Isn’t it funny how once you graduate from your schooling, all of the sudden things you once hated, you all of the sudden enjoy? I found this particularly to be true for myself and reading. Growing up, I absolutely hated reading. In High School, I had an English teacher who taught me to appreciate books. But it wasn’t until after college that I actually enjoyed reading.
As an athlete, I must admit that some of my favorite books have to do with the power of the mind, training and athletics (ok… when I’m not reading Nicholas Sparks). Two of the most intriguing books that I have read are The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg and The Sports Gene, by David Epstein. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend them! Anyways, one of the greatest questions that both of these books pose is, “Are elite people (business and athletes) born, or made?”
It’s an interesting question to consider. Does anyone have the potential to be great, or are some of us already at an advantage or disadvantage before we take our first steps? No two athletes train the same, yet it seems some have a distinct advantage over others.
Take for instance Stefan Holm and Donald Thomas, both high jumpers. Holm won the gold at the 2004 Olympics after 20 years of training. 20! Meanwhile, Thomas was able to succeed beat out Holm at the 2007 World Games for the gold with only 8 months of training. 8 MONTHS!  How was he able to do this with so little training? Malcolm Gladwell once stated in his book, The Outliers, that those who excel did so because they practiced for at least 10,000 hours. But is this the case if Thomas was able to get so good, so fast?
There’s also the fact that many sports have seen athletes bodies transform into unique body shapes. Take gymnastics for example. Epstein states that the typical gymnast has shrunk from 5’3″ to 4’9″ over the past 30 years. This makes sense, as a smaller body allows for better aerial rotations. You can also see this in basketball players growing taller yet also having a longer wingspan, swimmers becoming taller and slender with bigger hands and feet, and so many other sports.
So, it would seem that there is a so called “sports gene” to some degree. BUT that gene definitely is not a one for all. Obviously a 4’9″ gymnast is not going to make for a great natural swimmer, and vice versa. It would appear that there MUST be something else besides just the genes.
What else does it take? Desire, willingness to push their limits, and intense practice sessions. Think about it, Olympic runners may be naturally gifted, but would you be willing to run 400m every day, over and over again, until you are physically exhausted EVERY, SINGLE, DAY for 4 YEARS for ONE RACE? The normal human gets tired after a 20 minute jog. Can you imagine pushing yourself as hard as it will go every day, and not getting bored, frustrated or wanting to give up? Olympic and elite athletes may have the genes to some degree, but they most definitely work harder than anyone else, too.
To give you the quick rundown, Epstein says it’s “100% of both” when referring to whether it is the genes or learned behavior that makes a great athlete. As the saying goes, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” I think there is so much more research to be done in terms of figuring out what truly makes a great athlete, but there is no denying that it takes a little bit of everything to get you there. Don’t let your weaknesses determine what you become. If you’re not as athletically gifted, WORK HARDER than anyone else. If you are athletically gifted, don’t let it go to waste by just relying on it. Anyone can be great, but no one said it’d be easy.
Anyways, check out those books, and hope you enjoyed this week’s food for thought!
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- CBS News
- The Sports Gene