Nature vs nurture  //  Talent vs work: What determines sporting success?

07 Jan 2009 Posted by
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!