Nature v Nurture: either or both…

This week saw the performance of an athlete in an elite football setting that marvelled many of us – Messi. And it was far from messy. It was composed, creative and captivating prompting many debates from radio to the pub – how do we create a player like that? Are they just born that way?

Apparently, if myths are to be believed, if I complete 10,000 hours of ‘something’ then I will become an expert. It’s that easy. Well, that is the law according to some and the truth for all involved in talent development. However, is that the answer, just do loads of hours? 

The background to this field of discussion has come from work in the early 90’s by Anders Ericsson, who looked at a variety of different ‘experts’ and concluded that this was the magic number. And the scary thing is, for those that have then gone on to read Bounce, Outliers, Talent is Overrated etc. it has become the Holy Grail, deeply ingraining this in modern talent development society. People are getting hung up on the fact that greatness needs to hit this number. 

Now, I don’t profess to be an academic and a lot smarter people than me are debating this issue but one thing I do like to do is read around a subject. So, Ericsson says 10,000 hours is the number, what do others think? Why should I believe Ericsson and take it as read? When you actually read into this subject, it gets quite interesting, and for us involved in developing athletes in sport, or more importantly, developing people, things start to get unearthed about the matter. 

For example, Ericsson’s research has no variables within it – so it doesn’t say if some people took 2000 hours and some took 25000 hours, its just a neat average of those that became experts. Furthermore, the research was undertaken largely with finger manipulative tasks like playing the violin, or chess, so how does this relate to a cognitive, physical, physiological, technical team game like football? Or doesn’t it?

Evidence exists in other research of elite athletes that have played international sport having completed 4000/5000/6000 hours of training and the work of the Australian Institute of Sport highlights athletes that have crossed into sports with no experience and competed with far fewer hours. 

The one thing that is evident is you need to work hard, using deliberate and deep practice, and this is why I’m not convinced totally that it is all about ‘nature’. No-one gets born with a talent and they just become world-class without hard work. Messi has completed years of practice, honing skills, recognising pictures within games, understanding tactical elements in order to play the game successfully in amongst other exceptional players. You don’t get born with that skill, it comes from experience. 

However, is it totally down to ‘nurture’ then, the environment you are in, the opportunities you get given and presented with and as it happens, the time of year you were born? I don’t think you can totally rule out ‘nature’ either. Some of us born with a genetic predisposition to do certain things to certain levels. Height is an obvious one. I would have struggled however many hours of practice to play in the NBA. There is the odd one under 5′ 10, but that is very much the exception. Sprinters from Jamaica, long distance runners from Africa – this is something that we probably don’t fully understand but something makes this happen genetically. 

So what does this mean for us when developing our players? From my stance, it comes down to a focus on the environment and the things we can control. 

– Make it an incredibly enjoyable place for young people to come to. No-one stops doing something because it is too much fun!
– Try and use practices that are as close to the game as possible. That’s what they come for, to play the ‘game’, not to stand in lines and take their turn. 
– Ensure your coaching knowledge is up-to-date and current. Do you understand questioning techniques? Do you know about when, where and why to use different coaching styles?
– Focus on aspects wider than just technical work, help them become better people through sport first and foremost.
– Provide opportunity for children to play. If they want to play, and are intrinsically motivated to do so, they will play forever. As someone told me recently, children are the experts of play, not the adults.
– Help kids fall in love with the game. 


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6 thoughts on “Nature v Nurture: either or both…

  • March 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Really well written piece. There are so many arguments around the 10,000 hour 'myth', like the sport being practiced, the training environment, genetics. With advancements in training plans, nutrition, sport science this figure could well be reduced today.

    The last 6 points are really informative and from my limited experience/knowledge are vitally important.

  • March 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    At the moment, I agree with nurture being the most important factor,if it involves 'purposeful practice' in an enjoyable environment. I think that the way different people learn is more important than physical attributes (like height) that may be genetic, and this may be the reason for any variation from a notional baseline of 10,000 hours. Of course there may be a genetic element to learning, but we know that people have to learn how to learn (which is an element of practice). Even so, that is a long way from saying that you can be born a 'natural' footballer.

    Do we have a control group in football who have had the hours but not made it ? Perhaps it is not cause and effect, but just correlation. Those who are good enough to make it as elite performers have simply played more because they love it and got the opportunity to do so…..

    Regardless of the amount of hours, I can't see how anyone can argue that you can make it without a lot of good practice, and the motivation to go with it.

  • March 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    From a parents and observers perspective, i completely agree. Many people do get hung up on the 10,000 hrs, but just like the recent changes that the FA have proposed for youth football it stimulates discussion and engages many elements of the audience.

    Kids want to play. Just put down a football and watch them go, emulating their heroes.

    Who knows how to create the next Messi? But what we do know that the drive must come from within the child [and not the parent], and with the right environment and challenges they will continue to develop.

    Some of the old sayings ring true, if you focus too much on results you can miss the target. For me that means if you try and tick too many boxes by drills and conditioning too early you switch off the child that first turned up for training as he wanted to play football.

  • March 14, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I've often bristled at the interpretations of the 10,000 hour rule too. It wouldn't be the first time I've heard someone throw around a Malcolm Gladwell theory as support for a policy that, had they actually read the book, they'd realize wasn't at all what Gladwell was suggesting.

    It ties back to the old saying, "Practise doesn't make perfect, practise makes permanent." In other words, if you practise incorrectly, you're screwing yourself up. Another number out there is that it takes something like 3-4 times the practise time to unlearn a behaviour and relearn the proper way vs. simply learning it properly the first time.

    On to 10K hours: While those who have achieved virtuoso may have logged 10K hours, that' doesn't mean logging 10K hours makes you a virtuoso. It makes you long-practised. There needs to be some level of physical intelligence and talent in the first place. Besides, when skill and fitness levels such razor thin margins at the highest levels, it's the mental aspect -read, react, anticipate, – that puts a player over the top. Something I fear we spend nowhere near enough time working on with kids. Don't just get them to do drills, take the time to explain to them how the activity ties back to the game itself.

    No brain, no game.


  • March 23, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Totally agree. However the issue as I see it is to educate the grown-ups/adults involved in youth and especially grassroots football – and I would especially include the well-meaning volunteer coaches – to first of all acknowledge this and then understands what it means for them in how the coach etc. Have seen too many kids already put off football by the win-at-all costs mentality and I've only been involved in youth football since 2008!

  • March 23, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Many children no matter how physically gifted do not possess the ability to concentrate & sustain interest in any one single area of activity over time. To do anything to an outstanding level in life does require an interest bordering on obsession. Kids who have that quality can be easily spotted but coaches don't look for it in my experience.
    The other requirement once you have identified the players with potential is to have a serious long term multi-year coaching program. Almost all the coaching of youngsters in this country is a series of unconnected sessions. Without a proper coaching program worth its name tailored to the individual needs of young players we are in danger of working terribly hard but actually going nowhere in the long run. We all need to be clear on the fact that technique never mind skill in football takes years to develop & is the result of 100's of hours of practice often done alone or in small groups. I am all for the encouragement of the small-sided game & fully support what you are doing at the FA but if we want to produce elite footballers we need to do a lot more.


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