Practice does not make perfect: Elite sprinters destroy myth that athletes made, not born

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People across the globe have marveled at Usain Bolt’s commanding performances while winning gold medals in the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

What is behind Bolts’ incredible sprinting ability?

Some people, including Bolt himself, credit physical talent honed by practice. In contrast, some researchers dismiss the existence of ‘natural’ physical talent and argue that any healthy individual who devotes himself to years of concentrated practice can achieve expert performance.

In our article, “You can’t teach speed: sprinters falsify the deliberate practice model of expertise,” published in the online journal PeerJ, and a more in-depth analysis in SpringerPlus, “Scientometric analyses of studies on the role of innate variation in athletic performance,” we hope we have ended the debate about whether innate talent exists. We found that exceptional speed prior to formal training is a prerequisite for becoming a world-class sprinter.

Our research shows that the developmental histories of elite sprinters directly contradict the popular deliberate practice model of ‘expertise’. According to this model, there is no such thing as innate talent. Instead, 10 years of deliberate practice (roughly 10,000 hours) are necessary and sufficient for anyone to become an expert in any field, including sports.

We studied the biographies of 26 world-class sprinters, including 15 Olympic gold medalists and the eight fastest men in United States history, using the 100 meter distance as our gauge. The first major finding was that every expert sprinter, male or female, was recognized as exceptionally fast prior to beginning formal training. This contradicts the deliberate practice model, which assumes that initial performance and final performance in a domain are unrelated. Secondly, contrary to the 10 year rule, most sprinters achieved world class performances in less than 5 years, and more than half of the Olympic champions reached this level in 3 years or fewer.

We also surveyed 20 sprinters and 44 throwers (i.e., shot put, javelin, discus) who qualified for the 2012 NCAA collegiate track and field outdoor championships. Sprinters recalled being faster as children than did throwers, while throwers recalled greater strength and overhand throwing ability. Moreover, the collegiate sprinters’ best performances in their first season of high school competition, generally the beginning of formal training or deliberate practice, were consistently faster than 95-99 percent of their peers.

Because speed is crucial for many sports, our results imply that sprinting talent is important for many sports besides track and field. Finally, our behavioral data complement many genetic and physiological studies indicating individual variation in athletic talent.

Both of us—the authors of this article and study—ran track in college; we follow the sport pretty closely so we expected that most sprint champions’ biographies would indicate that they were always the fastest kid in their neighborhood, even before they did any formal training or received any coaching. But the consistency of the pattern was surprising – from Helen Stephens, a 1936 Olympian, to Usain Bolt, there were no exceptions. Gathering the data systematically allowed us to see how strong the pattern was. It also allowed us to test and rule out alternative explanations.

Our results won’t come as a surprise to most biologists, sports scientists, or coaches—all of the previous data pointed to this conclusion. Early on in the research, we phoned, Jerry Baltes, the very successful track and field coach at Grand Valley State University, to talk about our project. When we explained to him that we were going to test the deliberate practice model’s prediction that any healthy individual could achieve expert performance as a sprinter he said, “You don’t believe that, do you?”

The epigram on our paper “I can make you faster, but I can’t make you fast” is what Coach Baltes tells the athletes he recruits and neatly summarizes our findings. Coach Baltes is just expressing what most people know but some people refuse to acknowledge, perhaps because the post modernist ‘blank slate’ view of the world is seen as more politically correct: some people are naturally much faster runners than others. Our research shows that world class sprinters were always the “fastest kid on the block.” And because speed is crucial for many sports, innate talent is important for many sports besides track and field.

Our results reach far beyond the world of sports; they are important because the deliberate practice model first articulated in the scientific literature by Florida State University psychologist Karl Ericsson in 1993 and then popularized as the 10-year rule by the journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book “Outliers” remains enormously popular among many social scientists and intellectuals even though it has little support among hard scientists. Our results, which falsify the deliberate practice model are clear-cut and require no scientific training to understand should put an end to the debate about the existence of innate talent.

Finally, our results support an interactive model of expertise development. Our point is not that talent trumps everything. Opportunity and training are crucial, especially the kinds of training highlighted by the deliberate practice model. But in sports, innate talent is required too, and it helps separate the great from the extraordinary.

Michael Lombardo, an ecologist and professor of biology at Grand Valley State University, who did his postdoctoral research in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan, focuses his research on the impact of sexually transmitted microbes on mating systems and the biology of sport. [email protected]

Robert Deaner, biological anthropologist and anatomist, is an associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University in 2006, who conducted postdoctoral research in the Department of Neurobiology at Duke. His research focuses on applying evolutionary theory to human behavior, especially investigating sex differences in performance and motivation. [email protected]

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