“Nature versus nurture, genes versus the environment, culture versus biology … However it is phrased, the whole dichotomy makes no sense, and it should be pitched out. You might as well speak of a rectangle's having a length versus a width.” (Peter J. Richerson)
One of the most common topics of conversation among sports coaches is whether talent is the result of nature or nurture; whether the best players achieve their status as a result of lucky genes or through hard work. This is not merely an theoretical discussion: coaches’ views about the nature and development of ability will influence the ways they approach participant and talent development, about the people sport systems support, perhaps most importantly, about the people that are left behind.
What does Research Tell Us?
Scientists researching high ability in sport can be positioned along a simple continuum between those who think that expertise in a domain is almost entirely the result of genetic gifts and those who think it is the result of experience and environment. A third group, the interactionists, think that ability cannot be understood without taking account of both genes and experience. Almost every scientist today is an interactionist. In other words, almost everyone who seriously studies the development of expertise in sport thinks that it is vital to consider both nature and nurture.
Many interactionists adopt a “complex systems” view. This means that development is the result of numerous factors that interact with each other: development is more than the sum of the individual parts. A simple way of thinking about this in sport is in terms of three types of factors: biological factors (e.g., innate speed; physique; natural endurance); psychological factors (e.g., mental skills and attitude; motivation; resilience) ; and sociological factors (e.g., family; social class and income; peer groups). As can be seen from the diagram below, it makes no sense to talk about ‘the most important’ factors: all are important.
The complex systems approach helps explain participation at every level of sport, from young children sampling for the first time to elite adults. Successful negotiation of these factors can lead to high levels of performance and / or enjoyment, while unsuccessful negotiation can lead to burnout and/or dropout.
Most talent development systems place greatest emphasis on biological perspectives, relatively little on psychology, and none on sociology. But take a look at a summary of some of the characteristics of elite performers in sport:
- Parents achieved high standards in domain
- Relatively high socio-economic status
- Ability and willingness to financially support participation and specialist support
- Ability and willingness to invest high amounts of time to support the child’s participation in the activity
- Parents as car owners
- Relatively small family size
- Two‐parent family
- Attendance at Independent School
Of course, high performers also have exceptional physical and psychological characteristics. But this simple table shows that those with the ‘wrong parents’ are much less likely to go on to achieve in sport than the lucky few.
What does it mean for coaching?
Coaches need to take a broad perspective on participant and talent development, recognising that a great range of factors influence participation at every level.
Coaches need to become aware of the contribution of each of the different capabilities that underpin participation and performance in sport – Personal - Physical - Mental/psychological - Technical - Tactical – Lifestyle – and how they impact on the different forms of participation and on different sports.
Coach education needs to help coaches reflect on their personal theories of expertise in sport, and address limiting beliefs.
Useful source of further information
Baker, J. and Horton, S. (2004) A Review of Primary and Secondary Influences on Sport Expertise. High Ability Studies, 15, pp. 211-228.