In the modern world of sport, the prospect of someone being labelled as ‘naturally gifted’ is an increasingly prominent notion. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily detract from the hard work and dedication required to be successful, it can be a somewhat ambiguous term that isn’t readily quantified in terms of its’ impact on an individuals’ sporting pedigree.
With this in mind, we are going to take a look at the impact of an individuals’ natural ability and genetic gifts when compared to the nurturing environment in which those abilities can be honed.
There can be no denying that certain physical traits lend themselves better than others when it comes to elite sports performance. A 7ft male from America between the ages of 20-40 will have a 17% chance of being in the NBA, where height is a pivotal component of many selection criteria.
Global stars such as Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals, possesses a body almost custom-built for elite swimming performance. His long torso and short legs power him through the water, minimising the drag from his lower body. His wingspan (6ft 7) is longer than his height (6ft 4), an unusual trait for a human being but one that allows a greater propulsion through the water. Phelps’ double jointed ankles bend 15 percent more than his rivals and when this combines with his size 14 feet, they create a response more akin to an actual flipper than a human foot in water. His double jointed elbows allow him to create more downward thrust in his strokes, capitalised on with his very large hands. Phelps produces around half the amount of lactic acid as his competitors, meaning he is able to recover and fight off fatigue more efficiently and in addition, he has an extremely high lung capacity of 12 litres, twice that of the average human being.
Whilst all of this serves as a perfect sales pitch for the ideal swimmers’ body, not everyone is blessed with the extent of natural gifts for a given sport that Phelps possesses. Scientific studies have supported the claims that an individuals’ genetic traits can influence sporting prominence. Twin studies have highlighted an underlying genetic basis to the training response of studies in which aerobic endurance conditioning sessions were programmed through a 20-week time period.
The prospect of nurture lends itself more to the notion of being able to ‘train an athlete’. Focussing on specific skill sets relevant to the sport would therefore be deemed as the sole justification for success. Whilst many are familiar with the 10,000 Hour rule, familiarised by Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’, recent debunking of the myth has shown that that not all successful sporting traits can be created through practice alone.
Whilst there are obvious examples of individuals succeeding despite a physical limitation to their performance such as Tyrone ‘Muggsy’ Bogues who enjoyed a successful career in the NBA despite only being listed as 5ft 3. Lionel Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time, is listed as only being 5ft 7 tall.
Despite the prominence of genetic factors influencing sporting success, Georgiades et al (2017) state that from the past 200 years of research, truly elite athletes are built, but must have a genetic disposition to allow them to do so. This requires years of training and dedication to harness and fine-tune their genetic gifts. Georgiades et al. state that ‘in other words, truly elite-level athletes are built – but only from those born with an innate ability.’
Nature and Nurture
Daniel Coyle’s ‘The Talent Code’ identifies the notion that greatness ultimately is not born, but rather must be nurtured. This ideology paves the way from Joslin’s famous quote in 1927 of ‘Genetics loads the gun but the environment pulls the trigger’. In accordance with this way of thinking, it can therefore be reasoned that genetics (Nature) and environment (Nurture) both facilitate the progression of an individuals’ sporting prowess.
Tranckle and Cushion (2006) describe the work of Gangé as defining a spectrum upon which all athletes fall. Within the distinguishing of giftedness and talent, Gangé explained that talent is the lump sum at the end of environmental process impacting upon giftedness. In other words, giftedness refers to an individuals’ genetic capabilities within sport (their height, arm length or muscle composition). The environmental process that allow the individual to train these gifts (diet, access to facilities, frequency of training and quality of coaching etc.) results in the overall talent of the athlete.
According to this continuum, giftedness allows for a premature advantage in the developmental processes of an athlete, further supporting the notion of genetics ‘loading the gun’. As a result, the genetic model argues that there are a certain amount of predetermined genetic traits that can predict athletic potential.
There can be no denying that athletic potential and genetic traits play an influential role in the success of an athlete, especially in the modernised world of elite sport. In spite of this, the pre-cursor to success is not exclusive of external factors and in reality, the composition of an athlete remains on a spectrum. An individual’s genetic traits can be optimised for performance through access to training, coaches and facilities as well as good education, nutrition and overall health.
Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history, has a significant advantage over many of his rivals. At 6ft 5 and 207 pounds, in a typical 100m race, he covers the ground using around 5 less strides than his rivals. Although genetically gifted, he cannot simply turn up to the Olympic Games to claim Gold. His training routine, involving 90 minute gym sessions throughout the week, focus on capitalising on his genetic advantages and, in his own words, ‘not get too bulky’ to all him to reach his top speed of over 27mph.
The many stories of ‘talent gone to waste’ and ‘not making the most of their gifts’ centre around the notion of an individuals’ utilisation of the environment around them. Relying too heavily on one without the other in relation to a specific sport can minimise the prospects of truly becoming an elite athlete.