Nature vs. Nurture – what makes an Athlete ‘Golden’?

 ‘These perfectly designed bodies now have an almost insurmountable advantage. Unless they are sick or injured or fall down, basic physics suggests they simply won’t be beaten. This is partly a function of the information age. There are few secrets in sports anymore” (Futterman, 2012)

It has been a thrill to watch the phenomenal performances of athletes competing in the Olympic games over the seventeen days. I think many would agree that watching 17-year old Missy Franklin win four Gold medals, Phelps become the Olympic champion of all time and the ‘Bolt‘ show us that he is the fastest man alive were some of the most memorable moments of London 2012.

What is it that gives these athletes the edge over the competition? I read a curious article in the Wall Street Journal this past week about the concept of ‘nature versus nurture’ in the context of competitive sports. What makes these athletes ‘golden’ over the hundreds of others who train just as hard? Are they born with the ‘golden’ factor (nature), or is it developed through training (nurture)? In this post I’ll discuss what the latest scientific research has to say and the implications for young athletes and their parents.

Nature versus Nurture
What do these superstar athletes have in common? A growing body of research suggests that these athletes do in fact have an edge, and it’s not a secret training plan, an extraordinary coach, or the support and dreams of the parents (which Proctor & Gamble’s advertisements might lead us to believe). However it does come from the parents. It is the DNA – it is nature, and not nurture.

Studies reveal that select athlete bodies are better equipped to excel at certain sports – that these ‘bodies are built for gold’ (WSJ). However this term is misleading as excellence and success do not come without relentless training and commitment, which the researchers are quick to point out. One research, Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University writes extensively about the evolution of sports and is quoted in article mentioned previously. He has this to say about the mechanically apt bodies of these special athletes:

 ‘These perfectly designed bodies now have an almost insurmountable advantage. Unless they are sick or injured or fall down, basic physics suggests they simply won’t be beaten. This is partly a function of the information age. There are few secrets in sports anymore” (Futterman, 2012)

Biggest Fastest and Strongest
There are few secrets in sports, including the physical characteristics of athletes. Missy Franklin for example stands at 6 feet 1 inch tall and has a wingspan of 176 inches. According to Professor Behan it is these physical characteristics that allow Missy to literally glide through the water because “her long arms and legs that exert so much downward pressure she is actually higher in the water than the competition. She skitters across the surface like a hydroplane, while her competitors’ power through it” (Futterman, 2012).

If you click on the image to the right you’ll view an interactive graphic that explains  and illustrates in detail the physical advantages of five athletes in their chosen sport. It is quite interesting, giving further insight into the physical edge.

What does this mean for young Athletes?
What do parents of an elite runner, soccer player or swimmer do? On the other hand, what if a child is an average athlete and is competing against a physically gifted athlete? I’ve included a few suggestions below that may be helpful for parents when dealing with these challenging situations.

1. Be realistic
Physical advantages apply to all levels of athletics and even more so in youth sports since children grow and mature at different rates. Variations in size and strength can be significant especially between the ages of 10 and 17, the pre and post pubescent years. Recognizing and acknowledging the differences can help establish realistic expectations for both children and parents.

2. Emphasize Do your Best not Be the Best
Though our culture places an emphasis on ‘being the best’, and ‘winning’ at all costs, this approach is not helpful nor is it realistic for young athletes. Though hard work and commitment is an important value to encourage, parents would do well to keep in mind that everyone can’t win or be the best all the time. A better option is to emphasize ‘do your best’ rather than ‘be the best.’


3.  Acknowledge that the Olympic Dream for the majority is just that – a Dream.
It is not feasible or realistic to promote the dream that any elite young athlete can get to the Olympics if they ‘set his or her mind to it’  [which also means investing hours and hours in training and competition]. There are many that might disagree with me but in my own experiences with youth sports the Olympic dream is alive and well. The ‘dream’ is promoted not only by parents, but also subtly and not so subtly by the sports teams and the related sports associations [i.e. USA Hockey Association, USA Swimming etc.].

