Nature vs Nurture & 10,000 hours


Most people have heard of the 10,000 hour rule endorsed by Gladwell in Outliers, or have read other recent texts by authors Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code, or David Epstein, The Sports Gene, which discuss and deconstruct the idea of how talent develops. The authors have gone into the ‘talent hotbeds’ and unearthed their understanding of why some populations of the world develop talented athletes, musicians or students. Overall, the authors show that it is a combination of nature, nurture and…. Hardwork!

Over the past few months I have been living this debate and watching it unfold with my very eyes. Five months ago, my fiancé decided to start training for an annual fun run (12km). She had been doing weekly bootcamps for the past nine months before meeting up with a local running group a few days a week. The running group consisted of 40-50yo men, with a broad range of running talent and experience, performing standard distance sessions e.g. hills, trails, tempo, rep work etc. She was loving the vibe within the group, and the guys were really looking out for her, introducing her to the world of ‘distance running’. To steal a term of Coyle’s, there was definitely a point of ‘ignition’ when she ran 19.10min for a small 5km fun run. Although not blazing by world standards etc, her hardwork was paying off, she was motivated and she was showing there more great performances to come.

To return to the debate, your average Jane off the street could not turn up to a local fun run and roll sub 4min/km pace off 8 weeks training; suggesting it was more to do with nature. To give some perspective, my fiancé is approximately 46kg (~100lb), 5’2, and lean. She definitely chose her parents wisely to pursue endurance activities. Through her adolescence, she was a vertically challenged basketball player, but displays better than average speed and agility. She is also very determined. She also did some distance running with a group at a local university through her early teens; it wasn’t completely foreign to her. So the athletic development through her youth is evident. I don’t know if someone told me this quote or I read it, but ‘talent never leaves the body’, instead it lays dormant, remains untouched or you have another birthday. For her, this talent has really been untouched.

Fast forward a few months, she won an 11km fun run in just under 44 minutes and was now talking ‘tempos, racing flats, Garmin watches and race pace’; she had developed the distance running lingo. The annual 12km fun run, with 30,000 competitors, was her next event and she had been put in the ‘Elite’ group, with a personal aim to run 47 ½ minutes. Going back through past results, if she ran her target time, it would put her in the Top 10 local female finishers in the state; a massive effort considering five months ago the only running she was doing was at bootcamp and playing recreation basketball on a Thursday night.

As she rolled through the finish line a shade inside 46 minutes, ~3.50min/km; the 6th female finisher in the 2014 edition of the race, I was thinking ‘what has actually happened here?’ The physical and physiological transformation over the past 20 weeks had been remarkable, but after witnessing the hardwork she put it, hardly surprising. All I know is that, she had definitely not been running for 10,000 hours and although not elite by national level standards (yet;)), she would now be one of the top female distance runners in the state; with who knows where to next.

How many people can say they became the best in their state at something which thousands of people participate in, within the space of 140 days?

So which one is it? Nature… Nurture, or both. As you can see below, she has the body composition for distance running. The grit and determination she displays through her consistent training has most likely been nurtured through her childhood and her previous experiences. It is clearly a combination of both aspects of the argument, but I would say without the intrinsic motivation and her running squad supporting and guiding her so strongly over the past five months she wouldn’t have displayed these fantastic performances.



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