What makes a great athlete? It is an age-old question that causes many people to enter into the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Is it simply genetics and the makeup of your cells, or does it have to do with your environment? The goal of this blog is not to nail our colors to the nurture mast, but to provide clarity on the interdependency of a person’s genes and the environmental factors they’re exposed to.
Analogy time – If Matthew and I were to bake cakes in our respective kitchens with the same ingredients and recipe, the cakes would still turn out differently. Why? Our kitchens are different. To elaborate, imagine we use entirely different ingredients for this cake. My ingredients are the finest available and Matthew’s are purchased from the discount aisle. You would be correct to note my cake has a sort of ‘genetic’ advantage, but what I carelessly forgot to mention is that my oven is broken. This simple analogy helps us understand how powerful the role of the environment is on genetic development. You could have the best ingredients available, but your environment plays a significant role.
At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, we all watched on as a comparatively tiny island called Jamaica captured six gold medals in track and field. Usain Bolt won both the men’s 100 and 200 meter races, setting new world records in the process. How could a small island of 2.8 million people manage to produce the fastest human alive? Is Usain Bolt a genetic freak or does he have a “genetic secret weapon”?
Biologically, it turns out that almost all Jamaicans are flush with alpha actinin-3, a protein that drives forceful and rapid muscle contractions. This remarkably powerful protein is produced by a speed gene variant called ACTN3, at least one of which can be found in 98% of Jamaicans – far higher than in many other ethnic populations in the world. This fact leads many to conclude that Bolt’s gold medals could be attributed to his genetic make up.
Not quite. As is often the way in the rush to marvel at extraordinary human achievement, no one actually stopped to do some fairly rudimentary math. Eighty percent of Americans (240 million people) also have at least one copy of ACTN3. Eighty two percent of Europeans have it as well – another 597 million. A total of 837 million people in the world have the same genetic capacity as Usain Bolt, but yet he is the one with the medals. Why? Simply put, Jamaicans love to sprint.
When investigating genes, many fail to account for the fact that genetic processes can be activated/deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and so on. Sports excellence commonly emerges in geographic clusters, widely known as talent hotbeds. These hotbeds are not genetic – they are systematic. Jamaica, for example, is a talent hotbed for sprinting.
Some of the best sprinters in the world come from large families that may or may not have exceptional athletic ability. Usain Bolt is the second of three children, Asafa Powell sixth of six, Maurice Greene fourth of four, Donovan Bailey third of three, Leroy Burrell fourth of five, Carl Lewis third of four, Calvin Smith sixth of eight. These individuals did not posses a magic gene, as we can discern purely from the sheer volume of siblings. They achieved excellence through other means. But what? How does one evolve to become elite, when others with the very same genetic makeup do not? Put simply, because they became exposed to different environments.
Of course, there is no doubt that our belief has been shaped by the environment we have been exposed too. But, there seems to be two central factors that determine our beliefs. The first is science proves that achievement through nurture is not only a possibility but also an unquestionable, demonstrable, everyday reality. The second is a belief we see in living practice through the astonishing, life-changing development of the students we work with every day.
As performance coaches, if we believe that anything is possible – a 14 year old of average height and build could one day smash a golf ball over 300 yards or slam dunk a basketball – our students will believe this too. No one is to be turned away from realizing potential by some predetermined, biological doorman.