Nature vs. Nurture in Athletics

This blog discusses the concept of nature vs. nurture in athletics - Are you "born" to be an athlete?

Were you naturally gifted, or did you have to work to get your skills?

This is a great question to debate! 

Are certain people "meant" to be great at a particular sport or are they great because they worked so hard and for so long at it.  Let's look at both sides of the argument.

The nurture people, or the ones that think athletes are products of their environments, have a lot of good reasons to believe that theory.  Look at today's athlete's compared to your father's generation.  The athlete's today are bigger, stronger, faster - there is no debate, and since most sports keep records such as speed and strength of their athletes there is little argument to the contrary.  What's changed over the past few decades?

Kids are playing sports earlier and at a much higher intensity and commitment level then previously.  Athletes are training longer and harder during the off-season.  Athletes are eating better and taking better care of their bodies (at least most of them)  Gone are the days of Babe Ruth eating four hotdogs in the dugout before getting up to bat.  Derek Jeter doesn't need to work a second job in the off-season like Joe DiMaggio used to - he's working out.  What else could be the reason for such a dramatic elevation of athleticism?  Could it be that our genetic structure has changed or evolved over the last generation, allowing us to become stronger, and faster.  I don't think so!

The "nature" camp, those who believe genetics dictate who are the best athletes, also have some compelling arguments.  Let's use swimming and gymnastics (I really like the olympics) to argue their side.

Have you noticed that 99 percent of all of the olympic swimmers (men) were over six feet tall and had really long arms and legs.  I think gangly describes them well.  Why is that?  It's because being long and lanky from a physics standpoint allows you to have a longer stroke and swim faster. All other variables being equal, a shorter person with shorter arms will go slower.  Michael Phelps' arms are so long that he can reach across his body and slap his own back on the other side - which he does several times before a race - it's kind of his way to loosen up.

How about Olympic gymnasts?  They are all extremely flexible.  How did they get that flexibility?  We know that you can increase flexibility with practice so it would make sense that they are so flexible because they spend hours every day stretching and putting their limbs in extreme positions.  I can guarantee that if you or I did something similar (and managed not to hurt ourselves) our flexibility would dramatically increase.  However, some of the research has shown that people who are naturally more flexible are the ones that achieve the highest level in gymnastics.  The theory is as follows:  If 100 girls at age five start gymnastics (and all train the same routines and for the same amount of time) and progress in skill and difficulty as they age, eventually the less flexible gymnasts will not do as well and will drop out or be cut.  This "natural selection" process leaves only the naturally more flexible girls left and able to achieve the very highest level of competition.  The higher the level of competition in any sport, the more significant genetic traits such as being tall or being very flexible can separate the winner from the loser, or the professionals from the hobbyists. 

I think both theories (Nature and Nurture) have merit and in reality I believe a combination of the two makes the most sense.  If you draw a straight line with one end being very flexible and the other being very stiff, each person's genetics places them at a certain point on that line.  Then depending on our activities you can adjust that point in either direction to a certain degree. 

So what do you think??  Comments and questions encouraged


Yours in Health,

Chris Ostling PT, DPT


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This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

yasir March 14, 2013 at 08:46 PM
good description, but could you explain in depth what nurture is really without using as much examples.


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