Chany Jeanguenin, pro skateboarder with an international career spanning over 25 years, now boasts 70+ medals and 3 time Swiss vice-champion, second-degree Senior Black Sash in Kung Fu
NATURE VS NURTURE
When we see an athlete or a performer excel at what they do - is it because of their natural talent or how hard they train? The answer is a lot more complicated than just both.
The concept of “natural selection” can be found in evolutionary biology. It is the survival of the fittest, where those with the most vital traits survive. “Selection by Design” is an entirely different concept: instead of letting nature decide, man selects and refines the qualities artificially.
Translated into a world of sports and performance, the concept of natural selection means that athletes who are more naturally adept will find it easier to make their way up the progression ladder. Typically, people who are less prone to injury and have superior kinaesthetic (physical) intelligence can move through the ranks more rapidly.
“Selection by Design” in the context of physical performance means we can look at genetic predisposition, and use training adaptations to close the gap. It’s using our knowledge of sports science (genetics and training) combined with full consideration of our internal and external environments.
We can consider five domains of influence on the development of performance:
Holistic Scientific Approach
1) PERFORMANCE PSYCHOLOGY
Psychology in a performance context considers our ability to have a constructive mindset, but also an ability to translate thoughts into physical actions and our overall body/mind awareness:
Body awareness: Our understanding of our muscles, joints, skeletal structure, breathing, speed, flexibility, relative position to others/the floor/the air, etc. and how skill elements affect our body.
Confidence: Our belief in our ability, leading to mental resilience, visualisation and ability to perform under pressure.
Mindset: Developing a growth mindset approach instead of being stuck in a fixed mindset mode: i.e. our ability to be constructive or destructive in our inner dialogue, thought-process and actions we take as a consequence.
Approach to feedback: Our willingness to take feedback on board and impact a physical change in our action.
Curiosity: Those people who just “get” things straight away may not need to be curious because their body diligently executes an instructed action without much thought process. But someone who struggles, who has a high curiosity factor, will go above and beyond to understand the process required to achieve the skill or ability. Curiosity gives an advantage of tackling more difficult skills in the long-term because we become more used to deconstructing and reconstructing in our thought process.
2) BODY ARCHITECTURE
While some physiological aspects can be changed (like muscle mass and reaction speed), others sadly cannot (such as genetics). Understanding the difference can help push the boundaries to reach our maximum potential (i.e., our athletic “top line”). We need to consider:
Body Composition: What makes up our individual body: including fat percentage, lean muscle mass, fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibre activation, bone density, VO2Max, etc. Body composition, even though will be pre-determined by genetics, will be altered through training, nutrition and our internal and external environments.
Natural Ability: Also known as ‘kinaesthetic intelligence’, is the natural rate at which we can learn a skill with minimal time spent in the learning phases. We all have a pre-disposed natural ability, but we can develop our abilities further through a more mindful approach to coaching and learning.
Functionality: establishing a balance between mobility and stability, so that movement and load can be added to a safe framework.
Genetics: Our innate ability to react, be flexible, be strong, be fast, utilise oxygen, endure, sustain possible injury and any other physical factor without training. Without training, this is our “bottom line”. If we start to train as a professional, full-time athlete in any sport, we can all reach our’ top line’ (i.e. our absolute maximum human potential, as defined by our genetics). Genetics (i.e., the top line and bottom line) cannot be altered.
Physical Trainability: The margin between our’ bottom line’ and our’ top line’ (maximum human performance) of genetic capability. We cannot alter our bottom and top-line because our genetics defines this; therefore, our “Physical Trainability” potential is also pre-determined. However, our ability to stretch our range of physical trainability can be influenced by our training and our environments. It is HOW FAR we can progress to reach towards our top line, reaching our maximum bio-potential.
3) MEANINGFUL TRAINING
You may have come across the “10,000 hours to master a skill” theory presented by Simon & Chase (1973). It is essential, however, to understand that even though time is crucial, it’s not the sole contributor to success.
