits, or may be even better, but don't succeed.

I really can't believe that his dominance is the result of a dominance in training, in that he works that much harder than everyone else. I think he probably works harder, but there is more to this than hard work.

Just a note on Colvin - I haven't read the book (it's been ordered), but I did read the article in Fortune, and his argument regarding sports is, in my opinion, very weak. He suggests that one's physiological traits are responsible for determining what we do NOT do, rather than what we do. HIs example is that someone who is not 6 foot tall is NOT going to be a great basketballer - one could argue that this person then, did not possess the talent, and the corollary is that success in sport is, at least in part, determined by genetics. He doesn't give that argument the focus it deserves.

I don't think one can separate talent and hard work, but I am convinced that some people do not have the necessary physiology to succeed, regardless of the work. and by extension, this means that some people do - they have an advantage, which STILL REQUIRES considerable work to realize, but their success is the result of a marriage between the two. So my statement that it's misleading to suggest that "anyone can be successful at anything" is conjecture - you're right, in that we don't know which genes determine this. But we do know that it's determined. All that remains is to explain it.

So the notion of "all is possible" is simply not true for things like running, cycling, swimming and sport in general. I really do believe it takes the realization of talent, through hard work, to create exceptional athletes. I'm sure that's pretty unoriginal though, and most would agree!

To Giovanni:

Yes, indeed, though I am yet to be convinced that any amount of training will convert a tortoise into a hare. The studies use electrical stimulation and I'm sure that switching of fibers is possible to a small extent through training. But it's never going to rewire the nervous system to such an extent that we change an athlete from a marathoner into a 100m sprinter. Perhaps I'm wrong...?

To Excelsior

Quite true, though I guess one could say Nurture via nature, if you start from the position that some people, predisposed to success in certain sports, are more likely to seek opportunities to improve and then become better and better. So you're right - to me, the two are inseparable, and the debate exists only as a challenge to understand them. I don't think (and I don't think anyone would disagree) that success requires enormous work. I guess the issue is whether "normal" individuals can achieve the same level of success on the same work volume - I think not, when it comes to sport, for all the reasons explained above.

To Rob

Yes, I think that the ability to remain injury free is a very crucial part of that "cluster" of attributes. Whether it is nature or nurture re-ignites the whole debate! I'd say it's a mix of both, which is the fence-sitting opinion!


Asher said...

Overall I am strong believer that in the "neurological" sports, training is king and natural ability can only get you so far. However, a possible exception is Jim Thorpe, who was able to compete at a world-class level with little training in sports that require immense degrees of coordination and training, such as the high jump and American football. Thorpe seems to have been an outlier among outliers in natural ability.


Unknown said...

Well done on picking this issue, as I wrote on my blog regarding Gladwell's book, sport is slightly different. Without genetic predisposition and good advice I don't think "just by training" an individual can accomplish incredible results (even if some do despite poor advice clearly!).

Nick said...

I have to say, having read the following from the Fortune article, my gut reaction is that I'd find Colvin's book unconvincing. For example:

"Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don't get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day - that's deliberate practice."

Why assume untalented implies unfocused? I'm a terrible golfer, but that's not because I don't know that I'm supposed to be aiming for the green.

Defined as such, 'deliberate practice' is indistinguishable from talent. Otherwise put, if training is redefined to be the ability to perform or adapt towards certain objective goals, then it's easy to say that all one requires is 'deliberate training', because talent has now simply been subsumed into 'deliberate'. It's tantamount to me claiming that genetic endowment is irrelevant in training for a 2:30 marathon as long as one includes 'deliberate' tempo runs of 6 miles @ 5:30 pace.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI again

Thanks for the comments.

To Marco:

Yes, agreed. Interesting that some people succeed IN SPITE of their training and work, not because of it! I'm sure you can think of many athletes who followed a programme that was far from optimal and succeeded - an argument for talent, surely!

To NickC

Well put. I also found Colvin's arguments regarding sport rather unconvincing, as I wrote in a comment above (in response to Simon, if I recall). And you've hit the nail on the head. I think what you have is a cycle where talent affirms work, which improves ability, and continues to feed itself to the point where those who can, do. And those who can't, often try, but just don't seem to find that level of performance. And much of that is physiological, I have no doubt.

I guess the real question is whether your golf game (like mine, I'll confess) might be the result of "training" that I did not do when I was still 4 years old! Perhaps (and this is a devil's advocate argument) I missed the boat because I did not do activities (even playing) at that young age, and as a result, developed motor control skills that were not quite up to being a pro golfer? That would suggest that "training" is important, but that it's not training that we typically measure.

I still believe, as I think you do, that some people lack that natural ability. What is impossible to know with certainty is whether that lack of ability we see now (including the unresponsiveness to training) might have been overcome with the right situation and activities early in life.

