usain bolt
23 September 2015

Are champions born or can they be made?

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” – William Shakespeare

There have been individuals who have exemplified their respective sport, who have at the pinnacle of their abilities reached the status of icons. How do these individuals come to surpass the peers in their field to such a degree they become the single most dominant force in their sport?

It has been a point of contention for as long as sports scientists, coaches and commentators have been watching cavemen play ‘toss the boulder’. They have attempted to understand what makes a champion. Is their predilection to excel at a particular action something that can be replicated through readily available processes or is it down to the subtle arrangements of the randomised coding inside every individual – some form of genetic lottery?

The recent doping allegations that has thrown the world of athletics into controversy gave us pause to wonder; What are the components required to not only achieve at the highest level but surpass anything that has been done before. Could anyone be trained to become an elite athlete?

Nature vs Nurture

When the debate of nature vs nurture arises, first it helps to expand on what those terms mean in sport. This is the core of the discussion at hand, born vs bred, natural talent vs pure hard work/graft.

Carol Dweck, in her book ‘Mindset’ remarked on how Muhammad Ali was not considered a natural fighter. He had the wrong body proportions, for a start. While he was quick, he lacked strength and he lacked what was at the time the move-set to avoid punches and manoeuvre flurries. It was his flair, showmanship and ability to psyche out bigger and stronger opponents that would go on to make him an icon of the sport.

Natural ability simply put, is the genetic make-up that predisposes an individual to be able to perform certain tasks, the most common is physical endowment, and this is visible. Shape, size, agility and strength are all visible; these traits funnel down into 3 body types – Endomorph, Mesomorph and Ectomorph. Basketball players for instance (Jordan, Bryant, Bird, LeBron) possess the visible traits that make them perfect for their sport.

Whereas there are other traits present that go beyond athleticism. These are physiological traits that allow some individuals to perform kinetic activities at an unparalleled level: golfers – Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and other gifted golfers possess a degree of latitudinal judgement, hand-eye coordination, composure and deftness of touch superior to their peers. F1 drivers Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton are natural risk takers; possess a natural foresight for taking corners and intuitive understanding of physics and engineering.

Many would argue that the answer lies somewhere in the middle, natural talent and nurtured training work hand in hand. Nature gives you the raw materials whilst your environment and application can foster that rawness into potential. There are many overlapping circumstances and variables that contribute, one of which is having the talent spotted at the right age.

It is often cited that one requires 10,000 hours of training to master an activity and be considered an expert; this is a commitment of 3 hours a day, every day for 10 years (Math, courtesy of Telegraph’s Linda Blair).

Football fans have been privileged to witness this point of contention in real time between two individuals who have gone on to become the world’s best, the debate has been raging on for over half a decade.

Ronaldo v Messi
(The hard-working refined athlete vs prodigious natural talent) we all await the final verdict….give or take another 5 years.

The Final Ingredient

Natural talent and lots of practice will get you far; however there is one missing ingredient to being a champion is a spartan-like will to succeed, a winning mentality is vital. There are psychological champions who have who not only achieve greatness but inspire greatness in others; these are your Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Matt Busby and begrudgingly Jose Mourinho (current table position not-withstanding).

There are many elements and principles that go some way to addressing the question, however there won’t be enough time to give this boil of a question the lancing it deserves. The question framed in the question is ‘are champions born or made’?

Natural talent is not a short cut to success, and hard work alone is not enough, without the raw materials your broth won’t come out well. There are varying degrees of applications, environmental and socio-economic factors as well as the luck to have this talent spotted early. . With there being so many overlapping factors and variables at hand it could be argued that majority of people go about their daily lives unaware of latent abilities, skills and talents, perhaps there is a potential champion in all of us.

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Written By Tom