I posted my opinions on talent recently (Do You Believe in … on July 8) and have been engaged in a lively debate with a number of you regarding that claim. There seems to be some misunderstanding. I was specifically addressing the existence, or rather the nonexistence, of specific talents, such as a talent for archery, or a talent for chess, or the violin. There is no doubt that people have advantages of the body and mind over others when it comes to any particular sport. In fact, I will be so bold to say that participation levels are high enough that at the elite level we see specific body types and mentalities being selected out. If you have, say, genetic physical advantages and you participate, you will experience more success, which can create greater encouragement, which can lead to higher levels of accomplishment. Fifty years ago, no college football offense linemen were over 300 pounds in weight. Now it seems they all are. This did not happen by chance.
As another example, when I was interested in swimming, most swimmers were of middle height. Today, you will find successful swimmers who are much taller and thus benefit from a longer power stroke. If one seriously considers the physiological advantages of a swimmer like Michael Phelps, you can see huge advantages built into his body. Now, if he had been born on a desert planet (Arrakis?), he would have never developed that “talent,” which is my point: what we call generally call talents are actually just high levels of accomplishment.
There is something called the relative age effect. I have written about this with regard to the age groupings of youth sports, including archery. If you break youth competitive groups down into two-year groups, for example, you will soon discover that kids who were born slightly after the start date have an advantage. Let’s say the starting date for the age groups is July 1. If a youth were born on June 30th, he/she would be one day into his/her twelfth year during their first year of any cycle. If they were born on July second, they would be considered to be almost one whole year younger than they really are for that whole year. (They would be an eleven-year old on July 1 and for the rest of the year.) This is a tremendous advantage. Twelve year olds that are twelve plus one day would be competing against kids who were twelve plus 364 days, essentially a thirteen-year old.
This played out in a study of European professional soccer clubs. All or virtually all of the players on the teams at the time of the study benefited from the relative age effect. Since they were older and stronger than their competitors in their age groups, they got more playing time, more encouragement, and experienced more success, or so the story goes.
These are not kids who have more talent, these are kids who are stronger and faster and better because they are older. A 13-year old is 9% older than a twelve-year old in the extreme. These athletes are parlaying their natural “gifts” into success on the playing field, and these successes can play out long term.
So, an athlete’s physical and mental attributes play a role, a role so large that we are seeing elite performances being made by people with advantageous body types, but who also are almost (or actually) obsessed with their sports. I can remember a time when a farm kid or high school kid could take some special training and end up on an Olympic team, even winning a medal. I can remember when female gymnastics were grown women. These situations do not occur any more because of the artificial selection process. Female gymnasts got shorter and shorter and lighter and lighter which were all advantages in their sport. To get the lightest, fittest athletes, they had to be younger and younger, to the point that officials finally put an age minimum on competitors.
You can’t put a limit on effort, however, so the obsessed athletes are putting up numbers that in order to be competitive with them must be matched by equal levels of obsession by the others in their sport. Athletes train year-round for their sport, their countries support them while doing this, so if you want to compete, you, too, have to train year around.
This is artificial selection, not natural selection. What is being selected are genetic benefits and mental abilities, and not inborn or god-given abilities to perform a certain sport or other activity. If you want to learn more about this I recommend the book The Sports Gene (highly readable).