The debate between nature and nurture in sports still exists. In my view the nurture part is more important than the nature part, because I believe a lot can be developed and learned. On top of that, why focus on an aspect you can do nothing about (nature) when you’re working in talent development! In talent development one focus should reign: developing children! As discussed before Are top athletes born or made? & What is Talent: A growth Mindset 1/2) , a lot can be developed. Talent, expertise, skills they can all be acquired through hard work and neural plasticity. Neural plasticity is, if you recall, the ability of your brain to keep on learning throughout your whole life. Your brain builds new pathways when you learn new thoughts, behavior and feelings. The more you think, act or feel the stronger the new pathways in your brain will be, because of the myelin. Myelin is the substance that enhances learning by thickening pathways to be executed easier & better. Myelin thus enables you to learn throughout your whole life! Though there are nuances to this learning process, which I will discuss here, in part two of this article.
Critical learning periods
We can learn throughout our lives, how fantastic is that! But how come children learn a foreign language so quick and seemingly easy, while I as an adult am struggling? That’s a fair question! A very important aspect in development is what scientists call critical learning periods. In their infancy children have periods where their brains are more open to learning and improvement. In a critical learning period the brain of a child functions like a spunge and accelerates their ability to learn. In other words the best conditions for development within a child are met. If you’d look at a learning curve, it would be a steep one. After a critical learning period a child, or an adult, can still learn, but the learning curve will be much less steep. It will take longer to learn, for instance a second language. According to Sean Botherson (Family Science Specialist) and Karen DeBord (PhD Child Development) the critical learning period or a peak period in learning exists between roughly 3 and 10 years of age. In those years different developmental characteristics (physical, intellectual, motor) claim attention at different times. For example the prime time or critical learning period for language and talk is from birth until around 10 years of age, whilst physical and motor development has its ‘growth spurt’ until 12 years of age (Botherson, 2009).
The term critical signifies that in some domains it is truly critical to learn skills or pick up on things, you won’t be able to later in life. For example development of intelligence or becoming an elite ballerina, which has to do more with the physical development actually, are known to have critical periods of learning (Ackerman, 2013). After that period a certain skill (ballerina) or complex thinking (intelligence) has been developed and that will be the basis for the rest of one’s life.
Overcoming physical limitations
In disciplines where you need physical improvements it gets tougher the older you get. You might never even reach those required physical qualities. For example if you want to be a ballerina it’s necessary that you have learned certain movements before a very young age (around 9 or so), it’s almost impossible to catch up afterwards. Or is it? In at least football it’s not. Take ball operation speed in football. Great players always seem to keep possession. Keeping possession consists of handling the ball, moving your body and passing the ball along. There’s an asymptote of time that you can’t beat in doing this. It is physically impossible to control the ball and pass it in less than for example 1 second. Then how come some players (the world class players actually) seem to be able to always find a teammate whilst others don’t? That has to do with perception according to Geir Jordet (2005) – a Norwegian football psychologist & former professional football player and coach. He has been studying why the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, & Pirlo amongst others seem to be unbeatable in possession, even in little space whilst under pressure. He found that those world class players are actively perceiving the situation on the pitch. They’re exploring their position, scanning where teammates and opponents are so they know in advance what to do with the ball. Their focus is not solely on the circulating ball. They explore the pitch. That’s how you can deal with or overcome the physical limitation by already knowing what to do with the ball in possession. So next to the physical component there’s perception/insight component to ball operation speed. If used correctly one can use the perception/insight component to stand a better chance keeping possession in little space and time. And you know what’s funny? You can train this component! Have a look at Jordet’s article if you’re interested.
Motivation is one of the major influences on development. It is the fuel that drives one to practice, to be willing to learn, to improve, to cope with setbacks or challenges. It is really hard to make someone do and be something he doesn’t want to. Although allegedly former tennis player André Agassi is an example it can be done. It’s been said that Agassi ‘never had much fun playing tennis but his father made him’. Or could this be deliberate practice in optima forma? What holds true in talent development is that you shouldn’t always have a child have it his way. Focus on and act in accordance with the long-term goal, instead of the status quo (both socially and developmentally) granted by focusing on short-term satisfaction and social harmony. A beautiful example of what I mean are former Dutch football twins Frank and Ronald de Boer. At a very young age they made it clear they wanted to become professional football players. Their parents respected that and sometimes for the sake of their long-term development made them work hard for it whilst they wouldn’t want to. If they didn’t feel like practicing or learning in football, they’re father made sure they would. Having to be the bad guy in the eyes of his sons their father made sure the long-term goal was prevailing: to become a professional football player. This means that if a goal is clear and motivation has set in, you can be demanding of children. Children can’t oversee such a long term goal and the process needed herein, but you can! That’s why parents and coaches are so important!
