Nature Versus Nurture. Could You Be A World Class Athlete And Not Know It Yet?
The following video (with Author David Epstein and Olympic Medalist Dara Torres) discusses the concept of nature versus nurture with regards to fitness and sport, how western society puts a premium on having our youngsters specialise in a sport from a very early age to the exclusion of other sports, the 10,000 hours to mastery concept put forward by Malcolm Gladwell and briefly touches on a subject close to my interest: recovery from exercise/training for a sport and how it changes with age….more is not always better.
The quick look version is as follows:
Fast twitch dominant athletes
have a different gene that is active: if you don’t have it then you’ll never be a world class sprinter. Fast twitch dominant people are faster than your average person without ever having to try. You may be quick as a teen, spend the next ten years training with the best and perhaps get your 100m sprint time to below 11 seconds, which is impressive. All the while you didn’t realise that you don’t have a big enough preponderance of fast twitch muscle fibres to get it below 10 seconds to compete with the worlds best, no matter how much training you perform or how perfect your technique gets, you’ll never be as quick as Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay.
On paper, one second or even half a second looks to be a gap that means very little but in a sport in which first and last place are separated by less then a second…it is the difference between a wasted career and a career as a professional athlete.
All is not lost though….you may not have a dominance fast twitch muscle fibres but you could have an abundance of slow twitch muscle fibres which could mean you are more suited to endurance events…who knows, you could be the next Mo Farah and not know it yet!
Know thyself. Nurture can only get you so far, first you must have the right genes. There are tell tale signs if you are particularly swaying in either a fast or slow twitch dominance. You may have very high calf muscle bellies, small muscles, wiry muscles,small joints and a slight frame which may indicate an inclination toward slow twitch muscle fibre dominance OR you may have an unusually high vertical leap or naturally big joints and be heavily muscled without ever trained….leaning you toward a fast twitch dominance….know thyslef or find a good trainer/coach who can!
The older you get the more you need to think about recovery. Train smarter.
Our bodies have a finite recovery ability and that diminishes with age, ergo, we cannot tolerate the volume of exercise and frequency we did in our younger years and must train with less workload/volume.
Each repetition we make, each stride we thrown down is a stress that needs to be recovered from
and the more we do, the harder and longer the recovery process is. We must ensure that everything we do is of use and we perform only the stresses that benefit our goals. There is little room for frivolous exercise volume.
In youth (sub 25) our bodies can recover from nearly any exercise volume we happen to throw at it and that can lead us to believe our training is optimum, in many cases it is not.
Tolerating a volume of work and progressing in spite of it is not the same as optimum. Many athletes would be well served in taking more of a rest. In fact, Charlie Francis (Ben Johnsons sprint coach) has said that the hardest part of training a professional and motivated athlete is getting them to stop training, take a break and recover.
You maybe able to handle a great volume of work but do you need it? Experience and wisdom says no. Intensity and quality shows to be more important than workload for many of our goals. Train smart, hard and rest well.
Specialisation, GPP and 10,000 hours to mastery
GPP is General Physical Preparation, although the Crossfit version has it as general physical preparedness. I first heard about GPP whilst reading about eastern bloc methods many moons ago, they refer to GPP as preparation not preparedness, as do I. It fits. Preparation is, in short, an exposure to many different physical skills we develop through many different sports which have developed throughout human history. They prepare us.
Different sports provide stresses in such an infinite variety of movement patterns, coordination, reactions and energy pathways it is impossible to duplicate them in a gym setting. This infinite variety, when offered at a young age of development allows the human body to realise far more growth (in all respects) than a narrow field of specialisation.
Early specialisation is akin to have a child only practise writing the quick brown fox pangram because they are better at it than the other kids. Sure they may get REALLY good at this pangram but their base of literacy is severely diminished.
GPP is your basic physical literacy and should be nurtured for as long as possible.
The Russian’s noticed this a long time ago and GPP is pushed for a long time before any route of specialisation is suggested.
We see a talented youth and think we are doing the right thing by steering their path toward a specific sport at an early age to encourage excellence in hope of them becoming the next big sports star. This is an error and will result in a lesser athlete.
A pyramid’s peak is related to the breadth of it’s base. GPP is an athletes base, specialisation is the peak.
Another topic in the video is the book of Malcolm Gladwell’s which introduced the world to the concept that practise, or rather 10,000 hours of practise, makes perfect and we need only practise 10,000 hours to master an activity to world class levels. Which maybe true in the case of the musicians the study was referring to.
Sports are a different matter entirely. As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, if you don’t have the genetics for an activity to start with then no amount of practise will see you running with the elite pack.
They cite a good example of practise for years over natural gifts…a high jumper is the example and a good one at that.
Now this is not to say that specific practise is of less importance, it really is very important. Getting the edge wherever possible is what makes winners. After all, in a field of equally genetically gifted athletes it is the most skilled at what they do that wins isn’t it?
Exposure to the many elements of different sporting activities makes for a better athlete. Specialisation is for insects was a saying I used to enjoy hearing. It holds some merit here. Most of your training and your child’s should be GPP; broad, varied and challenging. A small period of time each year should be dedicated to mastery of a chosen sport. True periodisation springs to mind here.
All in all you should get to know your own body, not try fighting what you were born to do, avoid narrowing your focus too soon and for too long, work hard and rest well.
Your Epsom and Surrey Expert Personal Trainer, Ham Williams