Where does Athletic Talent come from?

Image showing a sign post with a sign with nurture on it pointing in one direction and a sign with nature on it pointing in the other direction.

We cannot control the cards we were dealt but we can control how we play the hand.

Are great athletes born or made? Are they creations of an all powerful, all knowing deity or are they the product of years of trial and toil? Is it genetics or is it environment? Nature or nurture?

It’s nature…

Every sport has unique physical requirements, therefore, body morphology of the sport can be important. For example, someone destined to grow to no more than five-and-a-half feet tall will likely not find their way to the status of elite basketball player. We’re fortunate in soccer that elite players come in a variety of shapes and sizes so body morphology isn’t as important a factor for success. However, endurance, strength and power are other primary factors in sports success that also have a genetic component to them. Our starting point for showing talent in any of these factors begins with what our parents gave us and what their parents gave them.

If you take some time to review what’s known about talent development and the nature-nurture debate’s influence (Research Reading #1, Research Reading #2), you’ll see that beyond certain physical requirements necessary to excel in certain sports, the role of genetics in elite athlete development is complex. Heritability, how the differences in people’s genes account for differences in their traits, can show a great deal of variance, even among individuals who share much of the same genetic make-up.

Anyone raising identical twins, or who has spent a significant amount of time around identical twins, could have told you that. Despite the potential surface similarities and genetic similarities, identical twins can be completely different individuals who develop very different traits and capacities from one another.

So even commonly shared genetic materials have the potential to express themselves differently in each individual.

…and it’s nurture

While some of our genes may lead to the expression of various physical traits that would assist us in reaching elite status in certain sports, some of what gets expressed is also a result of the environments in which we live.

The training environment is a key aspect of the nurture component. Could an individual with less genetic potential but exposed to excellent coaching, training, competition and facilities end up excelling more at soccer than an individual with great genetic potential but exposed to a sub par sport development environment? It’s worth pondering.

Besides the sports development environment, there are other aspects to nurture, like social-cultural influence. For example, a youth soccer player who lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building and who is raised by a single parent working nights may or may not have the same opportunities as their teammate who lives in a house, across from a park, in a neighbourhood with other kids and with both parents holding down good jobs. Like the genetic component, individuals exposed to the same or similar sports development environments can still end up evolving in very different ways from each other.

Coming full circle

If the environments we are exposed to can impact the expression of our genetic traits over a lifetime, then what happens over a few lifetimes, or generations? Some genes become ‘switched off’ and others ‘switched on’ creating new traits that become dominant which then makes that individual different from their ancestors. So while you may have two left feet, your own child, in the right environments, may learn to be a little more coordinated. Then with long-term changes in genetics combined with continued exposure to the proper environments, your grandchild may become a little more coordinated and your great grandchild even a little more coordinated than that. In six or seven generations, you might have an Olympian in the family!

Controlling the hand, not the cards

Unless you plan on being preserved beyond your point of expiration, then cheering on that future family superstar will probably be a tad difficult. So, let’s focus on the present and what we can control. Predicting if a child is “talented” at soccer is a very difficult proposition. Early success does not guarantee later success nor does lack of success early on necessarily indicate later non-success. And as I’ve suggested here, the goal should be to provide every young player with the same opportunities for good coaching, quality training and challenging competition.

We can’t do a whole lot about our genes in the short-term (that may change sooner than later). We can, however, do a lot more about the environment. Success in soccer will be the result of those two factors interacting with each other. At Eliot River, we focus on offering all of our players programming opportunities that are not only safe and fun but also challenging. Because you just never know who one day may become the next soccer superstar.

We can make the mistake of looking at one child and calling them talented while looking at another and calling them clumsy and uncoordinated. While that may be true at that very moment in time, we need to try to avoid labelling any child as athletic or non-athletic and then treating them differently based on those labels. Before long, that label becomes who and what that child is. Instead, we should take on the mindset that in the right development environments, every child can improve their overall sporting ability and potential.



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Technical Ramblings

Technical Ramblings


Posts dedicated to informing and educating the members of the Eliot River Ramblers Soccer Club about player, coach, official and program development.