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Jul 31

Nature Versus Nurture – The Debate Continues

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The expression ‘nature and nurture’ is actually derived from ancient Greek (ἁπό φύσεως καὶ εὐτροφίας – by nature and process), and has been in use since medieval England and France. In the twentieth century, studies of twins separated at birth were thought to settle the debate, namely that human behavioural development is affected both by peoples’ natural disposition and the environment in which they are raised. 

And… the debate continues: is human development ‘nature versus nurture?’ The outcome is almost always the same as researchers still disagree whether it is determined by a person’s genes influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors or due to the environment, either prenatal or during one’s lifespan. Nurture is generally said to be the influence of external factors after conception e.g. the exposure, experience, and the learning process of an individual. The view that humans acquire all or almost all their behavioural traits from ‘nurture’ was termed tabula rasa (“blank slate”) by John Locke in 1690. This view in human developmental psychology assumes that human behavioural traits develop almost exclusively from the environmental influences that were widely held during much of the 20th century.

Determinants of Athletic Potential: Nature versus Nurture?

The ‘nature versus nurture’ question surfaces in athletics as well, especially in the world of elite sports. Two main theories aim to explain both arguments: the genetic influence model and the training/practice model. Are world-class athletes born or bred? Is there a certain amount of practice that can turn the average athlete into an elite competitor? Coaches usually are committed to a developmental approach but they should not believe that an athlete’s progression is linear or the same for all because each athlete is unique. Therefore, those, who believe in process-oriented success need to accept that development, especially long-term and sustained development has to be nourished within each individual athlete. While coaches usually operate within a certain philosophical framework from which to proceed they also have to realize that unique growth within each athlete has to be nurtured. Therefore, the way in which each athlete learns and functions within the given program has to be explored and ultimately encouraged. In addition, it is critical that coaches consider the complex assortment of personal learning styles among their athletes. 

Adapted from “Nature vs. Nurture” by Dominique Stasulli (n.d.) on SimpliFaster.com – with modification by Schloder
Nature

The genetic model argues that a predetermined set of genetic traits predicts athletic potential and success. Physical traits are made up of many genes, which produce the ultimate elite ‘phenotype’ (identified as a set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction with the environment), according to Tucker and Collins (2012). The four most influential: gender, height, skeletal muscle composition, and VO2max, which denote the differences in athletic male and female performances as proof of genetic predisposition to athletic potential. Height is developed by both nature and nurture (nutrition) and is very predictive of sport-specific success, for example, basketball, which is however not conducive to long-distance running. 

According to studies, the numbers of VO2max genes in untrained individuals, inherently genetic, are also activated through training influenced by the environment (Tucker & Collins, 2012). VO2max is a strong predictor of maximal aerobic capacity such as performance in endurance-based events. Being genetically gifted with a superior aerobic capacity automatically places the athlete in an advantageous position to advance to the elite level. Skeletal muscle properties are subject to similar genetic and environmental influences. Athletes born with greater strength capacity in musculature have an easier time transitioning into strength-based sports such as football or wrestling, according to research.

The international dominance of East African runners in middle- and long-distance events is well-known as 85% of the top 20 rank in the world are primarily from Kenya and Ethiopia (Vancini, Pesquero, Fachina, Andrade, Borin, Montagner, & de Lira, 2014). These athletes are found to have a high volume of VO2 max, hemoglobin, hematocrit, optimal muscle fibre type composition as well as a high tolerance to altitude, combined with their training pattern of optimal running economy. Their diet includes rice and beans, which is also seen beneficial to their development Researchers consider this as the possibility that genetic factors have yielded an advantage, especially genes responsible for anthropometric, cardiovascular, and muscular adaptations to training (Vancini et al., 2014).

Nurture

Likewise, there are environmental factors that may play a role in the success of these middle- and long-distance runners. Physiological adaptations, diet and nutrition, as well as socioeconomic factors are potential considerations. Certain physiological parameters have measured higher in this population, such as total hemoglobin, VO2 max, and hematocrit. This is attributed to the altitude at which they live and train in the range of 2,000-2,500 meters (6,500-8,200 feet) (Wilber & Pitsiladis, 2012). Exceptional cardiovascular development may be the result of 86% of Kenyan and 68% of Ethiopian international elite athletes as children use running as a primary means of transportation to school (Wilber & Pitsiladis, 2012). VO2 max, the measure of maximal oxygen uptake, did not appear significantly dissimilar to other elite athletes of different nationalities despite their gap in performance, indicating that there is more than VO2 max that contributes to their success. Similar results were found with hematological values (Wilber & Pitsiladis, 2012).

The traditional East African diet is low in fat and composed of roughly three-quarters carbohydrates, derived mostly from vegetables, fruits, and high-glycemic-index grains such as ugali, a potato-based cultural food (Wilber & Pitsiladis, 2012). Even the staple drink is ‘chai’, a milky tea made with significant amounts of sugar, which serves as the main source of glycogen replenishment in athletes’ post-workout. Nevertheless, it can be said that socio-economic conditions provide a substantial amount of motivation to achieve a better quality of life as an individual and that individual’s immediate family. About half of Kenya’s population and 40% of Ethiopia’s is under the World Health Organization (WHO) poverty line, calling for a desperate need to utilize the gifted resources present throughout the generations of talented athletes.

