Talent or Practice – What Matters More?
A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.
Sporting Greatness is Practice Bound
Dr Nicola Hodges is an Associate Professor with the School of Kinesiology, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, where she studies motor skill learning and correlates of expert performance. She has contributed to the understanding of processes involved in learning from observation and instruction and practice behaviours for elite performance. For further information please see her lab website (http://msl.kin.educ.ubc.ca/)
Practice is necessary for success in sports. There’s also quite convincing evidence that good quality practice for sustained periods brings about improvements that could lead to elite levels. The research evidence, across many sports, shows that skill level is positively related to practice amount. We should expect to see violations to that general finding if ‘talent’ can substitute for practice, but we don’t.
The relationship between practice amount and performance is typically shown to be quite robust across different skill groups; more elite athletes have practiced more than intermediate and novice-level athletes. There is a lack of published data, however, showing that within a skill class, the best athletes are the ones who have practiced more. In an early study with wrestlers (see also chapter by Starkes and colleagues), although the more skilled group had accumulated more practice hours than a lesser skilled group, we were unable to relate practice to the coach’s rankings of whom he perceived to be the best or poorest wrestler within a skill class. However, using more objective measures of performance, that of performance times, we do have evidence that the fastest female triathletes, of a highly elite group, were also the ones who had practiced the most (unpublished analyses). This linear relationship was not as strong in the sub-elite group. Although the male data were not as clear, it was still the sub-elite group that showed a weaker relation between practice and performance. These data potentially suggest that factors other than practice are more likely to moderate performance early in sport involvement, not later. Similar suggestions have been made elsewhere.
One further finding worth noting with respect to the practice/talent debate is that the relationships between practice and performance were moderated by event among elite and sub-elite swimmers. Stronger linear relationships between practice and performance times were noted for longer distance (i.e., 400 m) rather than shorter distance (i.e., 100 m) events. These moderations potentially allow for other factors to account for performance variations in events that require more explosive strength and could potentially be limited by physical factors.
In summary, the data collected on practice shows that success in sport is highly dependent on good quality practice. Based on the data briefly reviewed here, individual differences become less important as practice proceeds, although this is moderated by the ‘physicality’ of the event. If we are interested in achievement of ‘greatness’ or ‘creative genius’ in sports, my belief is that we are more likely to locate greatness by looking more closely at the type of practice or the psychology of the individual, rather than searching for any talent gene or physiological marker. Like others, we are studying how early practice experiences with different sports and less formal methods of practice impact on later skill development, psychology and markers of creative expertise.