Talent: Is It Born Or Made?

    Elite athletes’ beliefs about sport ability

Natalie Jowett & Christopher Spray, Loughborough University, UK


Is sporting ability born or made? This question has no doubt sparked much debate amongst lay people, academics and coaches. However, the beliefs athletes’ themselves hold about sporting ability has a strong impact on their own sporting development – influencing their goals, motivation, and enjoyment as well as how they deal with setbacks (Biddle, et al., 2003; Slater et al., in press). These beliefs may also have a significant role to play in contributing to athletes’ performance and ultimately, the longevity and success in their sporting careers, and thus deserve further investigation.

The study

The present study aimed to explore the ability beliefs of a small sample of elite British track and field athletes. Four Olympic hopefuls aged between 21 and 28 agreed to participate (2 males and 2 females) with 2 from track events and 2 from field events. Each athlete took part in two in-depth interviews exploring the causes and consequences of their ability beliefs.

“I’ve never been a great believer of you’re born to be one way or the other like you’re born to be a footballer or you’re born to do this and that. I’m a great believer that your environment moulds you.”


Sporting ability can be developed (flexible concept of ability)

Overall, it was found that athletes believed that sporting ability could be improved upon with hard work, dedication and the right type of training. The athletes believed that it was possible to master the various physical (e.g., strength) and psychological skills (e.g., coping under pressure) required for their particular events. Rather than just looking at beliefs about sporting ability in general, the study explored their beliefs about the specific physical and psychological elements of their events. All of the athletes held the common belief that strength and technique could be improved upon quite easily providing they had a good programme and a good coach.

“I think you can always get stronger and you can always get more athletic and again you can always get technically better. But I think with the technique side of it and with all of it you need a bloomin’ good programme and you need to trust in that programme.”

However, interestingly all the athletes felt that whilst it was possible to improve technique, strength and power, they all agreed that speed was very difficult to improve. They suggested that speed was more likely to have a strong genetic basis and, consequently, was something that you are born with and so there is only limited scope for improvement.

“Sprints. I think they require more natural talent. I think you need to be talented to run the 100-metres because if you don’t have the fast twitch muscles, no matter how hard you train you’re not going to make it.”

Although this might seem like a negative comment, having this belief did not appear to lead to any negative consequences as they did not think it impossible to improve speed, they merely felt it was one of the most challenging areas physically to improve upon.

Hard work pays off

The athletes also emphasised the value of working hard but, importantly, also differentiated between training ‘harder’ and training ‘smarter’ by acknowledging that it is not enough to just train hard, and that the recovery from training is just as important.

“I think it’s an event where…well like all athletics events and like all sports, it hurts when you’re working hard and you’ve got to get through that. You’ve got to keep training and keep working hard, you know. It’s that rep where you feel like you can’t do any more that actually counts.”

Talent is only a small part of the equation

The athletes strongly believed that champions are not born but are made. Undoubtedly, natural talent is useful, however, once you get to an elite level it is about what you are doing to harness that talent correctly to achieve success on a world stage. The athletes felt that talent becomes less important with increasing age.

“I think potentially everyone has different talent thresholds. I think we’re all talented, or most of us are talented in athletics it’s just when you get to a certain age, say the age of 21/22, you can’t just keep running off your talent from that age. Everything kind of has to become hard work and dedication. Like I said, we all have different talent thresholds but it’s the determined ones who succeed I think”.

“…to be a champion you can’t just be born, you have to put the work in as well. So there are people out there who are extremely talented but it doesn’t mean they’re going to be a champion”.

“I think the other thing is losing is good because it teaches you how to win and it focuses your mind on how hungry you are. More importantly it teaches you to be humble.”

What influences these beliefs?

The main factors which were found to influence whether the athletes believed that their ability was something that they felt they could improve upon or not came from a variety of personal, social and environmental factors including:

• upbringing

• initial success within the sport

• environment

• transition from junior to senior level

• self-belief

• influence of other athletes and coaches

“I’ve never been a great believer of you’re born to be one way or the other like you’re born to be a footballer or you’re born to do this and that. I’m a great believer that your environment moulds you.”