This unrealistic expectation feeds into a culture of the ultra competitiveness of youth sport where families are investing numerous hours in practice time, sports related travel, and competitive events at the cost of family time, play time, in-school time and academic studies.  Parents would be better off sitting down and discussing what kids want to get out of the sport, the purpose for participating before investing time in an ultra competitive league or club that becomes a vacuum for family time. Analyzing the options for sports participation is a good exercise for any family.

The Olympics have come and gone, though the gold medal athletes will continue to shine. We will no doubt be seeing their smiling faces in commercials and on cereal boxes for months to come; these Olympians will be the new role models for millions of young athletes, inspiring dreams of the Olympics and Gold medal success. And though we all need dreams and goals, it is up to us parents to keep our young athletes grounded by celebrating and appreciating sport for the benefits it provides: the physical exercise, skill development, fun and camaraderie – not everyone can be a ‘golden’ athlete.

Futterman, Matthew. Bodies Built for Gold. (August, 2012). The Wall Street Journal.

Swimming Prodigy bucks the System…still sucessful

How many hours a week of swim practice does it take to get a shot at the Olympics? Fourteen, fifteen, how about twenty hours? Add dry land practice, and you’ll be well over twenty. If the swimmer is of high school age – even better, with summers off school, that means swimming 6 days a week with doubles [swimming twice daily] most days as well.

If you live in Southern California like I do, the mecca for competitive swim teams, the above scenario is likely what you’ll face with a child involved in the sport of swimming that goes one step beyond the recreational level.  Swim, sleep, eat, swim and repeat for six days a week. The seventh day is sleep and more sleep, or hit the beach and sleep. How NOT fun is that! For the swimmer, parents and family.

I read about seventeen year old Missy Franklin, from Denver – and her coach Todd Schmitz. My hope is that other coaches and parents can see that kids can have a life besides swimming [or whatever sport] and still be a successful athlete. Missy is the USA swim team darling and strong contender for the Olympic Swim Team- she’s got three gold medals and is a world champion in the 200 meter backstroke.

A Unique Approach….
What makes this story unique, is the coach’s and the parents approach to the sport and to the athlete – all of which seem to balance, come together to make it click for Missy so that swimming is not the focal point of her life, which allows her to be successful at her life, not just swimming.

Though, my guess is that most coaches will not be supportive, and this appears true…

“The insular world of international-class swimming sometimes rolls its eyes at Franklin. Her coach with the Colorado Stars, Todd Schmitz, isn’t famous. Her pools are scattered all over metro Denver. Her home state is a magnet for skiers, not swimmers.” (Henderson, 2011)

Unconventional Coaching
Two hour practices each day, six days a week, [we’re up to 12 hours now], oh yeah but summers? No Saturday practice in the summer, as Coach Schmitz believes kids should enjoy their summers. Really? OK, what about dry land? Well yes, dry land is important, twice a week. Wow.  Then I read that part of the strategy is adding ‘fun’ into the workouts…

Even when it comes to improving form—something other coaches regard as a strict science—Schmitz believes in the art of play … “A lot of this is about simply playing around in the water,” he said. “That’s what kids do naturally, and the play engages the mind and gives the swimmer the tools to figure out the right way to move their body.” (Futterman, 2011)

Having Fun – is that Allowed?
Is having fun really advisable for serious athletes? Shouldn’t it be hard work, pushing the limits, tiring the body to get better and better? Apparently, having fun is a critical component. In fact much research suggests that athletes of all ages, elementary age to high school athletes play sports to have fun, that’s the number one motivation. Not the scholarship potential, the prestige, but for fun.

I wish Missy the best – I hope she continues to swim as long as she enjoys it, and is still keeps her balance and shares her training story with others. Parents, coaches and young people need to see that success can come from balance, from a focus on fun, and by not succumbing to pressure from the ‘experts’. Missy’s parents had much advice, pressure even, to move Missy out of the small-scale swim team she was part of to swim with the big leagues (or should I say sharks).  They resisted, and Missy excelled.

Further Reading:
Why do you Play Sports?, The Players Survey