One of the most interesting debates in sport is whether ‘winners’ are born or made. It’s a subject that I find absolutely fascinating and one which I have written about several times in the past, particular when it comes to swimming.
Anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers will be familiar with the 10,000 hours rule – that this is approximately the amount of time you need to practise something, whether that’s music, sport or just about anything else, before becoming an expert in it. He doesn’t completely dismiss the idea of ‘natural talent’ but makes it clear that it is one of a number of factors that determines success.
Some of the commentators on yesterday’s BBC2 programme The Olympic Journey – Born Winners go even further. For example, sports journalist Matthew Syed, who used to be a table tennis international and who now writes for The Times, says that ‘natural talent’ can even hinder success because it makes people take winning for granted. He points to resilience – a determination to keep going even in the face of failure – as being the key factor to sporting success. I think he is probably right.
In the first programme in the series, we saw presenter Gaby Logan and her kids have various DNA tests to determine whether they have the ‘right stuff’ for sporting success. To be honest, we didn’t find out too much that was conclusive or interesting, other than they may have. Then again they may not.
Clearly, as Matthew Syed states, DNA tests can determine whether you have the necessary ‘fast twitch’ reaction needed for some sports – such as sprinting (98 per cent of Jamaican and US 100m runners have a fast twitch). But when it comes to other sports this may not be so important and other factors, such as co-ordination (which can be developed), come to the fore.
As part of the series, Gaby Logan and Matthew Pinsent interview various athletes and coaches. In the first episode long jumper Greg Rutherford talks about his training regime (he is currently building a long jump pit in his back garden) and there were also interviews with the Head Coach of British Swimming Bill Furniss, Breaststroke world record holder Adam Peaty and his coach at the City of Derby Swimming Club, Melanie Marshall.
Again we didn’t learn too much that we didn’t already know except that swimming is, as Matthew Pinsent explains, a ‘brutal sport’ in terms of training – something that many of us ‘swimming parents’ are already more than familiar with. We also learned that British Swimming is at long last changing, focusing more on competing and getting results at the right time, especially in the light of Olympics 2012 disappointment.
Admits Bill Furniss: “We should have won more medals (at London 2012) and we didn’t. We weren’t race ready, we hadn’t competed enough. We didn’t handle it mentally.” So how have things changed since he took over? “Everything now is smaller, it’s more focused, it’s results driven,” explains Furniss. “We try to reward people who produce the results, and if you don’t produce the results there’s a consequence.”
Whether success at Rio will come down to this new approach to coaching within the sport or whether it’s entirely down to the athletes themselves remains to be seen. But with an emerging crop of new talent coming through and the exposure that programmes like this are giving to tough sports like swimming, the next few years should see some improvement.
Certainly for 50m and 100m Breaststroke World Record Holder Adam Peaty, who talks about how much he hated water growing up (“My Dad had to shove me in the shower and keep me in there with his hands – I hated it), winning does appear to be everything. And that has to be a good start!
“When you are on the blocks you have to stare fear in the face and say to yourself ‘can you do this?'” says Peaty talking about how he races. “Pretty much what goes through my head is ‘right I can have this'”. Let’s hope he can ‘have it’ in Rio.
You can watch The Olympic Journey: Born Winners on the iPlayer in the UK (for the next few days) by clicking here.