Imagine a child picks up a new hobby when they go on a ski holiday: ice-skating, skiing or snowboarding, for instance. They have the equipment available and watch the “pros” perform a skill they want to learn. The child, who never has a coach to show them the skills or technique, start practising on their own. They could accumulate 10,000 hours of training on their own, with a lot of trial and error, and of course, come to some level of performance. However, their probability of injury will be much more significant, and they may well have wasted the majority of the training time, being able to achieve better levels of proficiency in just 1000 hours with a qualified coach helping them along the way.
The term “muscle memory” is technically incorrect, and used loosely. We do not store memory in muscles themselves (unlike involuntary contractions like the heartbeat), but rather it is a procedural memory stored within the nervous system and sequences of movement patterns that become embedded within it. Your body’s ability to properly recruit muscles and communicate with your brain is called Neuromuscular Efficiency. This long-term memory is responsible for letting us know how to perform specific actions without thinking about them while doing them, like tying your shoelaces or walking.
Building procedural memory happens as we repeat a specific sequence over and over again. When building procedural memory, the body does not differentiate between an action or skill performed correctly or incorrectly. To function correctly, the skills we learn from the get-go must be consistent during the initial learning phases.
The same goes for performing skilful movements when we are fatigued. If we lose control of our movement quality by training under fatigue, the procedural memory still builds with lousy form. Procedural memory is complicated to reverse (think of how hard it is to learn a different way to tie your shoelaces!) and can take over five times more repetitions to rewrite incorrect muscle memory.
The process of training skilful movements under fatigue (through means of progressive overload) should be done gradually and without losing the correct movement pattern. Equally, individual components of a skill can be repeated and drilled in isolation before repeating the full movement or sequencing as a whole.
Does the amount of time spent on a skill directly affect mastery? Only if the time is MEANINGFUL: 10 hours of correct training are more valuable than 100 hours of “mindless” repetition.
4) NATURAL SELECTION
In biology “natural selection” refers to the survival of the fittest, where those with the most robust and most effective traits survive. Similarly, in sports, the strongest and more naturally apt athlete will find it easier to make their way up the progression ladder. Athletes with natural ability and who are more resistant to injury can move through the ranks more rapidly.
However, suppose we only rely on natural selection to decide who can progress further without considering or testing all the other aspects of our athletic potential. In that case, we are severely limiting the success of the available talent pool, and dampening our chances of discovering our capabilities.
During the selection process of a sports tryout, dance audition or any other type of physical aptitude assessment, it’s not enough to test skill: coaches should be looking at all aspects of their athletic potential:
Do they give up when things become challenging? Are they using grit when talent isn’t enough?
Do they show promise when taught a new skill from scratch? Do they listen to your instruction?
How do they react when they receive a correction?
Is their body built for speed? Strength? Flexibility?
What are their strengths and weaknesses as a performer and their individual qualities as a member of the team?
In a sporting or performance environment, if we consider these types of questions, we can find more diamonds in the rough, just waiting for a chance to be polished. Equally, athletes or performers may be selected purely based on their baseline performance, without the ability to progress further and progress within their new environment.
5) A HOLISTIC SCIENTIFIC APPROACH
Managing the balance between being pushed enough and pushed too far can have a significant impact on our ability to progress. If we get forced too far too quickly, our bodies will get injured; we very may well start falling victim to mental blocks, back-tracking our progress or even worse: decide to give up training altogether. A balanced, holistic approach to our training means long-term success. It considers:
Following gradual progressions of athletic ability and skill
Identifying strengths and weaknesses in our body and building a baseline of functionality before adding load, speed and movement
Balancing training and conditioning for functionality (stability and mobility of our muscles and joints) as well as conditioning for the skill (movement patterns) and performance (load, speed, endurance, etc..)
Tapering and session planning to consider recovery and avoiding overuse
Paying attention to our internal and external environments (nutrition, hydration, sleep, hormones, climate, psychology, atmospheric oxygen, etc...)
Considering our daily movement patterns: are our bodies adapting to staying fixed in one position all day (i.e. sitting, driving, standing) for hours on end? How is this affecting our long-term “muscle memory” and interfering with our training?
Cross-training through different abilities of the physical spectrum, considering that all abilities contribute to overall performance (e.g. why Australian Rugby League cross-trains with ballet!)