Recently, while I was taking up my normal Saturday position on a youth soccer game sideline, I overheard a conversation between two parents as they watched the players warm-up. “I just love watching James play soccer. He’s just one of those natural talents.” “I agree. Even though his parents never played growing up, he just seems to have inherited all the right genes to be a top player.”
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.
Now, several books are out to prove this theory incorrect, with titles such as “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, Its Grown”, “Talent Is Overrated”, and “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong.” The common thread through all of the research studies quoted by the authors, is the mantra that practice makes perfect. More specifically, about 10,000 hours of highly structured practice is required to reach elite performance levels.
Is athletic success that black or white? Instead, is there a combination of talent and tenacity that is required to reach the top? I put these questions to an expert who spends most of his waking hours trying to find the answer.
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, Peter 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?
Read Part II of Dan Peterson's interview with United States Olympic Committee High Performance Director, Peter Vint.