The Olympics: 5 Things You Can Learn About Talent & Practice
Talent and practice are what make some athletes great.
Posted Feb 10, 2014
Guest post written by Michael Joyner, Professor of Anesthesiology at Mayo Clinic and blogger at Human Limits.
Elite sports competition generates a lot of discussion and debate. Much is bar stool yapping about who was the best ever but some is more serious about topics that include the role of talent and practice in elite performance. So, here are a few thoughts about talent and practice that you might ponder during the Olympics. They are gleaned from a longer e-mail discussion I had with Jon, David Epstein, Terry Laughlin, and Amby Burfoot.
1. More Than 10,000 Hours
2. Talent Identification Matters
3. Opportunity Matters
During this Olympics you will not be seeing a bunch of Kenyans and Ethiopians dominating the cross-country skiing competitions. The obvious reason for this is that there is not a lot of snow in East Africa. The flip side of this is the role of roller-blades in expanding the talent pool for speed skating. So, the Winter Olympics is no longer dominated solely by people from cold climates as opportunities in traditionally cold weather sports globalize.
4. Who Specialized When?
In sports you find examples of early specialization and intensive practice, and there are also stories of people who sampled many sports early and specialized later. It is hard to generalize, but in some sports like women’s gymnastics there seems to be age related sweet spots for body size and strength to weight ratio that favor relatively young athletes, so early specialization is essential. In other sports there is evidence for later specialization in those who make it to the top and the evidence based recommendations are pretty clear:
“Some degree of sports specialization is necessary to develop elite-level skill development. However, for most sports, such intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success while minimizing injury, psychological stress, and burnout.”
5. You Can’t Coach Desire
Most people can become very good at most things via focused practice. However like most complex human phenotypes elite athletic success is a combination of innate talent and environmental factors that include exposure, training, desire and culture. At age 30 Michael Jordan dabbled for a few years as a minor league baseball player. He was talented enough to be a really good baseball player but not close to the Big Leagues, and the summary statement by the scouts went something like this: “do I want MJ at age 30 – no, do I want him at age 17 – yes!”. In the final analysis, telling people it is all about practice or all about talent are both bad messages because both will only take you so far. Keep these things in mind as you watch the Winter Olympics.
Michael J. Joyner, M.D., is the Caywood Professor of Anesthesiology at Mayo Clinic where he was named Distinguished Investigator in 2010. His interests include: exercise physiology, cardiovascular regulation, autonomic regulation of metabolism, and the physiology of world records. His Human Limits blog can be found at http://www.drmichaeljoyner.com/.