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.

The Odds of Winning an Olympic Gold

What % of Olympic Athletes actually win Gold Medals?

A gold medal with the olympic rings insideI always have mixed feelings when watching the Olympics. Though I love the excitement of the races, love watching the reactions of athletes and teams when they win – I feel for those that don’t win. I feel even more for the athletes that fall, trip, crash or lose due to a faulty clock as did South Korea’s A Lam Shin in a fencing event where she lost the Gold Medal due to a timing error [an additional second granted to German competitor which allowed her to score more points, leading to a win for the Gold].

The Answer is….
To answer the above question – it is less than 3% of athletes competing that will actually win an Olympic Gold. Of the 10,500 athletes that compete, 302 will win Gold. Not winning, for some athletes can lead to a feeling of loss, depression and/or shame that can continue long after the event. In some countries losing means ‘losing face’ which has life long implications, as is the case for China’s ‘disgraced’ badminton team member Yu Yang who was disqualified [due to losing ‘on purpose’ to place in a more competitive ranking, yet still was not breaking any rules] and says she will never play the sport again. Jordan Metzl, a nationally recognized Sports Medicine Physician says, “Losing is often overlooked. Winning is celebrated but the pain of loss is significant” (Kesterton, 2012).

From the average spectator viewpoint like myself, whether I’m watching the events on television, or keeping up with wins through Twitter or online, the wins are celebrated, athletes glorified, and so they should be. These athletes have worked hours and years for a place on the podium. Yet what about the athletes that don’t make the podium, who trained just as many hours and years as those that did win? Most of these athletes have great attitudes, are positive, feel satisfied with their performance, feel they have won – yet I can’t stop thinking of the ones like A Lam Shin (below).

Making it to the Olympics is an outstanding accomplishment, yet the pressure these athletes face, even for those winning a Gold medal is something the average spectator cannot imagine. All athletes present at the games are winners in their own right – my hope is that they are made to feel the same way.

Few Win Gold, Globe Life, Kesterton, M., The Globe and Mail, August 3, 2012
Korean fencer escorted out after staging Olympic sit-in in protest of judging, Reuters, July 31, 2012