When it comes to running, however, I have no doubt that this is not the case - if you don't have the hardware (and software) to run a 2:30 marathon, then you won't, regardless of your training efforts!


CT said...

a few comments

1) The original work in deliberative practice (10yrs/10K hours) looked at musicians, chess masters, PhDs, surgeons....but not athletes. Several researchers have challenged the relevance of the theory of deliberative practice to developing sport expertise, specifically finding that far fewer hours are required, and that unstructured play and a broad sport experience are important factors in future success.

2) In the previous post, you're looking for a way to limit the age effect in the selection (and drop out) of young athletes. Cote (1st link below) notes that the "Matthew Effect" is not evident in some sports, presumably because they employ weight classes, or competition starts at later ages.

2a) One solution to the "Matthew Effect" is to organize young athletes according to physical maturity, not chronological age. This can be achieved by determining an individual's "Peak Height Velocity" (PHV - aka the growth spurt) which is an easy, valid and reliable non-invasive measure of physical maturity. This approach is recommended by sport governing bodies which have adopted I. Balyi's "LTAD" framework (2nd link). To date, I'm not aware of any sports which are actually organizing competitions based on PHV, despite proclaiming to adhere to LTAD principles.

C Taylor



CT said...

second try for the link to Cote's work. Select "2007", then "Cote, Baker, Abernethy Handbook.pdf"


XLCR Technologies said...


Some useful quotes - from some authors/resources that are excellent.


Steven Plisk
Excelsior Sports | Shelton CT
Prepare To Be A Champion!
“I believe human behavior has to be explained by both nature and nurture. No longer is it nature versus nurture but nature via nurture. Genes are designed to take their cues from nurture. The more we lift the lid on the genome, the more vulnerable to experience genes appear to be.”
— Matt Ridley, The Agile Gene

“Learning could not happen without an innate capacity to learn. Innateness could not be expressed without experience. The truth of each idea is not proof of the falsehood of another.
“The more we discover genes that influence behavior, the more we find that they work through nurture; the more we find that animals learn, the more we discover that learning works through genes.”
— Matt Ridley, The Agile Gene

“Experience can rewire the brain
and there is some evidence that [certain] abilities are wired up on the fly during childhood —
they are ‘softwired’ during development rather than hardwired in the manner of instincts. Self-organization from experience can create specialized areas of expertise in human cerebral cortex,
when done early enough in life — and it changes the foundation on which later things can build. It’s not just that the earlier you do it, the better as an adult,
but that the order in which you learn things might matter.”
— William H. Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind

“In well-established domains of expertise, even the most ‘talented’ cannot reach an international level in less than approximately a decade of experience and intense preparation.”
— K.A. Ericsson, Expert Performance in Sports

“The highest levels of human performance in different domains can only be attained after around ten years of extended, daily amounts of deliberate practice activities.”
— K.A. Ericsson & A. C. Lehmann, Annual Review in Psychology 47: 273-305, 1996

“The 10-year rule can be generalized to several different domains, including vigorous sports.
According to this rule, not even the most ‘talented’ individuals can attain international performance without approximately 10 years of preparation; the vast majority of international-level performers have spent considerably longer.”
— K.A. Ericsson & A. C. Lehmann, Annual Review in Psychology 47: 273-305, 1996

“In chess, sports, and many other domains with thousands of active participants, individuals attain internationally recognized levels of exceptional performance only after spending about 10 years in intense preparation. In several domains expert performers engage in deliberate practice for around 4 h per day, a level that appears to be the maximum individuals can sustain on a daily basis for many years”
— K.A. Ericsson & A. C. Lehmann, Annual Review in Psychology 47: 273-305, 1996

“In most domains of expertise, individuals begin in their childhood a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to optimize improvement. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.”
K.A. Ericsson, R.T. Krampe & C. Tesch-Romer, Psychological Review 100(3): 363-406, 1993

Anonymous said...

Talent v Work - in my view neither is the definitive determinent. Both are significant contributors and within each person, including the champion players and athletes, there be different sizes of contribution of each.

Our overall knowledge of how to develop talent is restricted by our limited appreciation of the psyhcological factors at play. It is only human nature that we like to identify more objective and tangible elements like 10,000 hours of practise, certain types of muscle fibres, VO2 max etc. These can then help to inform working structures and strategies and they are not with total non merit.

What we have been less incline to investigate is the psychological elements. They are subjective and intangible, and therefore percieved as "looser". For example, the point that Haile Gabrelaisse, might not trained the hardest in terms of miles run and times done. But yet the training was not all about the means to the end of higher VO2 max etc but the commitment, effort and dedication involved may have meant that when he stood on the start line, it had given him the confidence to believe in himself. A pyschological effect.

So I enjoy Gladwell's books, and indeed his previous one, Blink, gives an interesting perspective on the value of experience and how it is obtained. I dont take his statements and supporting stories as fact but certainly I find them stimulating to consider some significant concpets in a different way.

