Are top athletes born or made?4 Opinions
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About Mauro van de Looij
Gives football training, presentations, workshops; coaches the coach; thinks about development- & achievement culture; has got a timeless interest in psychology and football
BSc Child Psychologist, MSc Sports and Achievement Psychologist
Have you ever seen the television series Made (MTV)? On this show one person wants to change his or her life and often wants to be ‘made’ into the person of his or her dreams. Remember the girls wanting to be made popstars and the guys sport jocks? Whether you liked the show or not, it was a great show to help people become what they wanted to be. Now, let me ask you a question: do you think it is possible to be made in accordance with your dreams? Do you think top athletes are born or made?
More often than not you hear people credit quality to talent. For example, a football commentator may enthusiastically shout out loud: “What a goal! This kid is amazingly talented!” Exactly what does talented mean? Does the commentator mean the player has incredible innate abilities which make him such a good striker? I reckon he does. Is he, then, right about attributing this player’s quality to born characteristics? I believe he is not. Honestly, I reckon him – and his colleagues – to be way off with such an attribution.
Allow me to clarify myself on this one. First off, I believe your quality as a top athlete consists of three aspects: innate abilities (talent), ability + motivation to learn & practice time. Innate abilities are of course the attributes you received from your parents (height for example). Ability + motivation to learn are necessary for developing, without it you will not develop (your talent). Practice time is the amount of time spent practicing, the more time you spend the higher your quality will be.
Secondly there is a lot of research that has found effort, practice and learning to be more important than talent (e.g. Jowett, & Spray, 2013). In order to make my belief more credible I will discuss two examples that perfectly endorse my view that it takes more, a lot more, than sole talent to become an athlete of world class status. I bring to you Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – considered by many the best football players on the planet at this very moment. A lot of people speak about their giftedness and talent for football. Is that truly all it took them to become world class on the pitch? For my master’s research (about GrowthMindset and Goal Orientations in Football) I took a look in their history and development. As it turns out both Ronaldo and Messi have walked a similar path to become the quality players we know now. Heads up: it took them more than just talent!
When they were young they both enjoyed football greatly and had a very strong desire to become a professional football player. Therefore they have been playing football a lot during their younger years starting from around the age of 5. When about 12 years of age Ronaldo and Messi left their families for a place in a European Youth Football Academy (Ronaldo – Sporting Lisbon, Messi – FC Barcelona). Besides the shared dream they are also characterized for (and still have) their discipline to make the football dream come true. As opposed to loads of young boys who share the same dream, Ronaldo and Messi showed the discipline necessary in making this dream reality. The discipline consists of training, practicing and learning. Throughout the teenage years they cared about and were busy with only one thing: the ball.
Were Messi and Ronaldo nothing special when they were young then? Of course they possessed qualities at a young age, otherwise they would not have been given the chance at an European Youth Football Academy. How did they develop then? According to youth coaches Messi had something special at a young age, though he had a growth hormone deficit meaning he was delayed in his growth. Within FC Barcelona controversy existed about Messi and his opportunity to become a professional football player. Eventually they took chances and were the only club willing and able to pay for the medical bills. Messi was offered the opportunity to make his dream come true at La Masia. To make it clear: even at that stage FC Barcelona were all but certain whether Messi could reach the professional football level. Imagine for a second that FC Barcelona had not given Messi that chance, we probably would have never heard of him because he would not have had the opportunity to develop and improve his qualities (and deal with his medical setback). So Messi had to come a long way. Ronaldo stated his mom could have never guessed him to become such a great football player when he was young. This means it has never been a fact that Ronaldo would become one based upon his talent. For both Messi and Ronaldo nobody knew for sure they would be a professional football player in the future. Then what has been the key message for Messi and Ronaldo? Practice! According to Ericsson (2006) – who is a psychologist – we need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in that field. If you have a dream, make sure you will reach that amount of hours to make it become reality. Now taken this into account, I reckon Ronaldo and Messi have passed this amount of hours easily by now and may even have in their early twenties already. Could that be a reason for them winning the Ballon d’Or (Ronaldo – 2008, Messi – 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012)?
According to former teammates Ronaldo was always the first and the last person on the trainings ground. Goalkeeper van der Sar: “After training he was always practicing his free kick. If he needed a goalkeeper, to him I was the only option. If I asked him whether another goalkeeper could defend the goal during his free kick training he replied ‘I only want to train with the best so I can become the best’. Former manager Sir Alex Ferguson: “Ronaldo’s discipline was fantastisc. I always saw him to be first and last on the pitch. Besides he wouldn’t give 100%, he gave 120%! Every time again.” Ruud van Nistelrooij who played alongside Ronaldo up front at Man United says: “He is so complete. He trained and still trains every aspect of the game to become the best he can be. Heading, free kicks, two feetedness, corner kicks, everything he practices. He is always training.” Teammate Gerard Pique at FC Barcelona about Lionel Messi: “Aside from all the talent he’s got, it’s true that Messi learnt a lot at Barcelona. I don’t know if Messi would be what he is today if he had left the club.”
Well, what has been key in becoming world class players for Ronaldo and Messi? Practice, right! And let me ask you again, do you believe top athletes are born or made? I reckon you will say it is possible to be made a top athlete. Then why, you might ask, do ‘we’ attribute quality to talent? How come the commentator shouts out ‘what an amazing talented player’? Good question!
The answer, I think, lies in the so called fundamental attribution error-phenomenon. Did you ever go for lunch and experience the waiter or waitress to be unfriendly to you? What attribution did or would you make for this waiter’s odd behavior? Probably you say this waiter is not a nice guy at all, he might even be a schmuck and not fit for the job like the way he is (not) serving you. This attribution is perfectly understandable as our minds have not got the time, energy or interest to take all circumstances that could influence someone’s behavior into account. However maybe the waiter had a bad day – he got dumped by his girlfriend, he failed his driving license or has been bothered by other customers all day long – and consequently could not be friendly to you. If you think about such a scenario then can you understand the waiter’s behavior (better)? In essence the waiter’s example is exactly what ‘we’ do regarding athletes. We forget to look to the history and development of top athletes. Don’t get me wrong I understand attributing behavior (quality on the pitch) to the person (talent) perfectly, but to say the very least it hardly ever is the correct attribution to make.
Imagine young children playing a nice game of football. If they believe talent is all it takes to become a professional football player, your chances of becoming one are less than 1% or so for there’s always a person out there who’s more talented than you are. Therefore you might lose interest, don’t try as hard as you could and may even quit playing. Now, if we all start believing that it takes many hours of practice, effort and learning to become such great athletes maybe our kids will learn to appreciate the value of working hard. Maybe they will add the discipline necessary for their dream to come true. And what is more beautiful than our dreams coming true?
I would like to conclude by stating top athletes are made and never born. However if you happen to find a baby doing all the tricks our top athletes do nowadays, I am more than interested in hearing more about this little genius. To underline that it takes effort more than talent, I have to confess I have rewritten this article a few times before it went public for you to read. To me, practice does make perfect!
Jowett, N. & Spray, C.M. (2013). British Olympic Hopefuls: The antecedents and consequences of implicit ability beliefs in elite track and field athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 145 – 153.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHkHTpuGaD8 (CNN Documentary about Cristiano Ronaldo)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xpas6i_messi-belgeseli-ingilizce_sport (ITV Documentary about Lionel Messi)
In my next article I will discuss the influence of working hard on your reward system. Questionforward: At the end of the week, do you enjoy a night out with friends more when you have been working hard or when you have done nothing all week long?