"The Natural" was a Bernard Malamud novel turned into a film with Robert Redford, all about a ballplayer of phenomenal and seemingly altogether natural talent. Whether nature is really the source of a superstar's talent is something for science to try to answer. Our Cover Story is reported by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":
In 2010, at age 30, then-photographer Dan McLaughlin made an amazing announcement: he was going to quit his job and become a professional golfer.
"People were like, 'We didn't even know you golfed,' I'm like, 'Well, I haven't golfed yet. But I'm going to start in January!'" he laughed.
His goal: the same as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson's, to compete on golf's pro tour.
"The basic idea is that there is no inborn, innate talent," said McLaughlin. "That people have to kind of foster their own abilities through deliberate practice."
And so he practices, six days a week, six hours a day. He is halfway to his target of 10,000 hours -- the time an influential study claims is required for true expertise.
But even his coach has doubts. When asked by Spencer, "What do you think his odds are?" he replied, "It's small. It's small for anybody. You've got a better change to be a surgeon, statistically."Whether or not he makes the tour, McLaughlin's experiment could shed light on an age-old question: are elite athletes born to greatness? Or can practice, in fact, make perfect?
"The only real rule is tremendous individual variation," said David Epstein, author of "The Sports Gene," a look at how much of athletic greatness is genetic and how much is learned.
Epstein's answer: 100 percent of both.
"No two people respond to training in exactly the same way because of their genes," said Epstein. "A very important kind of talent is the ability to profit more rapidly, from one hour of practice, than the next guy does, and that's very much mediated by your genes."
Two high jumpers make the case: the 2004 Olympic gold medalist Stefan Holm had trained for 20 years; the guy who beat him for gold at the 2007 world championships, Donald Thomas, took up the sport just eight months before the games.
"They are two guys who are basically at the same athletic place through two completely different paths," said Epstein. "So there's no blanket answer even for two athletes doing essentially the same thing.
"But 10,000 hours is such a great thing to latch onto -- if I just do this for 10,000 hours, I'll be perfect," said Spencer.
"The '10,000-hour rule' is very attractive. It does give people hope," laughed Epstein. "But it suggests if every person isn't getting the same benefit, then they're just not trying as hard."
Not so: genes do convey some obvious advantages.
"There are definitely sports genes," he said, with "some cases where just a single gene makes a big difference to someone's athleticism."
Genes that tailor-make a body for one sport -- and create some unusual proportions.
Take NBA All-Star LeBron James.
No surprise the basketball prodigy is tall -- 6 foot 8 inches. But his wingspan is seven feet!
Teammate Dwayne Wade is 6'4" -- his arms are 6'11" across.
At the far other end of the spectrum: the tiny gymnasts, becoming tinier all the time.
"Elite female gymnasts in the last 30 years have shrunk from 5'3" to 4'9" on average," said Epstein. "Better for them to rotate in the air."
Genetic gifts for one sport don't mean much across sports.
"Michael Phelps has a very long torso, which is great for swimming speed, just like the long hull of a canoe," said Epstein. "Short legs. Large hands and feet."
Phelps's odd body type makes him an unlikely track star, but just watch him in water.
Epstein says today's intense competition is what has weeded out all but the athletes whose body types are perfect for the job.
The extremes that produces are shockingly clear in photographer Howard Schatz's portraits of sports stars. You might legitimately wonder if these people -- from 95-pound figure skaters to 700-pound sumo wrestlers -- are even from the same species.
But perhaps the best illustration of how one body type can dominate a sport is marathon running. One small tribe in Kenya's Rift Valley has produced eight of the Top 10 fastest marathon times ever recorded.
"So what is it about the genetic makeup of these people that gives them this huge advantage?" Spencer asked.
"A hot and dry climate causes the evolutionary adaptation of very long, slender body types," said Epstein, "Long legs proportional to body size, which is good for running, and very thin at the extremeties, and that's an adaptation for cooling."
Thin legs mean it takes less energy to run. Growing up at high altitude produces great endurance.
And there's incentive to train: in Kenya, winning marathons can be a ticket out of poverty.
