Dan Peterson of Sports Are 80 Percent Mental has recently posted an interview with Peter Vint, the the High Performance Director for the United States Olympic Committee: Do Young Athletes Need Practice Or Genetics? A Conversation With Peter Vint. As Peterson writes:
It’s a common belief among parents and some coaches that kids either have “it” or they don’t. Of course, some skills can be gained from practice, but the talent theory of player development and team selection seems to favor the opinion that athletic skill is “hard-wired”, unable to progress much beyond the natural limit.
Although previous generations might have used different language, many people today now use the language of ‘genes’ to try to capture that intangible, difficult-to-explain difference between those who excel and those who don’t. The exceptional athlete (or mathematician or musician) must have some sort of special ‘genes,’ even though we often find that the person making the claim has very little knowledge of the genetics (if a layperson) or very little direct evidence of what genes are causing the specific form of excellence (if a scientist).
Peterson and Vint discuss both Vint’s skepticism about genetic explanations of athletic giftedness, but also common misunderstandings of K. Anders Ericsson’s widely cited, but not carefully read, discussion that it take 10,000 hours or 10 years of deliberate practice to make a world-class athlete or other skilled individual. As Vint points out, there may be some basic limits on what training can do (Shaquille O’Neal and Lebron James training to be jockeys is one of those great mental images…).
Sometimes, when I express my reservations about vague allusions to ‘genetic potential’ or ‘innate talent,’ readers will suggest that my opinion cannot be trusted because I’m a cultural researcher (for example, see Talent: A difference that makes a difference). Peterson and Vint, especially, should have no such reservations; after all, if Vint were actually to find a genetic marker for athletic excellence, it would likely make him a very rich man, and bring in a lot more Olympic medals. Check out this interview as Peterson and Vint both bring a balanced perspective to this discussion.