One of the real pleasures of what I do is educating and developing coaches. I really enjoy meeting people working at the coal face of sports trying to do the best they can to help the athletes they work with to maximise their potential. I regularly deliver workshops for talent coaches where one of the discussion topics revolves around the question ‘what is talent’? I ask the coaches to try and come up with a definition and then feedback.

The responses always lead us down a particular route and we end up exploring the nurture – nature debate where arguments rage about the relative merits of genetic attributes inherited from birth versus the socialising environmental factors which develop human abilities.(check out the excellent 'Creativity Post' for a really interesting insight into the views being put forward)

The conversation often ends up with the room split into 3 camps:

· The ‘Nurturers’: who think that talent is largely the product of the developmental environment.

· The ‘Naturists’: (not the getting naked type!) that want to suggest that talent is innate and the product of inherited genetic attributes.

· The ‘Middle Majority’ that argue that talent is a combination of both.

There can often be quite strong views put forward by the opposing ends of the discussion and I often find myself acting as a referee between the two camps. As I see it the nurture vs nature debate is often so divisive and engenders so much passion because it can act as a metaphor for how we as humans see our world. For nurturers, the nature argument is abhorrent as it sends out a message that if you are ‘blessed’ or ‘gifted’ with certain qualities and attributes then you have a material advantage over others and no amount of striving is going to overcome that. Those in the nature camp contend that it is equally wrong to give people the false hope that if they spend enough time trying to achieve something then they will achieve their dreams or goals when the reality is that their genetic disadvantages are such that this is unlikely.

Put another way, nurturers believe that anybody can be Albert Einstein if they work hard enough, the nature camp believe that no amount of work can overcome the innate qualities that made Einstein who he was.

I have to say that the coach and social scientist in me coupled with the fact that I have a personal leaning towards a more meritocratic, egalitarian model of society leans me towards the nurture argument. It resonates with me as I believe that if we can create more opportunities for people to deliberately practise by having quality coaching experiences made available to more people more often then we will do a great deal to maximise more young people’s athletic potential.

On the other hand the more I work with different sports the more I can see that genetic differences are important especially in sports where the physiological requirements are much more prevalent as attributes such as height, weight, strength, power and speed are more advantageous to performance.

So how should we look at this problem? If we are looking for talent should we be focussed on physiological factors driven by our genes or should we focus on environmental factors which drive talent development?

I think that this polarisation of the argument is unhelpful and misses the point. You don't necessarily become a world champion just by putting in thousands of hours of practice however we also know that you would never become a world champion without putting in thousands of hours of practice.

In order to explore this topic further I met with Professor Patrick Bateson who is a leading figure in the field of Ethology (the biological study of behaviour) and the author of‘Design for a life – How behaviour develops’ to discuss this very issue. He explained to me that the Nurture v Nature debate is completely nonsensical to him as it is clear that there is a need to understand the development of human athletic potential from the position of both sides. Having said that neither does he subscribe to the position of the ‘middle majority’. Professor Bateson suggests that it isn’t about 'Genetics versus Environment' or 'Genetics plus Environment' but rather 'Genetics multiplied by Environment'.

Essentially Prof Bateson wants us to embrace a more sophisticated understanding of the issue and points to some of the latest findings in the field of Epigenetics (more on this in future posts) which is beginning to suggest that a person’s Genotype (how their body is made up genetically) is not necessarily fixed and that adaptations can occur based on a variety of environmental influences.

Dr Jeff Craig the joint leader of the Developmental Epigenetics Group at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia goes some way to backing up this point. Writing on a blog on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website for a programme called ‘Life at 5’ he states…

“Up to the late 90s and even early 2000s, we thought that DNA was our destiny - which is not true.Our genes are just lengths of DNA; they don't do anything by themselves - they need something to turn the gene on and turn the gene off. This is where epigenetics comes in. Epigenetics literally means 'above' genetics and it refers to the tags that sit on top of our DNA. They are marks that stick to the beginning of a gene and tell the gene to be active or to be inactive. It's like having a dimmer switch. A light bulb in a socket doesn't do anything by itself; it needs power, an on/off switch and a dimmer switch to turn it up or down”.

How I interpret this is to say that, while genes are vital in creating the building blocks which lead to establishing ourselves as humans they are not our fate. Who we are and who we ultimately become depends on a subtle and delicate interplay between our DNA and the environment. This short TED talk by Professor Dean Ornish serves to illustrate the point well.

To further expand on this point, Richard C. Francis highlighted a number of studies in his book Epigenetics - The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance that have suggested that the way an organism responds to extreme trauma could largely be determined by their genetic construction. In essence, those having a certain genetic make up would be very resilient to trauma where as others who did not have the same composition could struggle and could end up suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, mental illness well into their adult lives.

The same studies then went on to examine the effects of parenting over a period of time and they came to 2 startling conclusions.

1. The genetic make up was largely determined by the level of attachment and intimacy provided by the mother at an early age.

2. The offspring with the genetic make-up that should have left them prone to suffer badly from trauma recovered to become even more resilient than those with the genetic advantage as long as they were given the right kind of nurturing from their parents, siblings or others.

So what does all this mean for sport and coaching?

