Ever since Francis Galton wrote the phrase “Nature and Nurture” in 1874, we’ve used and overused this phrase to describe the factors that interact and influence high levels of human achievement (1). Although there may still be a war waging on between the biological (nature) and environmental (nurture) camps it’s worth examining which concept is greater for facilitating the peak expression of ourselves in this limited span of time that we have here on this planet.

The nature camps looks at the role that that our genetics play in influencing our levels of success in, for the purpose of this article, sport. These biological factors, may include aerobic capacity and the response to training , anaerobic performance, muscle strength and power, neuromuscular coordination, bone density, body size and composition , muscle fiber type distributions, a variety of cardiovascular variables, and hormones and the hormonal response to training (2).

The nurture camp (environmental) looks at the impact that environmental factors including deliberate practice, family support, and the birthplace effect, have on attaining a level of expertise or mastery in a specific sporting domain.

Lewontin (2000) uses the metaphor of an empty bucket to describe this approach to the relative contribution of genes and environment on development; specifically that genes determine the size of the bucket while the environment determines the contents (1). Regardless of whether you support the nature vs. nurture camp it’s important that we examine some of the environmental factors that influence the inter-individual differences that we see with those who have achieved a high level of proficiency in their chosen pursuit in life.

Let’s take a look at how training influences our acquisition of mastery in a specific domain.

It’s no longer a surprise that high levels of training or practice are needed in order to facilitate the acquisition of mastery in a related area of performance. Research in skill acquisition clearly supports this idea that a many years of training is needed in order to acquire a high level of mastery in a domain. We’ve all heard of the theory of 10,000 hours or 10 years in relation to achieving a high level of expertise in a given domain. According to the “10-year rule,” a 10-year commitment to high levels of training is the minimum requirement to reach the expert level (1). But we now know that it takes more than 10 years of commitment, it takes 10 years of deliberate practice in that specific domain.

It’s not the doing of things that makes you successful, it’s the standard at which you do them that does.

The theory of deliberate practice put forth by (Ericsson et al., 1993) suggests that it isn’t simply training of any type, but engagement in ‘deliberate practice’ that was necessary for the attainment of expertise (2). According to Ericsson et al. (1993), deliberate practice activities are forms of training that are not intrinsically motivating, require high levels of effort and attention, and do not lead to immediate social or financial rewards. Under deliberate practice conditions, experts develop specific skills that are required by their domain under conditions of high effort and concentration (2).

Regardless of whether you side with the nature or nurture camp it’s inherent to grasp this idea that the deliberate practice of a specific skill is what drives us closer and closer to achieving a high level of mastery in that domain. It’s not about how long you practice for, it’s about the standard at which you practice each and every single session. We may have a genetic/physiological ceiling as Lewontin eluded to, however, we’d argue that in order to come close to reaching that ceiling we need to place ourselves in the environment that is conducive to our growth.

When we are first introduced to a new job or form of physical activity it takes a certain amount of practice before we achieve what we would deem to be an “acceptable” level of performance. This level of performance may be one in which there are no obvious failures or glaring areas that need improvement. The problem is that most of us stop once we’ve reached this level of performance- our improvement starts to slow, come to a crawl, and then stop.

Take biking for example, we’ve all heard that saying “it’s just like riding a bike”, something that should be second nature to us and easy to perform. It implies that we know everything about an activity and can take off where we left off. But when it comes to mastery we know that it couldn’t be further from the truth. It doesn’t take much for one to assume that they are good at riding a bike, even more so when we’ve become accustomed to riding a bike on a flat surface. What happens when we take that flat surface away and find ourselves hurtling down a 2-4 foot wide mountain biking path for the first time? It’s almost as if we have to learn the skill all over again. By placing ourselves in a new environment we begin to expand upon our skills and find new ways to continue our practice.

While a lot of the evidence indicates that the quantity and quality of training are very important factors in attaining a level of expertise, or in our case mastery in a specific domain, there are a variety of other environmental factors that influence the development of such skilled performance. These factors include, but are not limited to, maturation rates, parental and relationship values, the role of coaching and instruction and a variety of cultural and societal influences (1). However, for the purpose of this post we’ll be looking more into the how coaching and instruction, and cultural and societal influences can impact our journey towards mastery and the peak expression of ourselves.

Coaching and instruction is another environmental factor which also impacts the training and acquisition of mastery in a specific domain. Coaches play a large role in the construction of an athlete’s practice time. The ability of the coach to devise an environment that fosters optimal learning thus becomes one of the most significant keys to athlete development (1). In addition to a coach’s ability to maximize practice time, the expert coach also possesses domain specific knowledge that is essential to fostering improvement, particularly as the athlete advances in skill level (1). 