How does motivation evolve? According to Ackerman (2013) likes, dislikes and motivation are developed at a very young age already. A few aspects are important in forming motivation in early childhood. One aspect is possibilities given by the environment. Imagine a child growing up with a football, a tennis ball and racket, a hill with trees, a swimming pool, numerous board games and 3 siblings as opposed to an only child with an xbox and a sole tree in the garden – alright I’ve painted it quite black and white, but you see what I mean. In what situation is a child given more possibilities to (broadly) develop himself and his likes, dislikes and motivation?
Feedback is another important aspect. A child gets feedback from executing the game: perceived success. If a child perceives to be learning and executing it in a good way, he will like it. The first step of motivation. Also the feedback given by others, especially parents, is important. Focus on the effort made instead of on abilities (e.g. ‘You did really good, you must have worked hard for this!’). In this way the child will credit success to hard work instead. He or she will learn that tasks, qualities and outcomes are malleable and not fixed by innate ability. A third very important aspect is parenting. A child can sense his parents and their feelings from an early age. If a parent is over concerned, and never lets the child explore, then what would you expect the child to become? How then can you possibly expect a child to have Zlatan like self-confidence, the courage to make mistakes like an enthusiastic startup and have the drive to aim for something new like Barack Obama? You can’t! You only can when you give a child the space and opportunities that are needed for such a development. Now then, what is a good opportunity?
Free play is a good opportunity and might even be the best one! Free play is good for both developing talent and especially interests/motivation. Jessica Lahey wrote a beautiful piece on this for The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/for-better-school-results-clear-the-schedule-and-let-kids-play/373144/). When you give children the freedom to do what they want, let them explore what is out there and have them try, fail and succeed, they are given autonomy. Therefore they will learn by trial and error, by making own choices and experience the consequences. There’s no better way to learn than by experiencing. A child will thus learn a great deal about decision making – I know that if I choose to do X, then Y will happen, do I want Y to happen? The child will also learn that new things or challenging situations aren’t necessarily scary. He will explore and experience new things to be safe or being able to deal with or overcome challenging situations. The trying, failing, trying again and succeeding process can also teach them a Growth Mindset. All consequences of free play are important for the child’s openness to others, to the unknown, to change, and to new situations. It can even influence the way the child will deal with such situations in the long run, as an adult. Last but not least children will learn what they like and dislike, they will ignite or enhance their motivation for one or more activities because they were free to do and to be. Remember that their motivation is key to their development!
To conclude this large article divided in two, I would like to join the group of scientists who express doubts about having a nature versus nurture debate in talent development and athletic expertise. One of such scientists is Scott Barry Kaufman who wrote a great article about the same subject here:
I reckon this nature vs nurture debate is faux and I’ve been wrong looking at it like this before. It’s not either nature or nurture, it takes both! They’re interwoven in talent development. You need nature, it’s necessary to meet the conditions needed to perform in a certain discipline (e.g. two legs, two arms, normal functioning brain in football). Some physical characteristics are claimed to be fixed; you either have it or not so much. Though the question remains: were they inborn or developed during a critical learning period? Of course children have different levels of ability when doing things for the first time, influenced by both nature and nurture foundations. But given the right challenges that meet their qualities, children can improve their (initial) levels of ability. Therefore I believe people working in talent development programs should foremost be interested in the nurture part of the collaboration between nature and nurture in talent development. It’s all about developing children, all of them! Free play, playing different games/sports, exploring, fantasy play, trial and error are ways to enhance the learning, motivation and development of our children. Feel free to use them! Last but not least: given the fact that critical learning periods are acknowledged by researchers, it can only mean one thing: you can develop almost everything!