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Practice makes perfect sense in all sport

Ross Tucker | 2013-08-27 00:38:13.0
Usain Bolt of Jamaica celebrates after winning the men's 200m during the IAAF Diamond League athletics competition at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo
Usain Bolt of Jamaica celebrates after winning the men's 200m during the IAAF Diamond League athletics competition at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo June 13, 2013.
Image by: Norsk Telegrambyra AS / Reuters / REUTERS

The concept of talent hotbeds is one of the most fascinating in sport. How does the tiny island of Jamaica win every short sprint at the Olympic Games, while Kenya and Ethiopia share the distance medals?

What explains New Zealand's 80% success rate in rugby, and why do South Korean women golfers occupy five of the world's top 10 positions?

Our desire to simplify complex phenomena polarises the answers to these questions into either genetics or training.

That is, the advantage is first said to be one or the other. Then, once genes are ruled out by a lack of evidence, the remaining explanation is that it is exclusively cultural/training.

The idea that genetics and training could complement one another probably doesn't sell too many books, and so most theories have divided the theories, and emerged with a simplistically incomplete explanation.

Examples include Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Matthew Syed's Bounce and Rasmus Ankersen's Goldmine Effect.

There is unquestionably value in the idea that creating culture and optimising practice drives success. Learning from and imitating South Korea's golf programme, or New Zealand's rugby success, could be a source of great improvement.

However, it is unhelpful to polarise complex debates and offer extreme simplicity as a solution, because it drives potentially detrimental allocations of resources and policies around how we coach and manage participation and competition in sport, particularly in children.

No scientist or coach has ever argued entirely for genes at the expense of practice. The very existence of the coaching profession shows that practice is highly valued, and professional sport is built around training for improvement. Practice drives progress, without question, but is also economically wasteful.

"Practice makes perfect" requires the realisation that the culture of training must be applied to the right people.

An obvious example is basketball - unless you are taller than 180cm, you have a slim chance of getting on the court, let alone standing tall in a world of literal giants. Height has strong genetic influences, but with astonishing complexity - it takes almost 300000 different genetic variations to account for height. How many more are needed for complex physiology of performance? Unfortunately, science's "failures" to find "performance genes" have led people to erroneously conclude that they don't exist.

A current theory is that it's not a question of whether unique genes or groups of genes for performance exist. Those searching for speed genes in Jamaicans or endurance genes in Kenyans are destined to fail.

Rather, I would suggest that there are simply more people in these countries who have the optimal combination of genes for specific sporting success. The result is that when they are exposed to good coaching and competition systems, potential emerges in greater numbers.

Jamaica now has a healthy sporting system and abundant coaching expertise that ensures that future Usain Bolts don't slip through the cracks, precisely because, many decades ago, Usain Bolt's predecessors pointed to an untapped "gold mine".

The analogy is that you don't invest in gold mining just anywhere, but rather where you find nuggets, on the assumption that a little digging will find more.

In some sports, of course, genetics matter less, and training matters more. Golf, for instance, is a sport where exhaustive practice and attention to technical proficiency is crucial. It's no coincidence that South Korean women dominate archery and shooting along with golf - the same practice principles apply. However, the lesson for everyone is to discover your aptitude, then invest in practice to perfect it. Training is, after all, the realisation of genetic potential.

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