Another element of talent that may be of interest is Carol Dweck's work on mindsets. She, orginally from educational work, identifies two types of mind set - growth and fixed. (and how to identify which is majoritive in a person). Growth means people enjoy and engage more in the learning process, whilst fixed don't and see things as more about given talent. She argues that Tiger woods is growth and John McEnroe is fixed. So not necessarily about how talented you and fixed can still be a champion player but it does begin to give an extra psychological measure of consideration to talent identification.

Psychological issues such as mental toughness, great attitude are so important to champions. In my view whenever players "make it" into senior sport, say a Rugby player at 22 into his professional club/provincial side and onto the international side, then quite often coaches, media, family, previous coaches etc will make statements that he managed it due to a "good attitude" or being a "tough competitor". But yet at 14, 15 , 16, when we are trying to identify them, we tend to underplay, back off pyschological factors, as they are too intangible at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Two comments on your comments Ross and Jon.

1)You say: "But it's never going to rewire the nervous system to such an extent that we change an athlete from a marathoner into a 100m sprinter. Perhaps I'm wrong...?"
Just thought I'd throw that world marathon record-holder Haile Gebrselassie can cover 1500m in 3:47, which translates to 14 seconds per 100m, so God knows what he does a single 100m repeat in :)

2) You said: "As for Phelps, he's a champion because he has natural gifts which he has maximized through hard work." Agreed. And I also agree that it is highly unikely that anyone can turn someone with a shot-putter's body into an elite marathoner... that said, we actually don't know - it depends how early in life you start the specific training, doesn't it?

Where I'm coming from on this is I don't think we are paying enough attention to the physical effects of long-term training on a particular genetic template. We don't know how many of Phelps' "gifts" were present at age 7, and how many were developed by years of focused/deliberate training.

Guys, I never suggested that we should tell people that "all is possible" as you put it - that's New Age crap thinking. What I said was that it is "misleading is to tell people that they won't or can't succeed, because they're simply not 'talented' enough".

I guess I was "scarred for life" in this regard when as a reporter for the UK's Cycling Weekly I watched the transformation of a well-known genetically-giftless average club rider we all trained with and all "knew" didn't have much talent, into a TI Raleigh pro who rode the Tour de France.

Don't write people off on the basis of "talent" or lack of it, or on the basis of poorly-understood genetic endowment, is what I'm saying.

Jamie said...

Hi All

In my mind there is no doubt that nature and nurture are both vital.

One thing I do know for certain is that talented athletes that dont work hard will be good but never excellent and hard workers with little talent the same.

I think that the following are key:

Genetic predisposition - choose your parents genes well - physical stature is critical in many sports. There are very few if not no marathon champions that are 6'6" or rowing champions that are 5' (maybe some coxes!!)

Parental Support - the importance of the parents attitude towards sports and activities as part of the growth and development of children is important. Those who support school sports but then let there kids play xbox for 12 hours a day during holidays are not going to have good athletes. There is no doubrt in my mind that successful athletes must be active all year round during childhood. Get the kids out of the house and doing stuff - it doesnt have to be structured training - playing in the local park will do.

Competitive spirit - Successful athletes are driven by success. They enjoy winning and are driven by loosing to train harder or better in order to improve. They dont swim or run fast because they enjoy that, they do it because they like proving they are better than those around them. Willpower, determination, perseverence, stubbornness, self control, sacrifice etc etc are part of this and are what will carry athletes through the hard times and brutal training sessions

Nutritional stability - the athlete has access to the calories required to sustain growth and development on top of competitive training or an active lifestyle. Athletes will not be successful on one meal a day. (hence some of the lack of success in SA with transformation projects targeting the lower (poorer) class)

Financial security - in addition to nutrition having the cash to join a swim team, buy tennis racquets etc etc will be critical. Also you need cash to pay for coaches, tours etc. Except in very few sports the poor will not get to the elite level without substantial financial support somewhere along the way.

Coaching support - the athlete needs access to quality coaching and nurturing in sport environment from an early age. These coaches will make training interesting, rewarding and supportive. Coaches should nurture athletes through tough times and periods where they may not be successful and also rein them in a bit if success gets to them a bit. I am 100% convinced that even the most supremely talented athletes will not be World or Olympic Champions in any sport without substantial coaching input.

These are the critical points that will get you 98% of the way to Olympic or World Champion. The other 2% (magic bullet that we spend so much time looking for) are the input of sports science, technology, psychology etc etc.

(and in the 2% the sport science/technology I refer to are not the general understanding of these subject which any coach should have but the more cutting edge research that is exploring the limits of performance)

Anonymous said...

To Simon:

You wrote "Haile Gebrselassie can cover 1500m in 3:47, which translates to 14 seconds per 100m".

You must have used the mile distance in your calculation, because the above results in 15 seconds per 100m. :-)