The Sports Gene

The Sports Gene by David Epstein provides an interesting counterbalance to the recent pendulum swing in sport to the nurture (i.e., practice) explanation for expertise. Popularizing (with the inherent changes and oversimplifications) Ericsson’s research on expertise, books such as The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Outliers, and Bounce have spread the idea of expertise being accessible to anyone via deliberate practice. While I am a huge fan of Ericsson’s research and use it both in my sport psychology consulting and my own life, assuming that expertise is a result of nurture alone seems to overlook many obvious inborn advantages (as an aside, Ericsson did acknowledge that the demands of particular sports lent to genetic advantages, for example, height in basketball).

Enter The Sports Gene, which delivers the latest research on genetic linkages to aspects of performance in a user friendly, engaging, and fascinating manner. One of the findings I was particularly intrigued by was that near elite athletes actually practiced more than elite athletes prior to age 15. However, by age 18 the elite athletes had accumulated more practice than the near elites. The explanation for this seemingly counter intuitive pattern was that elites sampled various sports in their childhood and early teen years before specializing in their later teens. In contrast, the near elite athletes specialized earlier, thus accumulating more hours in the sport, but did not go on to achieve the success of the elites (factors such as overuse injuries and burnout were large contributors).

This is an extremely important finding, as one of the consequences of the popularization of Ericsson’s research has been for parents, coaches, and sport administrators to encourage early specialization in kids, with the belief that the sooner the kids accrued 10,000 hours of practice the sooner they would achieve expertise. It is now apparent that this approach is, in fact, counter productive to becoming an elite athlete.

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Give and Take

Give and Take by Adam Grant offers a fascinating examination of how being a giver can result in being successful. In fact, giving can result in more success than those who take or those who seek to be matchers (i.e., reciprocal relationships where you give some and get some). Of course, givers can also end up as the least successful of these groups, and Grant spends a significant amount of time exploring what makes the difference between givers who are successful and those who are taken advantage of.

The book provides some scientific evidence for an earlier post about being focused on giving or getting. Among many applicable anecdotes, one of particular relevance to performance is the finding that teachers and coaches who are givers are much more likely to develop expertise in their students and athletes. This is because their caring, kind approach and patience help to make learning fun, which in turn allows their pupils to sustain the motivation necessary to achieve expertise.

Finally, evidence suggests that when givers are in a community, more members of that community tend to also give. Of course there are caveats, but in general givers are more likely to cause others to want to be generous rather than to take advantage of them. So, what can you give today?

Thinking, Fast and Slow

If you are interested in finding out more about why and how humans make choices and our (ir)rationality then Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is definitely for you. This book has informed, influenced, and changed the way I think about many things, and provided the psychological understanding and evidence for many other important ideas.

An example of this is the parameters under which skill and expertise can be developed. With the recent attention given to Ericsson’s 10 year/10,000 hour rule of expertise, it has become apparent that the rule holds up better in some environments and settings than others. Kahneman identifies 3 conditions that must be present for skill/expertise to develop:

1) an environment that is regular enough to be predictable (for example, this is the purpose of the rules in sport)

2) an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice (Ericsson provides some specific parameters for deliberate practice)

3) rapid and clear feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions (Ericsson and others also identify the critical role of a coach/teacher/mentor in skill development)

If these conditions are not present, then skill/expertise cannot reliably be developed. An example of this would be the stock market. This is why so many (and the existing evidence) argue against the utility of financial advisors. While some have experienced success, it is primarily due to luck as opposed to skill/expertise that is readily repeatable.

Inspiration

Inspiration addresses the “How?” and the “Why?” of performance in terms of both breadth and depth. As mentioned earlier, inspiration represents the soul, and Plato’s three divisions of the soul are a good illustration of the breadth of inspiration: appetite, spirit, and reason. From a societal perspective, appetite corresponds with the productive caste of workers, merchants, farmers, etc., and in an individual performer would represent the hard work and years of deliberate practice (see Ericsson, 1996) necessary for expertise. Spirit is the protective caste of society and represents the strength, bravery, and courage to pursue, in this case, excellence. Reason is the governing caste of society and consists primarily of wisdom and rational decision making necessary to achieve the planning and commitment necessary for the journey of mastery (see Leonard, 1992).

To be truly inspirational, the depth of one’s pursuit of excellence must extend beyond the desire for fame, glory, success, and even excellence itself. Inspiration must connect to the core values of a person and the chosen purpose and meaning of his or her life. When this is achieved, “(values) permit actions to be coordinated and directed over long time frames” (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999, p. 206). As Ericsson (1996) has demonstrated, expertise takes a long time to develop, and without inspiration it is unlikely that the dedication necessary for excellence will be maintained. Furthermore, in order to have the essential courage to take the risks necessary to pursue performance excellence, it helps to have a purpose bigger than oneself. Connecting the pursuit of excellence to the inspiration for life provides the motivation, energy, and commitment required of performance excellence.