Are champions born or made? It is a question almost as old as sport itself. In ancient Greece, at the original Olympics, philosophers would debate the issue, with some marvelling at the prodigious gifts of the most renowned Olympians, such as Milo of Croton (a wrestler in the sixth century BC) and Leonidas of Rhodes (who won 12 running events over four Olympic Games, 164 152 BC).
But others argued that these astonishing abilities are less to do with nature than nurture. They pointed to the arduous training regimes of the greatest athletes and emphasised the way in which great coaching and medical supervision could transform seemingly normal individuals into revered champions.
Perhaps the most famous training regime in ancient Greece was the so-called tetras, a four-day schedule that consisted of high-intensity work-outs on day one, moving on to long and strenuous sessions (day two), rest and stretching (day three) and tactics and muscle training (day four). Many of the highest-profile athletes of antiquity used this system, with powerful effects.
Fast forward 2,500 years and the debate is still raging. As the Games of the 30th modern Olympiad loom, millions of viewers will again be pondering the nature/nurture question. Have these incredible athletes benefited from a fluke of birth? Or have they been moulded into champions by sophisticated coaching?
Perhaps the scientist who has thrown the most light on this debate is the Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson. His initial research was in the field of memory, but it has profound implications for sport and beyond. For decades, it was supposed that individuals who could remember vast quantities of data were simply born with superior powers of recall. It was all about heredity.
Ericsson conducted a simple experiment to find out. He took a chap called Steve with seemingly poor memory - the kind of person who struggles to remember a phone number - and started putting him through serious training. The average memory span of most of us is around six digits (this is how many we could remember if we were read a list of random numbers).
But, over many hundreds of hours of gruelling training, Steve did not merely get to 20, or 30, or even 40 digits. Eventually, he managed to get to 82, which - if you were to witness it unfold before your eyes - would seem miraculous. And yet, by the time the experiment stopped, Steve was still getting better. As Ericsson put it: “There are apparently no limits to improvements in memory skill with practice.”
Ericsson has spent most of the past few years extending his revolutionary analysis. It is not just memory that can be transformed in an almost miraculous way through training, but many other skills that have direct relevance to sport. Reaction speed, for example, may seem like an innate gift bestowed upon top tennis and badminton players, not to mention Formula One drivers. But it turns out that speed in sport has virtually nothing to do with nature and virtually everything to do with nurture. Top athletes aren’t faster; they just have superior anticipation.
On deeper analysis, it turns out that almost all the abilities of super-achievers are constructed upon astonishing amounts of efficient practice. Chess grandmasters take, on average, ten years to reach their elevated status. Read the biographies of people such as Andy Murray or Chris Hoy and the same story emerges. It’s all about graft, not over the course of a week or a month, but through thousands of hours of practice.
Of course, there are limits to the power of practice. In many simple sports, such as running, lifting and jumping, anatomical considerations come into play. To be a great sprinter, you need to have fast-twitch muscle fibres; and to be a great basketball player, you have to be tall. These things are, to an extent, determined by genetic variation. You can’t work your way to greater height, and you’re unlikely to defeat Usain Bolt with lots of sprinting practice.
But as a task or sport becomes more complex, the importance of genetics diminishes. The limiting factor in field hockey, for example, is not speed or height. It’s having the perception to pick out the right pass to a teammate (while avoiding opposition defenders) and the ability to control the arc of the stick to impart the right spin and speed. These are complex skills (think how hard it would be to programme them into a robot), and they’re acquired through practice.
All too often, we assume that great Olympians are born, rather than made. But when it comes to the majority of sports, and almost all non-sporting activities, the reality is more optimistic. The evidence suggests that we all have the potential to reach astonishing levels of performance. There is only one proviso: it takes thousands of hours of hard work and dedication.
Matthew Syed competed for GB at table tennis in the 1992 and 2000 Olympic Games, and is a writer and columnist for The Times