Now, several books are out to prove this theory incorrect, with titles such as “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, Its Grown”, “Talent Is Overrated”, and “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong.” The common thread through all of the research studies quoted by the authors is the mantra that practice makes perfect. More specifically, about 10,000 hours of highly structured practice is required to reach elite performance levels.
Is athletic success that black or white? Instead, is there a combination of talent and tenacity that is required to reach the top? I put these questions to an expert who spends most of his waking hours trying to find the answer.
Peter Vint is the High Performance Director for the United States Olympic Committee. His responsibilities include leading and coordinating the efforts of sport science and medical professionals focused on the Olympic sports of swimming, track and field, shooting, equestrian, weightlifting, and golf as well as the Pan Am sports of bowling and water skiing.
His team is responsible for conceptualizing, developing, and implementing successful and sustainable applied sport science programs with a focus on maximizing athlete development, performance, and longevity.
Recently, Peter was kind enough to endure my endless questions on this topic. Here is a synopsis of our conversation:
Dan Peterson: Peter, what makes a great athlete? Is it raw, inherited talent or years of dedicated practice?
But, whether you subscribe to the narratives in The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Bounce, Outliers, Genius in All of Us, etc. or not, a great number of the cited references in these books are solid and substantial. Be sure to review the footnotes and bibliographies.
It is likely that athletes like Lebron James, Shaquille O'Neill, and Kevin Durant would never have become an Olympic gymnast or Triple Crown winning jockey - regardless of how hard or how deeply they practiced. But, how many athletes with a relatively similar genetic makeup to guys like Lebron, Shaq, and KD have NOT become superstars? A lot. And, to flip the coin, how many superstars arise from relative obscurity or against all odds? A lot. Even when we do become aware of "young geniuses", closer inspection often yields interested and engaged and supportive parents and an environment that encourages and supports "effort" - and not "the gift" (see Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” for an exceptional treatment of this topic). Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods come to mind.
My feeling in reading a broad body of literature related to human performance is that, in general (and there are notable exceptions to this), there is likely a minimal set of physical traits or genetic makeup which facilitates achievement to a particular level of success. Note that this may not be an absolute necessity (think, Mugsy Bogues). However, I believe the great differentiator in human performance is not genetic predisposition. but rather the expression of the gene pool which is itself now clearly related to the extent to which the individual accumulates hours of "deliberate practice".
I see another common misinterpretation in the 10 year/10,000 hr rule. The literature is clear in this but the general public’s understanding often misses the distinction in that this is not simply accumulated hours of practice, but accumulated hours of DELIBERATE practice. Dan Coyle's introduction in "The Talent Code", "The girl who did a month's practice in 6-minutes" is, in my opinion, perhaps the most insightful example of this distinction I’ve ever read.
DP: So, do genetics play any role in sports success?
PV: My short answer is yes, to varying extents, they do. But, as before, I do not believe that genetics are necessarily an absolute limiter of exceptional performances. "Skill" is developed, not from basic physical or cognitive attributes or from some magical quality ("a gift"), but from sustained, effortful, and effective practice complemented with meaningful, well-timed, and actionable feedback.
Skill itself is a complex process and almost always involves many different types or classes of skill: motor skill (the physical actions involved with "doing something"), mental skills, and perceptual skills. The extent to which these various types of skills are called into play will depend on the overall task being executed.
For example, a pilot controlling an automated aircraft may need only nominal motor skill to press a button, but will require substantial mental and perceptual skill to understand what happens when the automation switches from one mode to another. On the other hand, a basketball player will require extensive motor skill in executing a drive to the basket but will, though to a lesser extent, also involve perceptual and mental skills. Good examples of the world's best players in sport (especially team sports) seem to have exceptionally well developed perceptual skills which allow them to "see the field" better than others and "know where players will be before they even arrive".
So, physical ability (height, strength, speed, coordination) and the specific genetic code which tends to manifest it, may or may not play a significant role in the execution of the skill, depending on what the skill actually requires. The same is true of genetic predisposition, which may either enhance or impair the development of mental and perceptual skill.
DP: Peter, thank you very much for your insight.
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