While physiological parameters are impressive in these distance runners, they are not significantly superior to their elite counterparts in different countries. It could be a combination of genetic and environmental factors that develop into supreme athleticism and that phenomenal endurance capacity. The incorporation of the ‘deliberate practice’ model suggests engaging in sport-specific training during critical points of motor skill development (Tucker & Collins, 2012). ‘Deliberate practice’ is defined as ‘activities that possess complete focus on developing a particular aspect of sporting performance’, which may activate the athletic potential genes present in every healthy individual’s DNA. The model proposes that 10,000 hours of training over the course of a 10-year period allows an athlete to breach elite level status. According to the theory, any athlete who fails to meet this level of competition status must have violated the 10,000-hour/10-year rule in one capacity or another.

However, there are gaps in this model because it does not explain the reason some athletes reach elite/international levels in less than 10 years or with less than 10,000 hours of practice, or that some meet or exceed those requirements in training but fail to reach elite levels. So, other factors, genetic, mental, or emotional may either accelerate or hinder athletic development.

Natural Giftedness and Talent in Sports

The ‘nature versus nurture’ debate can broaden the argument of natural giftedness over learned ability in determining athletic talent potential. In essence, do natural talent and acquired talent both allow for the same potential to be achieved in the end? Tranckle and Cushion (2006) cite Gagné (1998) on the subject of innate and acquired talent, who describes his continuum in which aptitudes/gifts lie at one end and competencies/talent lie at the other. Gifts are genetically inborn, but may take maturation or informal learning for them to become fully expressed; talent, on the contrary, is developed methodically over time, and heavily influenced by external sources of motivation and opportunity. Most often, giftedness and talent are thought of as equal and interchangeable terms, though distinguishing between the two is important.

Being Gifted and Talent are Thought to be Equal Terms But Distinguishing Between the Two is Important 

Gagné (1998) created four categories of natural abilities: intellectual, creative, socio-affective, and sensorimotor (Tranckle & Cushion, 2006). These include the following subcategories, though not all-inclusive: reasoning, metacognition, innovation, retrieval fluency, originality, perceptiveness, empathy, leadership, and various components of the sensorimotor system. Intrapersonal features such as personality, motivation, temperament, and well-being all factor into the developmental process. On the other hand, environmental variables affect athletes’ development through physical, cultural, social and familial influences, in addition to program participation, and coaching intervention.

This continuum is not to say that athletes have to fall exclusively at either end of the spectrum. Some may start with natural giftedness, advance those gifts, and progress along the continuum to develop skills via environmental influences, with the end product being the total sum of their talent. Others may not be born with innate gifts, but rather begin higher up on the athletic continuum to master their skills in order to maximize their end-talent potential. Talent identification has sparked much debate, and it seems there is no conclusive methodology for recognizing and delineating talent from giftedness in athletes. As outlined, the distinction is important in order for coaches to know various ways to approach the developmental process through informal or formal teaching/training progression. The question remains still unanswered. According to Gagné’s continuum, it would seem as though giftedness allows for a premature advantage in the developmental process, i.e., starting with a ‘lead.’ It remains uncertain whether giftedness, skill acquisition, or a combination of the two is the optimal route for maximizing talent potential.

Schloder:

Over the many years of coaching, I have always reinforced hard work ethics and positive mindsets over natural God-given talent in athletes. We can embrace the gifted ones and push them to the top with relative ease but I find it far more rewarding to work with those, who have to put every ounce of effort in order to reach their goals without reliance on natural giftedness. Many of the so-called gifted athletes I have coached lacked not only work ethics but also motivation, ‘riding on their natural talent’ rather than pushing themselves toward the pursuit of excellence. Whereas hard-working athletes own each and every success and failure, the gifted ones can easily attribute failure to a lack of maximal work ethic. The inclusion of so-called ‘physical literacy’ (formerly called ‘general athleticism’) is the best way to develop athletic abilities within the Long-term Athlete Development Model (LTAD), a framework for optimal training, competition and recovery for each stage of the athletic development. Coaches who engage in this model and its practices are more likely to produce athletes who reach their full athletic potential. If coaches can tap into the potential in their athletes, then the genetic predilections can not only be maximized but also expanded upon to reach the best possible performance at higher levels.

References:

Gagné, F. (1998). A biased survey and interpretation of the nature-nurture literature. Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 21(3), 415-416. Cambridge University. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X98321238

Gagné, F. (1999). My conviction about the nature of abilities, gifts, and talents. Journal for the Education of the Gifted. January 1999. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/016235329902200202

McLeod, S. (2018 update). Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology. Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/naturevsnurture.html

Schloder, M. E. (2017). Developing physical literacy for children and youth through fun, fitness, and fundamentals. [DVD and Interactive PDF book]. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Arête Sports Website: www.coachingbest.com

Stasulli, D. (n.d.). Nature vs. nurture: Determinants of athletic potential. Blog. SimplyFaster. Retrieved July 16, from https://simplifaster.com/articles/nature-vs-nurture-determinants-athletic-potential/

Tranckle, P., & Cushion, C. J. (2006). Rethinking giftedness and talent in sport. Quest, 58, 265-282. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00336297.2006.10491883

Tucker, R., & Collins, M. (2012). “What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sporting success.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46, 555-561.

Vancini, R. L., Pesquero, J. B., Fachina, R. J., Andrade, M. D. S., Borin, J. P., Montagner, P. C., & de Lira, C. A. B. (2014). “Genetic aspects of athletic performance: The African runners phenomenon.” Journal of Sports Medicine, 5, 123-127.

Wilber, R. L. & Pitsiladis, Y. P. (2012). “Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners: What makes them so good?” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7(2), 92-102.

Yan, X., Papadimitriou, I., Lidor R., & Eynon, N. (2016). Nature versus nurture in determining athletic ability. Basel: Karger. Med Sport Sci, 2016(61), 15-28. Genetics in Sport. Posthumus, Collins, M. (ed.). Genetics and Sports (2nd ed. revised).  DOI:10.1159/000445 238

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