Last year's Chicago winner was growing potatoes until four years ago. Now he trains about 100 miles a week.
"You have a group of people who have, just on average, the right biological build, and then this huge desire and willingness to try their hand at training," said Epstein.
But others insist it is really the training that makes the difference.
"Without any question and any hesitation ... practice is the number one predictor of how good somebody gets at anything," said Joe Baker, a professor of kinesiology at Toronto's York University.
He says intense practice hones natural athletic skills -- skills that may be useless at something we haven't practiced.
Just ask the major league hitters who, on a lark, went up against Olympic softball pitcher Jennie Finch a few years ago.
Finch, pitching underhand, threw a larger ball at a slower speed - and the big shots couldn't even hit foul balls.
"Their brain develops a very sophisticated rule set that tells them how to anticipate 100-mile-an-hour fastballs, or 80-mile-an-hour curveballs," said Epstein, "but not balls that are thrown with an underhand from a female that's two-thirds of the distance away from them.Their genetic gifts didn't help. They'd never practiced against Jennie Finch.
"And it has nothing to do with desire, talent or persistence; it has to do with the fact that their brain is just wired in a completely different way," said Baker.
And while the debate over what really makes an athletic star rages on, Dan McLaughlin just keeps on practicing, six days out of seven.
"You know, in golf, I don't know anybody who's better than me who's practiced less or put in less time, you know?" he said.
Down now to a 4 handicap -- already better than 95 percent of all amateur golfers -- and determined to nurture what nature gave him to work with.
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Motivation, simply defined, is the ability to initiate and persist at a task. To perform your best, you must want to begin the process of developing as an athlete and you must be willing to maintain your efforts until you have achieved your goals. Motivation in sports is so important because you must be willing to work hard in the face of fatigue, boredom, pain, and the desire to do other things. Motivation will impact everything that influences your sports performance: physical conditioning, technical and tactical training, mental preparation, and general lifestyle including sleep, diet, school or work, and relationships.
The reason motivation is so important is that it is the only contributor to sports performance over which you have control. My There are three things that affect how well you perform. First, your ability, which includes your physical, technical, tactical, and mental capabilities. Because ability is something you are born with, you can't change your ability so it is outside of your control.
Second, the difficulty of the competition influences performance. Contributors to difficulty include the ability of the opponent and external factors such as an "away game" crowd and weather such as temperature, wind, and sun. You have no control over these factors.
Finally, motivation will impact performance. It is also the only factor over which you have control. Motivation will directly impact the level of success that you ultimately achieve. If you are highly motivated to improve your performances, then you will put in the time and effort necessary to raise your game. Motivation will also influence the level of performance when you begin a competition. If they're competing against someone of nearly equal skill, it will not be ability that will determine the outcome. Rather, it will be the athlete who works the hardest, who doesn't give up, and who performs their best when it counts. In other words, the athlete who is most motivated to win.
In training and competitions, you arrive at a point at which it is no longer fun. I call this the Grind, which starts when it gets tiring, painful, and tedious. the Grind is also the point at which it really counts. The Grind is what separates successful athletes from those who don't achieve their goals. Many athletes when they reach this point either ease up or give up because it's just too darned hard. But truly motivated athletes reach the Grind and keep on going.
Many sport psychologists will say that you have to love the Grind. I say that, except for a very few hyper-motivated athletes, love isn't in the cards because there's not much to love. But how you respond to the Grind lies along a continuum. As I just mentioned, loving the Grind is rare. At the other end of the continuum is "I hate the Grind." If you feel this way, you are not likely to stay motivated. I suggest that you neither love nor hate the Grind; you just accept it as part of the deal in striving toward your goals. The Grind may not be very enjoyable, but what does feel good is seeing your hard work pay off with success.
Effort = Goals?
When I speak to groups of young athletes, I always ask how many have big goals, like going to the Olympics or playing pro ball. About 90% raise their hands. I then ask how many are doing everything they can to achieve their goals. Only one or two tentative hands go up. What this tells me is that there is often a big gap between the goals athletes have and the effort they are putting into those goals. It's easy to say that you want to be a successful athlete. It is much more difficult to actually make it happen. If you have this kind of disconnect, you have two choices. You can either lower goals to match your effort or you can raise your effort to match your goals. There is no right answer. But if you're truly motivated to be successful, you better make sure you're doing the work necessary to achieve your goals.
