Monday, 16 April 2012

Is talent natural or nurtured - who cares!



One of the real pleasures of what I do is working with coaches. I really enjoy meeting people working at the coal face of sports trying to do the best they can to help the athletes they work with to maximise their potential. I have recently been delivering a series of ‘breakfast clubs’ for talent coaches which act as a vehicle to allow coaches from different sports to meet and learn from each other. At the start of each session one of the opening discussion topics revolves around the question ‘what is talent’? I ask the coaches to try and come up with a definition and then feedback.
The responses always lead us down a particular route and we end up exploring the nurture – nature debate where arguments rage about the relative merits of genetic attributes inherited from birth versus the socialising environmental factors which develop human abilities.(check out the excellent 'Creativity Post' for a really interesting insight into the views being put forward) 

The conversation often ends up with the room split into 3 camps:

·      The ‘Nurturers’: who think that talent is largely the product of the developmental environment.
·      The ‘Naturists’: (not the getting naked type!) that want to suggest that talent is innate and the product of inherited genetic attributes.
·      The ‘Middle Majority’ that argue that talent is a combination of both. 

There can often be quite strong views put forward by the opposing ends of the discussion and I often find myself acting as a referee between the two camps. As I see it the nurture vs nature debate is often so divisive and engenders so much passion because it can act as a metaphor for how we as humans see our world. For nurturers, the nature argument is abhorrent as it sends out a message that if you are ‘blessed’ or ‘gifted’ with certain qualities and attributes then you have a material advantage over others and no amount of striving is going to overcome that. Those in the nature camp contend that it is equally wrong to give people the false hope that if they spend enough time trying to achieve something then they will achieve their dreams or goals when the reality is that their genetic disadvantages are such that this is unlikely. 

Put another way, nurturers believe that anybody can be Albert Einstein if they work hard enough, the nature camp believe that no amount of work can overcome the innate qualities that made Einstein who he was. 

I have to say that the coach and social scientist in me coupled with the fact that I have a personal leaning towards a more meritocratic, egalitarian model of society leans me towards the nurture argument. It resonates with me as I believe that if we can create more opportunities for people to deliberately practise by having quality coaching experiences made available to more people more often then we will do a great deal to maximise more young people’s athletic potential. 

On the other hand the more I work with different sports the more I can see that genetic differences are important especially in sports where the physiological requirements are much more prevalent as attributes such as height, weight, strength, power and speed are more advantageous to performance.

So how should we look at this problem? If we are looking for talent should we be focussed on physiological factors driven by our genes or should we focus on environmental factors which drive talent development?

I think that this polarisation of the argument is unhelpful and misses the point. You don't necessarily become a world champion just by putting in thousands of hours of practice however we also know that you would never become a world champion without putting in thousands of hours of practice.

I recently met with Professor Patrick Bateson who is a leading expert on Ethology (the biological study of behaviour) at Cambridge University and the author of‘Design for a life – How behaviour develops’ to discuss this very issue. He explained to me that the Nurture v Nature debate is completely nonsensical to him as it is clear that there is a need to understand the development of human athletic potential from the position of both sides. Having said that neither does he subscribe to the position of the ‘middle majority’. Professor Bateson suggests David Schenk in ‘The Genius in All of us’ gets closest explaining this argument by saying that it isn’t Genetics versus Environment or Genetics plus Environment but rather Genetics multiplied by Environment.  

Essentially Prof Bateson wants us to embrace a more sophisticated understanding of the issue and points to some of the latest findings in the field of Epigenetics (more on this in future posts) which is beginning to suggest that a person’s Genotype (how their body is made up genetically) is not necessarily fixed and that adaptations can occur based on a variety of environmental influences. 

Dr Jeff Craig the joint leader of the Developmental Epigenetics Group at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia goes some way to backing up this point. Writing on a blog on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website for a programme called ‘Life at 5’ he states…
“Up to the late 90s and even early 2000s, we thought that DNA was our destiny - which is not true.Our genes are just lengths of DNA; they don't do anything by themselves - they need something to turn the gene on and turn the gene off. This is where epigenetics comes in. Epigenetics literally means 'above' genetics and it refers to the tags that sit on top of our DNA. They are marks that stick to the beginning of a gene and tell the gene to be active or to be inactive. It's like having a dimmer switch. A light bulb in a socket doesn't do anything by itself; it needs power, an on/off switch and a dimmer switch to turn it up or down”.
How I interpret this is to say that, while genes are vital in creating the building blocks which lead to establishing ourselves as humans they are not our fate. Who we are and who we ultimately become depends on a subtle and delicate interplay between our DNA and the environment.


To illustrate this point, Richard C. Francis highlighted a number of studies in his book Epigenetics - The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance that have suggested  that the way an organism responds to extreme trauma could largely be determined by their genetic construction. In essence, those having a certain genetic make up would be very resilient to trauma where as others who did not have the same composition could struggle and could end up suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, mental illness well into their adult lives. 

The same studies then went on to examine the effects of parenting over a period of time and they came to 2 startling conclusions.

1. The genetic make up was largely determined by the level of attachment and intimacy provided by the mother at an early age. 

2. The offspring with the genetic make-up that should have left them prone to suffer badly from trauma recovered to become even more resilient than those with the genetic advantage as long as they were given the right kind of nurturing from their parents, siblings or others.

So what does all this mean for sport and coaching? 

Many athletes can possess the most fantastic physical (genetic) attributes which translate into amazing athletic abilities. We all know people like this,  they can turn their hands to anything and are good at everything yet they somehow fail to achieve their potential. In my view this is more often than not because they have never really been taught how to fail, it all came so easy to them that when the going does get tough they either can’t handle it or they get demotivated and drop out.

Essentially we think that what they have naturally will be enough to see them through. Even the most gifted still need to be nurtured.

In summary, let’s move beyond the Nurture – Nature debate and let’s understand that while physiology is important it is also dramatically affected by environment.

For me as a coach I find this to be a really powerful motivating force. I love the notion that we can create situations and conditions through our coaching that can influence a child’s life in ways that can go beyond the sports field and can help them in other aspects of their life. I am of the belief that being a coach of talented youngsters is a great privilege and I have often maintained that a big part of my role is to help them to develop a ‘bubble of resilience’ which helps them to navigate the challenges and pressures that constantly bombard them and threaten to derail their development. 

It just occurred to me that a great film to illustrate my point is 'The Blind Side' starring Sandra Bullock. I can also highly recommend the book of the same title by one of my favourite authors, Michael Lewis. 

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