Study: For Athletes, Talent May Trump Training

New research indicates that the world’s fastest athletes are born with special talent


Remember back in grade school when your parents and coaches said you could grow up to do anything you wanted? Even go to the Olympics. Well, it turns out the adults who were encouraging you to follow your gold medal dreams may have been leading you down a road of lies.

A recent study from Grand Valley State University that analyzed the history of 35 world-class athletes concluded that the world’s fastest sprinters are likely born with an innate talent that helps to separate them from the rest of the pack.

The study examined biographies of 15 Olympic champions as well as the 20 fastest American men in U.S. history. According to the results, most of the athletes were documented as having been “exceptional” prior to any formal training and the majority reached the world class level very quickly (within three to seven and half years).

These findings go against the findings of Dr. Anders Ericsson’s deliberate practice model, which argues that there is no such thing as innate talent, but rather, anyone can become an expert at any task, even sports, with 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of deliberate practice.  

“The consistency of the pattern was surprising,” study author Michael Lombardo told Science Daily. “From Helen Stephens, a 1936 Olympian, to Usain Bolt, there were no exceptions. Gathering the data systematically allowed us to see how strong the patterns were.”

The study’s authors also made a point of noting that these findings can likely be applied to sports outside of running since many athletic pursuits require speed.

“Our point is not that talent trumps everything," Lombardo told Science Daily. "Training is crucial, especially the kinds of training highlighted by the deliberate practice model. But in sports, innate talent is required too."

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