You can’t teach speed – Interview with an Author

Today we published a study that might put an end to the debate about the existence of innate talent. ‘You can’t teach speed: sprinters falsify the deliberate practice model of expertise’ indicates that training is crucial, but innate talent is definitively required, especially in sports.

We were interested in hearing more about this work, so we invited the first author Michael Lombardo to comment on his research and his experience publishing with us.

PJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?


ML: I am a Professor of Biology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI where I teach classes in Evolution, Human Evolution, Human Sexuality, Ornithology, and Vertebrate Natural History.  I earned a B.S. in Zoology from The Ohio State University where I became interested in evolution, M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Ecology from Rutgers University where I focused my efforts on learning about the evolution of social behavior and studying avian behavior, and I was a Junior Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan (1987-1990). At Michigan, I was based in the Bird Division at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology and conducted bird research but I spent much of my time interacting with students, post-docs, and faculty in the Evolution and Human Behavior program. My main research interest is the evolution of social behavior and I have published papers on bird behavior, the evolution of sexually transmitted diseases in birds, the evolution of reciprocity, the role of microbes in influencing the evolution of sexual and social behavior of their hosts, and the evolution of sports. 

PJ: Can you briefly explain the research you published in

ML: Our research shows that the developmental histories of elite sprinters directly contradict the popular deliberate practice model of expertise. According to this model, there is no such thing as innate talent. Instead, 10 years of deliberate practice (roughly 10,000 hours) are necessary and sufficient for anyone to become an expert in any field, including sports.

We studied biographies of 26 world-class sprinters, including 15 Olympic gold medalists and the eight fastest men in U.S. history. The first major finding was that every expert sprinter, male or female, was recognized as exceptionally fast prior to beginning formal training. This contradicts the deliberate practice model, which assumes that initial performance and final performance in a domain will be unrelated. A second key finding was that, contrary to the 10 year rule, most sprinters achieved world class performances in less than 5 years, and more than half of the Olympic champions reached this level in 3 years or fewer.

We also surveyed 20 sprinters and 44 throwers (i.e., shot put, javelin, discus) who qualified for the 2012 NCAA collegiate track and field outdoor championships. Sprinters recalled being faster as children than did throwers, while throwers recalled greater strength and overhand throwing ability. Moreover, the collegiate sprinters’ best performances in their first season of high school competition, generally the beginning of formal training or deliberate practice, were consistently faster than 95-99% of their peers.

Because speed is crucial for many sports, our results imply that sprinting talent is important for many sports besides track and field. Finally, our behavioral data complement many genetic and physiological studies indicating individual variation in athletic talent.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

ML: Early on in the research, I phoned, Jerry Baltes, the very successful track and field coach at Grand Valley State University, to talk about our research project.  When I explained to him that we were going to test the deliberate practice model’s prediction that any healthy individual could achieve expert performance as a sprinter he said to me, “You don’t believe that, do you?” The epigram on our paper “I can make you faster, but I can’t make you fast” is what Coach Baltes tells the athletes he recruits and neatly summarizes our findings. Coach Baltes is just expressing what most people know: some people are naturally much faster runners than others. Our research shows that world class sprinters were always the “fastest kid on the block.”

PJ: What surprised you the most with these results?

ML: The consistency of the pattern of achievement of expert performance was surprising – 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. It also allowed us to test and rule out alternative explanations.
PJ: What kinds of lessons do you hope the public takes away from the research?

ML: While our results won’t come as a surprise to most biologists, sports scientists, or coaches—all of the previous data pointed to this conclusion – they are important because the deliberate practice model and its ‘10 year rule’ remains enormously popular among many social scientists and intellectuals. Our results are clear-cut and require no scientific training to understand. So we hope they will finally put an end to the debate about the existence of innate talent.

Our results support an interactive model of expertise development. Our point is not that talent trumps everything. Training is crucial, especially the kinds of training highlighted by the deliberate practice model. But in sports, innate talent is required too.

PJ: Where do you hope to go from here?

ML: I continue to study the biology of sport. Rob Deaner and I are embarking on a project examining the ecological causes and evolutionary consequences of throwing behavior in the genus Homo.

PJ: How did you first hear about PeerJ, and what persuaded you to submit to us?

ML: I first heard about PeerJ from my co-author Rob Deaner. We choose to submit our paper to PeerJ after extremely time-consuming experiences dealing with editors and reviewers at another journal.

PJ: How would you describe your experience of our submission/review process?

ML: I was very happy with all of our interactions with PeerJ.  Our paper was reviewed promptly, the reviews were constructive, and the editorial and production staffs were very easy to work with and very helpful during all phases of the process.

PJ: Would you submit again, and would you recommend that your colleagues submit?

ML: Yes, I would submit another paper to PeerJ and I would recommend the journal to my colleagues.

PJ: In conclusion, how would you describe PeerJ in three words?

ML: First-rate organization.

PJ: Many thanks for your time!

If you would like to experience the future of publishing for yourself, then submit now to PeerJ. And from now until the end of August, if you engage with PeerJ articles or preprints, then you can publish for free!

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