Many athletes can possess the most fantastic physical (genetic) attributes which translate into amazing athletic abilities. We all know people like this, they can turn their hands to anything and are good at everything yet they somehow fail to achieve their potential. In my view this is more often than not because they have never really been taught how to fail, it all came so easy to them that when the going does get tough they either can’t handle it or they get demotivated and drop out.

Essentially we think that what they have naturally will be enough to see them through. Even the most gifted still need to be nurtured. In summary, let’s move beyond the Nurture – Nature debate and let’s understand that while physiology is important it is also dramatically affected by environment.

For me as a coach I find this to be a really powerful motivating force. I love the notion that we can create situations and conditions through our coaching that can influence a child’s life in ways that can go beyond the sports field and can help them in other aspects of their life. I am of the belief that being a coach of talented youngsters is a great privilege and I have often maintained that a big part of my role is to help them to develop a ‘bubble of resilience’ which helps them to navigate the challenges and pressures that constantly bombard them and threaten to derail their development.

It just occurred to me that a great film to illustrate my point is 'The Blind Side' starring Sandra Bullock. I can also highly recommend the book of the same title by one of my favourite authors, Michael Lewis.


In the excellent 'The Talent Code' Blog, Daniel Coyle posted the following passage discussing the potential pitfalls of kids specialising early in sports...

"In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome. (Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)

Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew. Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed. Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship. By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists. Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense. It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

  • 1) early specialization increases the chance of injuries.

  • 2) early specialization creates worse overall athletes (more evidence here).

  • 3) early specialization makes kids less likely to participate in sports as adults.

  • 4) early specialization creates a falsely high barrier to participation, eliminating kids who might otherwise succeed in a more open system.

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.

  • Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years. (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)

  • Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.

  • Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives."

This post cause a massive ammount of debate in the comments area and I put forward my own view (as you might have guessed I would) I thought I would share it here.

For me...this is actually a moral argument as it raises questions that relate to the best way for us to bring up our children. Some think that they need to provide opportunity and put investment into their children from an early age to give their kids the best chance in life. Others are fearful that this approach will have the opposite effect in the long run as a generation of 'pushy parents' sees a generation of kids fall out of love with a sport that they have been doing for too long.

Within rugby we have researched this area as we have a major problem with kids leaving the sport between the ages of 16 and 24 and we have discovered that the earlier kids start playing the more likely they are to drop out. We also discovered that the main reasons for drop out relate to burnout due to boredom or the attraction of other sport which suggest to us that the varied diet of sport for as late as possible is very important. We are working very hard to ensure that our talent selection systems are now starting much later (i.e. post maturation) so that we keep windows open to kids who have great athletic ability and drop out of other sports. From our perspective we hope the other sports keep going with their early specialisation models as we may well benefit long term!

Much of the problem stems from the fact that kid's sport has become big business. The weight of evidence in support of the late specialisation model (see this link for some more is pretty heavy and yet people are still finding spurious arguments in support of it...why...because their livelihoods depend on it!

The problem is that every time we get an elite star that came from a early specialised background that this is presented as the case for this model, the media love to report this and it then takes on a bit of a folk following as a story. What nobody will consider is the 100's of kids that did the same but didn't make it and dropped out. It comes down to a straight trade off...the odd elite star and the risk of large scale drop out or a healthy sport full of lifelong participants and the promise of more elite stars as a happy by product.

The challenge for sports administrators is that we try to use research and logic to strengthen our argument but we are fighting against a powerful triumvirate of the hard line opinions of a commercial industry fueled by parents who are emotionally attached to the futures of their children which is in turn powered by the media's delight in a romantic story of the 'boy or girl done good' by trying hard from early childhood.

I am fearful that the only way that this super tanker can be turned around will be be when it is too late....


Professor Dweck is clearly very busy at the moment, she has recently given a TED talk in scandanavia which you can see below. This has prompted me to develop 10 practical ways to help developing a 'Growth Mindset' which should help when working with children and young people.

My 7 year old son came up to me recently and asked me how he could improve the drawing he had done...maybe the work I have been doing is paying off!!

  • Avoid labels - "you are smart", "you are clever". Focus instead on how they do what they do.

  • Get them to explain their process "tell me more about how you did that, what was the strategy you used?"

  • Explain to the child that the brain is like a muscle which benefits from training. The brain can be trained through trial and error. The secret is to persevere and to fall in love with the struggle.

  • If they do something that is easy for them and they are expecting praise, offer them an 'opportunity' to stretch themselves by saying, "I want to give you the opportunity to show me how well you can learn".

  • Apologise for creating a game or practice that isn't challenging enough for them. You will know it is working when they say to you..."we don't do easy".

  • Ask them if they want the easy task or the harder one. Use this as a test to see if they are on track.

  • Use the 'horizon strategy' to keep the achievement of the task just out of reach but still visible. Give them checkpoints so that they can still see their improvement.

  • Explain that you are less interested in them getting the answer right as much as you are interested in how they got to the solution.

  • Create an award for the 'top struggler'. Reward the person who has tried the hardest and had the most fails.

  • Always explain that you can't make things easy because easy isn't fun. You want them to have fun and the fun comes from working hard at something.


Let us know what you think

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