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What Makes a Perfect Athlete?
on 31 August 2013
Many people believe that they can achieve anything if only they try hard enough, often Malcolm Gladwell's '10,000 hour rule' ( "the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours") is used to back up this claim. It can be very inspiring to people to think that they can be good at anything if they try hard enough, but is it actually true?
A quick look at the National Basketball Association (NBA) of America shows that being tall helps a lot in basketball. It turns out that 17% of men over 7' and between 20 and 40 in the U.S. are playing in the NBA right now. Even the 'smaller' players have extra longs arms for their height. Unless basketball players train to be taller I think it's fair to say genetics play a big part!
Donald Thomas became world high jump champion in 2007 with only eight months of training. It appears Donald has long legs for his height and a huge Achilles tendon which is very important for jumping but there are probably lots of other things we don't know about helping him as well. Since entering the professional circle Donald has not improved one centimeter contradicting the you-need-to-train-to-get-better rule!
If you think that it's purely a case of nature then you might like to know about high jumper Stefan Holm, he compensated for been smaller than average (for a high jumper ) by perfecting a sprinting approach where he hit a top speed of around nineteen miles per hour, probably faster than any other jumper in the world. To accommodate that speed, he had to start taking off from farther and farther away from the bar. He improved year by year eventually winning gold in the Olympics. Holm's standing vertical jump was around twenty-eight inches, nothing amazing for an athlete. But his blazing fast approach allowed him to slam down on his Achilles tendon (which he had strengthened using weight lifting), resulting in his Achilles acting like a rebounding spring to propel him over the bar. When scientist examined Holm, they determined that his left Achilles tendon had hardened so much from his workout regimen that a force of 1.8 tons was needed to stretch it a single centimeter, about four times the stiffness of an average man's Achilles, making it an unusually powerful launching mechanism. In a sport that seems so "you either got it, or you don't", Holm was transforming himself into the ultimate "got it".
Stefan Holm agrees with Gladwell's '10,000 hour rule' "There were jumpers who beat me when I was young. You wouldn't have said I would be Olympic champion. It's all about your ten thousand hours." So it would appear that training does make a difference but is the amount of time needed to learn correct? Studies of athletes have tended to find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status. According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.
Studies of chess players found a huge difference in the time taken to reach master level. The average time was 11,000 hours but some people became masters in just 3,000 hours while others had done 25,000 hours and still were not masters.
Even when given the same training people respond differently. Heritage Family Study, subjected 98 two-generation families to identical increasing intensity training. After five months of training, 15% showed little or no gain, and 15% improved dramatically increasing by 50% or more. The amount of improvement that any one person experienced had nothing to do with how good they were to start. In some cases the poor got relatively poorer, in others the oxygen rich got richer and all manner of variations between. Along the improvement curve, families tended to stick together. In other words, family members generally had similar aerobic benefits from training.
In a article for the new yorker Malcolm Gladwell has stated that he likes this book but feels that the author has misunderstood the 10,000 hour rule which applies to complex intellectual tasks not sports like running, 'No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent', he also wrote: "achievement is talent plus preparation". He also states among the very gifted it's the 10,000 hours that makes the difference, so this book could be seen as a criticism of the poor understanding of Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule. Maybe Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule should be more accurately named 'talent and 10,000 hours rule'?
Think it takes great will power to train hard? Some people are born loving exercise, they need exercise, for them it is not a chore, it's a necessity. Mice and sled dogs have been selectively bred to want to run.
It was assumed that major league baseball players had super fast reactions but it turns out their reaction times are no better than anybody else. What they do have is a lot of experience at watching the body motions of the pitcher and knowledge of how the ball spins that gives them clues to where the ball will go. But get a softball pitcher to throw and because baseball players are not used to the pitcher's motions nor the ball's rotations they don't do as well. It was also found that baseball players also have fantastic eye sight which lets them spot the pitcher's body motion and ball spin early on.
Being tall helps with basketball but being small has advantages in gymnastics. Having short forearms helps with weight lifting but longer arms help with water polo. There is no such thing as the perfect athletic body, what is advantageous in one sport is disadvantageous in another. You need to look around and find something you're well suited to.
Want to become the next Usain Bolt or Garry Kasparov? It will take lots of hard work, some people will improve quickly, others slowly and for some unlucky persons no amount of training will make a difference. Maybe you can compensate for lack of talent with a better way of doing things or switch to a sport you're more well suited to but ultimately both nature and nurture are needed.