Nature versus Nurture- the pendulum swings

I can’t figure out why people are so polarized on the nature vs nurture argument within sports. On one hand, you have your Eric Ericsson/10,000 hour side (and most recently, it has been Malcolm Gladwell touting this concept in Outliers). On the other hand, I have heard it argued that all you need is great genetics and you’re set (admittedly, I’m simplifying the Sports Gene, but you get the idea).

Standing Broad Jump

The fact of the matter is that neither extreme is both sufficient and necessary for explaining success. 10,000 hours is not necessary for success (we have all had those lucky athletes blessed with amazing natural talent, who pick up and master new motor skills in a heartbeat), nor is it sufficient (Rudy only got to play one game, despite his efforts). Genetics may be necessary for creating the environment for performing at the highest level, but they are certainly not sufficient, since an athlete actually has to train!

Success in sports is undoubtedly a combination both of genetics and practice/training. The best training program in the world can’t turn an endomorph motor moron into a sprinter, nor will a perfect genetic smorgasbord make the Olympics without training.

For a huge number of us, we don’t get the luxury of choosing which athletes we get to work with. College strength and conditioning coaches get the athletes sport coaches recruit, and private S&C coaches get the ones who can afford to pay for training. Unless you are in the lucky position to be on the receiving end of a talent ID program, we get the athletes we get.

In that context, I suppose it is the training that matters the most at that point, but we will never be able to turn a Rudy into an Adrian Petersen.  To quote a mentor: “If we recruit sows ears, all we will have at the end of four years are stronger, faster sow’s ears.”

This doesn’t mean that we, as coaches or athletes, shouldn’t strive to be the best or drive our athletes to the best we possibly can.  We, or our athletes, may or may not have the genetics to be medal-winner at the Olympics, but we can still be pretty darn good. Here is a quote slightly modified from Seth Godin for our scenario:

It’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that being good at [your sport] is a genetic predisposition, as it lets us off the hook. The truth is, with few rare exceptions, all of us are capable of being good at [your sport]. I’ll grant you that it might take a gift to be great at [your sport], but if you’re not good at [your sport], it’s not because of your genes.

Here is some further reading if you like this topic, from the Science of Sport Blog:
10,000 hours vs training debate.