Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Great Ones, Part 4: Nature versus Nurture

We all know that the greatest athletes in the world are blessed with a great deal of talent and natural ability. Rowing is a sport which favors those that are tall and have long arms and legs because rowing is a sport of leverage. It is also a sport of strength and endurance and thus those with a large lung capacity and large hearts that can pump a lot of blood have a natural advantage. However, there are other aspects of an athlete's arsenal: 'talents' that are often overlooked when it comes to this subject, or characteristics not commonly thought of as 'talents.' These are things that people can practice and improve over time. It is my belief that mental toughness, discipline, work ethic/dedication, intelligence/knowledge and confidence, all of which are born of both experience and perseverance.

These are the things that can be controlled and therefore are the things that we should focus on in our own pursuit of greatness. The first example is mental toughness. I believe that anyone is capable of being the toughest person in the world. Toughness is a decision that one makes. It has nothing to do with innate physical ability, and has everything to do with the personal control one decides to exercise. Mental toughness can be hugely beneficial to any athlete, especially in endurance sports, which require athletes to push through physical pain, to overcome obstacles, and generally to persevere. Rowing, like most racing sports, is ultimately a simple battle of wills. It is about opponents battling each other until one cannot sustain the pace. In the words of Jake Wetzel, three-time Olympian and, most recently, member of the victorious Canadian men's VIII from Beijing, "rowing is a pain contest." Regardless of one's physical talent, it takes significant mental stamina to succeed this way.

The same can be said for discipline, hard work, knowledge and confidence. Anyone can decide to be disciplined and detail-oriented in their daily training, eating and sleeping. Similarly, anyone can develop impressive work-ethic by having a goal and pouring their efforts into achieving that goal on a daily basis. The same can of course be said for knowledge and confidence. When it comes to knowledge, it refers to the athlete's ability to become a student of the sport and stay up to date on the best ways to train and the level of performance necessary to achieve his or her goals. Confidence is another mental tool, which was discussed in detail in the first part of the series, and which one can improve upon, thereby achieving superior performances.

Often times, circumstances or environment can lead to the development of things like mental fortitude and discipline. Lance Armstrong is a prime example of an athlete who developed mental toughness as a result of his circumstances. He is obviously blessed with natural talent in terms of his lung capacity and the ability of his cardiovascular system to pump and distribute blood and oxygen efficiently. However, Armstrong never achieved greatness until he developed some of these other talents. Nature needed to work with nurture.

Prior to being diagnosed with testicular cancer, Lance was a very good athlete, having had a great deal of success early on in his career, first as a professional triathlete and later as a professional cyclist. Still, it was not until after undergoing chemotherapy, surgery and other treatment to help him recover that he went on to win an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France titles. There is no doubt that the experience of being so sick -- having to persevere and deal with such an extremely mentally and physically challenging situation -- armed him with these under-appreciated talents, and helped him take his mental toughness to a whole new level.

Though some might suggest that certain people are blessed with a higher pain tolerance than others, I don't know if or to what degree this helps when it comes to pushing through exercise-induced pain and fatigue. I do believe though that one can still improve his or her ability to deal with tough circumstances by conquering the mental component using the simple philosophy of "mind over matter." In other words "if you don't mind, it won't matter." If you tell yourself you don't mind the pain, it won't matter nearly as much. This is purely a psychological tool, readily available to all, which can help to raise your level of performance regardless of the physical pain, the outside pressure of the event, or the conditions of the race.

The beauty of lacking talent that cannot be developed (i.e. natural physical abilities/characteristics that facilitate success in a given sport) is that it may force an athlete to develop/strengthen these other talents in order to be able to compete with those having the God-given genetic gifts. Often times those with all the genetic gifts take them for granted and can skate by because they succeed in their sport with relative ease from a young age. One need only look at erg score differences between the heavyweight and lightweight squads at many clubs, schools, and colleges to see that having obvious physical advantages (being taller, having more muscle-mass) can lead to complacency.

Now obviously, the best of the best are the athletes that have all the genetic gifts and also figure out how to develop tremendous mental toughness, discipline and work-ethic. When this happens, new heights are reached, world records are broken and greatness is realized. If we think of #1 draft picks as physically talented individuals, how many of them succeed in developing the other half of the talent question? When you reach a certain level, physical gifts are a given. How will you separate yourself from the rest?

-The RR Editorial Staff

3 comments:

  1. I think it's interesting you pick Armstrong as an example in a week when his legal battle against doping comes to court in the USA. His mental and physical skills are not disputed but it marrs his achievements if he had "a bit extra" to assist.

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  2. I absolutely agree with the idea that for those of us not naturally talented enough or with the ideal build can over come those set backs in a major way (in some to most levels of competition). But I've coached some athletes who SEEM to be committed to developing that toughness, but never really do (even after hours of self-inflicted training). I've questioned a lot if those athletes really are committed or if there is some kind of disconnect with what that mental toughness really is in their minds. Anyone else have experience with this kind of athlete? and if so, are there any suggestions as to how to "lead the horse to water..." and get them to drink it?

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  3. rowingrelatedMarch 03, 2015

    Obviously, this was written before the truth about Armstrong's performance was known—unfortunately, we'll have to think of a different example. But those examples are out there.

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