Having a supportive family, a strong belief in themselves and being a late developer within the sport all seemed to contribute in influencing the athletes’ beliefs that ability can be acquired. Part of the reason why the athletes valued effort, learning and hard work may be due to the fact that none of them described themselves as outstanding junior athletes. The key to uncovering their potential seemed to be that they were not at the very top when they were younger, so they always had a strong work ethic and something to aspire to.

“To be honest I wasn’t an astounding junior. I only made the GB team for the first time in 2006…I was up there but I wasn’t by any means the best or outstanding. So for me, it’s just made me more motivated too.”

“I was never an exceptional junior. I was a junior international and a solid performer but I always wanted more. I think if I’d have been world junior champion it might have been different but I think I’m quite grounded as well and I’ve had other things in my life.”

Therefore, being a ‘late developer’ in the sport may have helped rather than hindered their progress. Over time, they witnessed the drop out of many so-called ‘talented’ athletes predominantly due to a lack of enjoyment or too much pressure at a young age. These athletes believed that enjoyment was crucial and all talked about a love of their sport. This ties in with previous research which has shown that holding the belief that ability is acquirable is more likely to be associated with enjoyment. This may have important implications for the way coaches develop young talent and assist in the crucial transition from junior level to senior level.

Believing ability could be acquired appeared to be related to more positive outcomes, such as setting high but realistic goals, having an enjoyment of their event and overcoming setbacks effectively. Rather than seeing a poor performance as a reflection of a lack of talent, athletes were more likely to attribute under-performing to not working hard enough and were able to analyse what went wrong before correcting the issue and moving on rather than dwelling on it.

“the most important thing is, if I don’t compete well…is to leave it there. Once I’ve done my six throws I leave it at the circle. I don’t take it away and into my next competition or into my next training session, which is very difficult to do. It’s a difficult skill to be able to do but once you master it, it works wonders.”

In addition, they all believed that it is vital to learn how to deal with setbacks and experiencing adversity can be positive as it made them stronger mentally.

“To be successful I think you need to go through some sort of adversity and lose in some situations. You’ve got to know how to deal with it when the time does come again, so it can only make you stronger.”

“I think the other thing is losing is good because it teaches you how to win and it focuses your mind on how hungry you are. More importantly it teaches you to be humble.”

In summary, the beliefs athletes hold about their sporting ability are of great importance and the study revealed the positive impact of believing that ability can be improved upon. Past research in the field of sport and exercise psychology has shown that having a fixed concept of sporting ability is associated with a lack of motivation and feelings of helplessness in the face of a challenge (Biddle et al., 2003).

This idea that you are born with a certain amount of ability sparks a whole host of issues such as the concepts of talent identification, talent academies and coaches who tend to favour athletes who they regard as being the most talented. Even the very terms ‘naturally gifted’ or ‘talented’ may play down the importance of hard work and effort. This has implications for coaches in terms of their beliefs about ability as to whether they put more of their effort into those they believe are currently the most talented or those who have the potential to blossom later in their careers.

Consequently, if coaches focus on emphasising that hard work will pay off and that it is possible to improve with the right type of training, dedication and focus, then this is likely to foster the belief that ability is something that can be acquired and likely to lead to more adaptive outcomes in terms of psychological well-being in the athletes as well as sporting performance.


Biddle, S. J. H., Wang, C. K. J., Chatzisarantis, N. L. D., & Spray, C. M. (2003). Motivation for physical activity in young people: Entity and incremental beliefs about athletic ability. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 973-989.

Slater, M. J., Spray, C. M., & Smith, B. M. (in press). “You’re only as good as your weakest link”: Implicit theories of golf ability. Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Natalie Jowett has an MSc in sport psychology from Loughborough University and is one of GB’s top ranked sprinters.

Source: FA Licensed Coaches Club


About markfc713

Enthusiastic, aspiring football coach.
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