Are sports stars born or made?

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October 14, 2021
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Are sports stars born or made?

I was watching Jimmy Bullard’s Sunday League hacks recently, Soccer AM’s 10-minute feature that brings bitesize advice from elite players that everyday wannabes like myself can take in my next grassroots game.

During the feature, this week’s guest Robbie Fowler was asked if true goalscorers are born with the attributes to succeed as a matter of instinct, or if they can be instilled into a player in coaching. Fowler’s response, that it’s all about practice, was a heartening one for grassroots footballers like myself.

The nature vs nurture debate rages on in many facets of society, including sports. Here, we’ll delve into both sides of the debate. Let us know your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of this post.

What the evidence says

Delve into the various studies that have taken place in recent times on this subject, and you might struggle to come to an outright conclusion. In an article in Scientific American in 2016, a body of evidence is weighed as they review a book on the subject - “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”.

The book itself, written by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, argues that innate talent is essentially a myth. All that’s required to reach the expert level we see from outstanding sports performers is countless hours of practice.

To flesh out their argument they point to two studies. A Japanese-based test, published in the Psychology of Music Journal in 2012, found that after 24 children could be trained to “pitch-perfect” levels, picking out chords from a piano with outstanding efficiency.

Elsewhere, Ericsson himself found that after 230 hours of practice, a college student was able to increase the number of random digits he could recall from 7 to nearly 80.

Still, evidence does appear in the pro-innate column. A 1996 study in the Journal of Opthalmology found that professional baseball players could see at 20 feet what an average person could see at 15 feet.

Joining it is a 2014 study into the cognitive abilities of 18 child prodigies. During an IQ test, it found them all to score exceptionally high on working memory. Working memory is a valuable characteristic required if you are to acquire complex skills, many of which would fit into sporting examples.

The 10,000 hours theory

Whatever the evidence points to, the scientific community agrees on one thing; no matter the innate abilities that help you along the way, hours of practice are required to become truly proficient at anything.  

A popular theory from psychologist Malcolm Gladwell in 2011 suggested that with 10,000 hours of practice, you could be an expert at literally anything - innate ability or not.

In the years since, this has largely been dismissed by the relevant communities. A notable Princeton study in 2014 said that training has a different level of impact depending on the domain you’re in. In games such as chess (26%), music (21%) and sport (18%), training can have a high level of impact on improving your ability. But in education (4%) and professions (1%), the impact is much less.

The reason? The goalposts move in some fields, and not in others. Whilst a sport like tennis or games like checkers stays largely the same over time, educational practice, professions like business and even culturally-weighted areas like rock and roll; what’s defined as expert levels changes over time, leaving practice harder to define.

What the stars say

We heard what Robbie Fowler had to say on the issue earlier, and we also asked Pitchero Athlete Ambassador Kate Richardson-Walsh in a recent interview with her.

She talked about the importance of having a good network of support around you, but also the ability to be honest with yourself and not get carried away. When you’re getting too big for your boots or falling off track, it’s as much down to yourself to pick yourself up as anyone else.

David Beckham and Jonny Wilkinson are recent sporting names that are famed for their ability to perform an action under pressure. Beckham’s free-kicks and Wilkinson’s conversions came through hours of repetition of the same action on the training field.


Nature, nurture, or both?

It’s clear that, with enough practice, anyone drastically improve their level of performance at a certain thing. And sport is no exception. How you make it to the top, however, is likely to be a more complicated web of factors that contribute to elite success.

Take Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the finest footballers to ever grace the game. They both enjoyed football from as early as 5, generating an incredible appetite to make it to the top from a young age. Using their love of the sport to fuel their endless hours of playing, they both earned opportunities to play in the European Youth Football Academy at the age of 12.

That opportunity, to train and, more importantly, train correctly under the stewardship of top coaches, is something only a small percentage enjoy. Still, plenty of kids discover a love for football early on. What sets Ronaldo and Messi apart? Do they just want it that little bit more than everyone else? Or is there a set of innate characteristics that helped them along?

There’s no doubt that certain genetic characteristics can boost your ability at certain activities. It’s no coincidence that all pro basketball players are alarmingly tall, and your height can be down hereditary factors or external factors such as your upbringing.

But setting the very best apart, for me, is mentality. That drive and dedication to be the very best. Waking up every day and pushing yourself, often through physical torment. Some of us give up and go back to a more comfortable life. Elite sports men and women push through that and keep striving. That is what surely makes them the best.

Are these mental characteristics something you can really teach, or is it just in those at the elite end of the sport but not others?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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