Athleticism: Nature or Nurture?

What makes an athlete great?  What separates the 3rd string “bench warmer” from the star player?  Personally, I have been involved in sports since a very early age (4).  My parents believed that an early introduction to sports, among other things, fostered the best chances for being successful.  While I have played various sports at a competitive level, including collegiate, I have not achieved the “elite” status.  Still, I view myself (perhaps correctly or incorrectly) as someone who is an above average athlete.  I can pick up a sport, such as snowboarding, and progress quickly.  So what is it?

Their is a discussion in the sports community about nature vs. nurture.  Is that athletic ability in our genes?  Is it a product of our environment?  Perhaps it is a mixture of both.

For proponents of the “nature” side of the argument, there is a philosophy referred to as “single gene as magic bullet”.  Scientists are essentially looking for that one gene or genes that explain why some athletes soar and others fall out along the way.  Over 300 genes have been identified as those that help to create elite athletes.  You may have heard about the ACE gene for example.  This specific gene is linked to endurance and power events such as mountaineering or running.  Ken von Someren, director of Sports Science at the English Institute of Sport claims that “genetic make-up accounts for 50% of variability in baseline performance”.  So does this mean that without the correct genetic make-up, you will not reach the elite status?

Lets use sprinters as an example.  The balance of fast twitch to slow twitch muscles is an important factor in sprinters.  Evidence suggests that slow switch muscles cannot be converted into fast twitch muscles.  In this case, the athlete born with the better balance would have a genetic advantage over other athletes.  However, that does not mean that simply because Athlete A has a better balance of fast to slow twitch muscles that he/she will beat Athlete B.  It simply means that their can be a genetic disposition for it (the same as we have tall basketball players and small jockeys).

What about nurture?  That must be important, right?  So what is involved in the nurture aspect (environment)?  Research consistently points to several factors that affect an athlete’s ability: coaches, parents, culture, size of birthplace and age.  Now let’s review these in more detail.

Coaches are vital to an athlete’s development.  These individuals serve to optimize the training for the athlete and enable them to advance to higher levels of achievement.  The best athletes have conversely benefited from having some of the best coaches.

A young athlete would be unable to even be involved in sports without the parents.  Parents provide valuable resources that change over time as the athlete matures.  In the beginning, the parents provide the opportunity for involvement.  As the child grows older, the resource transitions into emotional support for the endeavor.  Throughout the entire process, parents also provide the monetary means to stay involved in the chosen sport.

Culture.  This plays a large part in athletic success.  Why are there so many good hockey players from Canada?  Why does Brasil produce such incredible futbol players?  How does Jamaica continue to produce world class sprinters?  The answer lies in the importance each of these cultures places on the sport (for my American readers out there, think Texas football!).  These countries place a high value on the sport.  As a result, it becomes something worth working for to excel.

A factor that is likely never considered is the size of the birthplace.  Did the athlete come from a big city or not?  Research has suggested that the optimal city size for an elite athlete ranges from 1,000 – 500,000.  This is not to say that an athlete from a large city won’t excel.  What it does say relates back to the previous point: culture (albeit in this case, local culture).  An athlete from a smaller city will likely have more access to resources and a better social support system.  I can remember going to a hockey tournament in Connecticut when I was younger.  We had a morning game at 8:00 am and arrived at the rink by 6:00 am.  There were local teams on the ice 6:00 am.  We had been complaining about simply arriving that early, forget about being on the ice by that time!  There was a difference in resources.  Where I was from, I had ample ice time.  We didn’t need to fight for it, but these teams needed any ice time they could get (even if that meant at 6:00 am).

Finally, age plays a factor.  This is often referred to as the “early specialization” debate.  Is it better to allow the child to play a broad spectrum of sports and then specialize over time or to start specialized?  There is plenty of research that suggests it is better to allow the child a broad spectrum.  Many sports compliment each other, lending skills that can transfer over and enhance the young athlete’s abilities.  As one researcher suggests.. “play-like activities during the early stages of training are beneficial for skill development in many sports.  In early development, activities that are inherently enjoyable and motivating may be necessary to produce an impetus to continue training during times when more diligent, effortful practice is required.  Without this pleasurable involvement, athletes run the risk of dropping out of sport.”  Again, to use my own example, I started with a broad spectrum of sports.  At first, it was basketball and futbol.  Then I started tennis.  I didn’t start playing hockey, my “specialized” sport, until I was 8.  Even then, I was allowed to experiment with other sports.  I continued basketball and soccer (along with hockey) until I was 12.  I played volleyball (again, in addition to hockey) as well one year.  Because of those early experiences, I had not only the skills gained from the other sports, but also the mental capacity to handle the level of training that accompanied a highly competitive club sport.

So which is it?  It seems that the development of an athlete is neither a direct result of genetic makeup (nature) or the environment (nurture), but rather a combination of the two.  If an athlete has the “right genes”, but is not exposed to the right environment, then it is just as likely that person is sitting in an office rather than being an Olympic sprinter.  Personally, I believe very strongly in nurture.  There are some things we cannot deny that give an athlete an edge (e.g. Lance Armstrong’s VO2 capabilities), but it was more important that these athletes received the proper training and had the strength of will to reach that level of athletic achievement.  For the rest of us, practice and dedication will surely help, even if you weren’t born with the “right” genes.

“Practice does not make perfect.  Only perfect practice makes perfect” -Vince Lombardi

“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor” -Vince Lombardi

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