How often have we heard talk about genetics in sport? About how genes inherited from our closest relatives may influence an athlete’s sporting career. In countries that belonged to the former Soviet bloc, it was common practice in the period from 1970s-90s to study the genes of children approaching sport for the first time, in order to find out whether they could be competitive at the highest level and which sport they should focus on.
Studying the influence of genes on performance is an extremely interesting but highly complicated subject. It is so complicated that even leading scientists have only managed to study what seems to be the tip of the iceberg in research that is turning out to be more complicated than expected.
The main problem with the studies is the incredible number of genes influencing athletic performance involving endless tiny influences that are too difficult to trace at the moment.
The theory Malcom Gladwell recently proposed in his book entitled “Outliers. The Story of Success”*, in which he set down the “10,000 hours rule ” caused quite a controversy. According to Gladwell, you can only really become an expert in any field (from computers to swimming) after 10,000 hours’ practice. Notice he says expert, not talented.
The problem is that sporting performance is a combination of lots of complicated elements. Learning skills means spending lots of time practising them on a continuous basis. And a sporting performance itself is the result of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of variables. That is the reason why elite athletes can come from any social background and from countries where there would seem to be no opportunities available. Practice is a variable that can help make up for any differences in innate abilities, but it is a matter of quality as well as quantity. And that is where things get complicated.
Returning to Gladwell’s theory, a number of points need to be cleared up. Firstly, this theory does not relate “training hours to talent”. Who can tell whether genetically more talented athletes trained more because they had more talent? Perhaps there innate ability encouraged them to practice more. Secondly, the study has not shown whether some people have become experts through less training, and we do not know whether some have failed despite putting in 10,000 hours.
Finally, there is evidence we are all familiar with, like for example Masters athletes, who, bearing in mind their age, have certainly trained for 10,000 hours, but are a long way from achieving results comparable to those of elite athletes.
So what are we trying to say? Training is nothing more than realising your genetic potential. Without proper training to bring out your full genetic potential, you will not become a champion. Training allows everybody to improve, but genetic factors determine at what level we begin, how we respond to training, the amount of training we can handle and, most importantly, what our limits are.
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