Athletic Excellence: Nature vs. Nurture

We live in an era where the human genome has been mapped, gene cloning is available, and specific physical traits can be traced back to the presence or absence of specific genes. This is “nature”, or maybe more appropriately, mankind’s discovery and manipulation of it. In understanding how much peak performance in any category (physical, psychological, etc.) is pre-determined by genetic limitations, it’s easy to see why so much attention is being paid to the nature component of athletic excellence. After all, it’s extremely unlikely that the son of two short, overweight, generally unathletic parents will grow up to be a world-class hockey player. It’s a sad reality.

That said, extremely unlikely certainly does not mean impossible. Athletes in every sport have gone on to compete at high levels despite having the cards stacked against them. Using height deficiencies as an illustrative example, look at what athletes like:

  1. Muggsy Bogues, who at 5’3″ was drafted 12th overall in the 1987 NBA draft, competing 14 years in the world’s most elite basketball league as the smallest player ever to reach that level. He still holds records as the Hornets’ career leader in minutes played (19,768), assists (5,557), steals (1,067), turnovers (1,118), and assists per 48 minutes (13.5).
  2. Wes Welker, who at 5’9″, entered the NFL, a league that boasts largest, fastest, and strongest athletes in the world, and is 2nd all-time in all purpose yards during his first three seasons, holds the Dolphins’ all-time records for total kickoff returns, kickoff return yardage, total punt returns, and return touchdowns, has led the Patriots in receptions twice (2007 and 2009), holds the four highest single-season reception totals in Patriots history, as well as four of the top ten receiving yardage totals, including the franchise record. He also holds the franchise records for most receptions in a single game, most receiving yards in a single game, and longest reception. He had three consecutive 110-reception seasons, is the only receiver in NFL history with at least 110 receptions in any three seasons.
  3. Theo Fleury, who at 5’6″ and having been drafted in the 8th round of the 1987 NHL draft, went on to have 1,088 points (455 goals, 633 assists) in 1,084 NHL games. He also won a Gold Medal with Canada at the World Juniors and Olympics, a Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989, and was elected to 7 NHL All-Star games.

 While all of these athletes surely have/had other redeeming qualities, the point is that they succeeded despite clear genetic disadvantages. It’s worth pointing out that, while the genetic ceiling is very real, only an exceptionally small percentage of the athletic population ever converges on that limitation. Most don’t put in nearly enough general and specific preparation work to ever fully realize their potential. And while some do possess the raw genetic gifts to still succeed at high levels despite this lack of preparation, this provides a distinct advantage for the athlete that, whether among the world’s elite talents or relatively average, is willing to maximize his or her potential. In other words, 70% of 100 (the raw talent) isn’t as high as 90% of 85 (the potential filler).

The more important question that arises out of this discussion is what should we be emphasizing to our youth athletes? Do we discourage participation simply because someone does not have the genetic gifts thought to be important in any given sport?

This raises an equally important question about the true purpose of sports participation. Expanding the capacity of the game is undoubtedly a goal of athletic development programs, but on a wider scale, for reasons related to nature and nurture, this only applies to an exceptionally small segment of the athletic population. At USA Hockey’s ADM Symposium last year, Kristen Dieffenbach presented that roughly 10.9% of high school hockey players will go on to play NCAA hockey, and roughly 3.7% of NCAA players or 0.31% of high school players will go on to play pro hockey. So for the other 99.69% of high school players, a system solely designed toward expanding the capacities of the game doesn’t seem worthwhile. Not to mention that our current systems force most kids out of sports before they even reach the high school ranks.

 In reality, many of the major benefits of sports participation stem from the character-building opportunities associated with playing. Amongst other things, this includes setting and hunting goals, building confidence and resilience through practice and competition successes, learning to appropriately process criticism, and developing social skills related to teamwork and leadership. These are all qualities that will serve to enhance the athlete’s quality of life long after his or her “career” ends. Theoretically, this would make playing sports inherently valuable, regardless of the athletic outcome. Of course, the development of these qualities is dependent upon a system of inclusion and relative equal opportunity.

In the U.S. the well-documented flaws of early talent identification haven’t prevented most youth sports programs from forming elite teams and funneling kids into single-sports participation with short-term success aspirations despite participating in long term athletic development sports. This system has created PHENOMENAL youth athletes that quit, sustain unnecessary injuries or simply plateau when they reach the age of actual elite competition, causing many advisers, junior programs, colleges, and even pro teams to regret their early commitments. These athletes win the race to the wrong finish line. And in the process, have the fun, freedom and development associated with unstructured play stripped from their youth. Surely, this is not the answer.

We have created a development system that produces worse athletes, which is largely masked by the absolute growth in sports participation. More athletes participate, so a few succeed DESPITE the system, not because of it. Without question, sports participation should prioritize athletic development, but not at the expense of all of the other benefits. Placing an excessive emphasis on genetic limitations undermines the path, and all of its associated lessons, an athlete could take to fulfilling his or her potential. From an athlete perspective, they need to focus on what they can control, and not be victimized by the things they can’t. From an athletic development systems perspective, we need to make a significant change toward the restoration of sanity, toward allowing kids to develop a love for playing before we superimpose adult paradigms of pressured competition. It starts with parents and coaches standing up for what is right, and spreading the word to as many people as they can. What are you going to do today to help right the ship?

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

P.S. Arguably the best long-term athletic development model, to maximize participation and fun, as well as long-term peak performance and excellence, can be found in USA Hockey’s American Development Model. If you haven’t already, check out their site: USA Hockey’s ADM

P.S.2. Want a comprehensive long-term off-ice training plan for hockey players? Check out my new book Ultimate Hockey Training

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