If you’re looking for a shining example of a coach who knew how to facilitate an environment of growth and development with his athlete’s you need not look past John Wooden. John was notorious for putting in hours of work before each practice to ensure that all of the time spent in practice was being utilized to it’s fullest: “Everything was planned out each day. I would spend two hours every morning with my assistants organizing that day’s practice sessions (even though the practice itself might be less than two hours long) (5).

Cultural factors are a significant and often overlooked component of the environmental equation and development of expertise. The importance that a country or society places on a particular sport can have a dramatic influence on any success achieved (1). In Canada, ice hockey has become an important part of the national sporting identity. While in New Zealand, rugby is an integral part of the national sporting identity. This factor can often influence the quality of coaching, funding, and overall availability of resources that are directed towards that sport for the development of their athletes.

If we look at culture as being this global overarching thing that is comprised of the norms or habits of a particular group of people or a society, we can start to see the role that culture plays in fostering the form of peak expression that we are after. We wouldn’t write an article without mentioning the gym at least once here so let’s look at a couple examples of how the culture at a gym can impact our growth.

Contrary to popular belief, having a six pack may not be a good indication of your level of fitness. However, if you walked into a facility that places a heavy emphasis on the aesthetic side of the ‘fitness’ equation you might find your mental representation of fitness being challenged. Conversely if you were to walk into a strength and conditioning facility you again would be exposed to a different expression and representation of what it means to be fit.

Now we aren’t here to wage war against which representation is correct. Our intent, instead, is to inform you that you need to place yourself in the environment that is going to be the most conducive to you reaching your goals. Chances are that if you’re planning on stepping on the stage as a bodybuilder you may not find the type of culture that will be conducive to your development if you’re in a gym that was built for servicing olympic weightlifters.

So what can we do with all of this information?

We can choose to place ourselves in environments that are conducive to our growth as an individual by seeking teachers/mentors who care more about fostering our development than they do about our feelings, information that would disprove our stance in this world, relationships that nurture our growth, and a culture that is rooted in the developmental process.

If achieving mastery or expressing our maximum potential is the goal, then it doesn’t pay to believe that our potential is solely predetermined by our nature. Instead, if there is even a chance that our potential can be influenced by the type of nurture that we expose ourselves to we owe it to ourselves, to our families, to our communities, and to our society, to get out there and place ourselves in the type of environments that are going to foster the development that we are after. Remember it’s not all about the size of the bucket, it’s about the content that you choose to fill it with.

Cheers,

Coach Kels

This weeks training:

Day 1

A) Back Squat- 4×6 @ 75% @ 1x1x1x1

B) Romanian Deadlift- 4 x 7 @ RPE 8/10 @ 1x1x1x1

C) Cossack Squat- 3 x 6/leg @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1x2x1x1

D) Metcon

22-16-10 for time

I) Double Dumbbell Deadlift – 22.5kg gents/15kg ladies

II) Double Dumbbell Front Squat- 22.5kg gents/15kg ladies

II) Double Dumbbell Push Press- 22.5kg gents/15kg ladies

Day 2

A) i) Barbell Bench Press- 4×5 @ 75% @ 1x2x1x1

ii) Bent Over Barbell Row-

B) i) Z-Press- 3 x 6 @ 70% (of strict press) @ 1x1x1x1

ii) Lat pulldown- 3 x 8 @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1x2x1x1

C) Metcon:

3 rounds of 3 min Amraps

10 Dumbbell Thrusters- 22.5kg gents/15kg ladies

10 Burpees

10 Dumbbell Reverse Lunges- 22.5kg gents/15kg ladies

*Note* Rest 3 minutes between each round, try to match the reps across each round.

D) Structural Work:

i) Zottman Curls- 3 x 8 @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1x1x1x1

ii) Tricep Press Downs (with rope or band) @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1x2x1x1

Day 3

A) Sumo Deadlift- 4 x 4 @ 75% @ 1x1x1x1

B) i) Push Press: 3 x 6 @ 75% @ 0x1x1x1

ii) Pull-Up: 3 x 6 @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1x2x1x1

C) Single Leg Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 10/leg @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1x1x1x1

D) Metcon

5 Rounds for time of:

I) Farmers Carry (with Kettlebells)- 50m

II) Front Rack Kettlebell Carry- 50m

III) Overhead Kettlebell Carry-50m

References

  1. Baker, J., Horton, S., Robertson-Wilson, J., & Wall, M. (2003) Nurturing Sport Expertise: Factors Influencing the Development of Elite Athlete, Journal of Sport Science and Medicine 2 (1), pg. 1-9. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3937568/
  2. Brutsaert, T.D., Parra, E.J. (2009). Nature versus Nurture in Determining Athletic Ability. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26756962_Nature_versus_Nurture_in_Determining_Athletic_Ability
  3. Ericsson K.A., Krampe R.T., Tesch-Römer C. (1993) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review 100, 363-406
  4. Lewontin R. (2000) The triple helix: Gene, organism, and environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. Wooden, J.R. , & Jamison, S. (1997) Wooden: A lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court. Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books.