Signs of Low Motivation
There are several signs of low motivation:
- A lack of desire to practice as much as you should.
- Less than 100% effort in training.
- Skipping or shortening training.
- Effort that is inconsistent with your goals.
Prime motivation means putting 100% of your time, effort, energy, and focus into all aspects of your sport. It involves doing everything possible to become the best athlete you can be.
Prime motivation begins with what I call the three D's. The first D stands for direction. Before you can attain prime motivation, you must first consider the different directions you can go in your sport. You have three choices: stop participating completely, continue at your current level, or strive to be the best athlete you can be.
The second D represents decision. With these three choices of direction, you must select one direction in which to go. None of these directions are necessarily right or wrong, better or worse, they're simply your options. Your choice will dictate the amount of time and effort you will put into your sport and how good an athlete you will ultimately become.
The third D stands for dedication. Once you've made your decision, you must dedicate yourself to it. If your decision is to become the best athlete you can be, then this last step, dedication, will determine whether you have prime motivation. Your decision to be your best and your dedication to your sport must be a top priority. Only by being completely dedicated to your direction and decision will you ensure that you have prime motivation.
Developing Prime Motivation
Focus on your long-term goals. To be your best, you have to put a lot of time and effort into your sport. But, as I noted above, there are going to be times-the Grind-when you don't feel that motivated.
When you feel this way, focus on your long-term goals. Remind yourself why you're working so hard. Imagine exactly what you want to accomplish and tell yourself that the only way you'll be able to reach your goals is to continue to work hard.
Try to generate the feelings of inspiration and pride that you will experience when you reach your goals. This technique will distract you from the discomfort of the Grind, focus you on what you want to achieve, and generate positive thoughts and emotions that will get you through the Grind.
Have a training partner. It's difficult to be highly motivated all of the time on your own. There are going to be some days when you just don't feel like getting out there. Also, no matter how hard you push yourself, you will work that much harder if you have someone pushing you. That someone can be a coach, personal trainer, or parent. But the best person to have is a regular training partner, someone at about your level of ability and with similar goals. You can work together to accomplish your goals. The chances are on any given day that one of you will be motivated. Even if you're not very psyched to practice on a particular day, you will still put in the time and effort because your partner is counting on you.
Focus on greatest competitor. Another way to keep yourself motivated is to focus on your greatest competitor. Identify who your biggest competition is and put his or her name or photo where you can see it every day. Ask yourself, "Am I working as hard as him/her?" Remember that only by working your hardest will you have a chance to overcome your greatest competitor.
Motivational cues. A big part of staying motivated involves generating positive emotions associated with your efforts and achieving your goals. A way to keep those feelings is with motivational cues such as inspirational phrases and photographs. If you come across a quote or a picture that moves you, place it where you can see it regularly such as in your bedroom, on your refrigerator door, or in your locker. Look at it periodically and allow yourself to experience the emotions it creates in you. These reminders and the emotions associated with them will inspire and motivate you to continue to work hard toward your goals.
Set goals. There are few things more rewarding and motivating than setting a goal, putting effort toward the goal, and achieving the goal. The sense of accomplishment and validation of the effort makes you feel good and motivates you to strive higher. It's valuable to establish clear goals of what you want to accomplish in your sport and how you will achieve those goals. Seeing that your hard work leads to progress and results should motivate you further to realize your goals.
Daily questions. Every day, you should ask yourself two questions. When you get up in the morning, ask, "What can I do today to become the best athlete I can be?" and before you go to sleep, ask, "Did I do everything possible today to become the best athlete I can be?" These two questions will remind you daily of what your goals are and will challenge you to be motivated to become your best.
The heart of motivation. A final point about motivation. The techniques I've just described are effective in increasing your short-term motivation. Motivation, though, is not something that can be given to you. Rather, motivation must ultimately come from within. You must simply want to participate in your sport. You just have to want it really bad.