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Coaching counsel: Nature v nurture - are good players made in the stars, or stars in the making?

The discussion of nature versus nurture is a topical one.

I recently attended a workshop organised by Sports Coach UK (who support the recruitment, retention and development of coaches across all sports) on developing talent.

In attendance were coaches and developers from sports ranging from hockey and horse riding to football and fencing, drawn together to seek to generate what’s known as a ‘Community of Practice’ – a group of people who share a craft or profession (as defined by Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger).

Brought together on this day were coaches from community clubs and elite environments, along with practitioners procuring a profession with performers competing internationally. Informal discussion abounded with the only guaranteed commonality being an interest in coaching sport.

This is something I believe in passionately. Undoubtedly, coaches learn and develop within the context of formal coach education, from watching other coaches, reading literature and other such pastimes – however, much of this is organised and driven by a written agenda. How much time do coaches actually spend conversing, sharing and learning tacitly; discussing their successes, struggles, susceptibilities and sessions?

Spectrum of beliefs

The discussion found its way to whether sporting ability is a gift given in the genes or an ability arduously achieved. Our guide swiftly grabbed his opportunity and asked the gang to imagine the room, from left to right, as a spectrum of our beliefs around the aforementioned discussion.

If one’s leanings were towards the thought that sporting skill was entirely down to nature, stand on the left hand side of the room. Conversely, if performance was predicated on practice and that all top talent was grown, to position oneself to the right.

Some forthright souls jumped to one end or the other, whilst others placed themselves in a more balanced position in varying places on a hastily formed scale.

At the genetic gift end was a tennis coach, her belief formed on twins (not identical). One had gone onto county success and international recognition, the other floundered and fell out of the game at 13.

She recounted that they had the same opportunity and the same amount of practice; surmising that success had come to the one with the drive and talent afforded them. Elements of this may well be true – it’s been said that if you want to be a good 100m runner, you should chose your parents carefully.


Far away at the other side of the room was a football coach who believed that with 10,000 hours of practice, expertise would be achieved.

Whether I’m non-committal or a coward (or both), I stood in the middle of the room. A wise man once told me that if you stand in the middle of the road you get run over in both directions, but it may be worth considering that any polarisation isn’t helpful.

Had the tennis coach considered that the twins’ experiences may have been completely different? They may have had different groups of friends who valued different things; different teachers at school who championed different values, or maybe even that they’d been parented with subtle variances.

Had the football coach considered what recent Swedish research by Pedrag Petrovic has suggested – that top level footballers 'have an innate ability to read a play and be in the right place at the right time'?

Interestingly, it may be a combination of both. The Ecuador World Cup squad of 2006 had eight players, one of the better known ones is former Aston Villa, Reading and Birmingham City player Ulises de la Cruz (pictured), that had come from one small, somewhat deprived basin with a small population less than 1% of the nation’s total.

Prolific physical proportions

The demography was that much of the population had developed from Congolese immigrants with, genetically, prolific physical proportions.

Additionally, the economics meant that kids played (generally and in football) on spartan dustbowls with limited equipment. The lack of other opportunity, it was suggested, ensured that children played ‘street’ games substantially. The environment combined with the embryo.

Now, people will argue, quite validly, that any one phenomenon or individual piece of research isn’t bomb proof.

If players don’t practice enough and in the right way, it’s unlikely they’ll achieve excellence. However, that may need to be allied to a genetic advantage, not afforded to all.

Ultimately, the discussions that morning in Crawley challenged opinion and informed thought. As a coach, I’ve been guilty of existing in a bubble of my own team, club and beliefs; defending them vehemently.

That may only have limited my understanding and knowledge and, most importantly, that which I share with my players.

By Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett is a UEFA A Licence Coach and is Regional Coach Development Manager (East) at The Football Association, having previously worked in player development and coach development roles at Colchester United, Chelsea and Aldershot Town.

With experience of developing players at Club, Centre of Excellence and Senior level, Ben has been fortunate to see several players progress into International Youth squads and currently coaches within The FA's Elite Performance Centre for prospective England U15 Female Internationals.

As a Coach Educator at Level 1, 2, 3, UEFA B and FA Youth Award Modules 1, 2 + 3; coaches often ask for resources, ideas and sessions that can aid their coaching work. This website is a contribution towards this, providing free, accessible and user friendly resources for coaches. Ben played for 15 years in non-league, mostly with Witham Town FC (Ryman League) and latterly with Farnborough (Player Coach) and Hungerford Town.

Ben is also involved with – a support and resource provider to coaches working across a range of ages and abilities.

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