March 24, 2011
Practice or Genetics: Part II by Dan Peterson
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, Vint 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?
Peter Vint: The question of what makes an athlete great is very complex. The extent to which performance is influenced by genetic predisposition or the expression of these traits through extensive hard work and practice is not at all a black and white issue.
Human performance is always nuanced and complicated and multivariate. That said, if forced to give an opinion, I would absolutely fall on the nurture/deliberate practice side of this issue than on the nature/"giftedness" side.
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.
DP: Most of the books you reference go back to the research of K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, known as the “expert on experts.” His theory states that an individual needs at least 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in their chosen sport or skill to become world-class. Some authors take this literally and suggest that is all that is needed. Do you agree?
PV: First, it’s important to recognize that the 10 year/10,000 hr rule is more of a general guideline than an absolute standard. Ericsson is very clear on this, but, perhaps, owing to the simplicity of the message. It is quite possible that the general public has interpreted this in a more absolute sense.
That said, I do think that Ericsson’s work is being somewhat oversimplified in that he, and others in this field, realize that there are obvious and necessary interactions between genetic predisposition, "deliberate practice", and even "opportunity" or circumstance.
To what extent this has actually happened I cannot say. I can point to several examples in the popular media where authors have captured these complexities nicely (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers," Matthew Syed’s "Bounce," and David Shenk’s "The Genius in All of Us").
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, engaged, supportive parents and an environment that encourages and supports "effort"—and not "the gift" . Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods come to mind.
Check back next week for the continuation of this great article.