I tend to enjoy thinking about underlying factors that are involved in sports, but are rarely acknowledged. It allows me to have a greater appreciation for what truly goes into sport success. The base level factors that have the greatest impact on an athlete achieving their sport potential rely on their genes, environment, and culture.
Genes make up the code that determines how we are built, from the micro levels of RNA synthesis in a cell, to the macro levels of how we look or how tall we are. In a broader sense, a gene is the unit of heredity that our parents transfer to us that helps determine some of our characteristics. From these descriptions, it is clear to see the impact the genes of the parents will play in potential success in sport. Genes are fundamental for the presentation of body size, limb lengths, and fiber type percentages.
There is plenty of evidence available to suggest that eustress and distress play a role in gene expression. For example, deliberately planned and executed training can signal for favorable adaptations to be made barring an adequate chronic stimulus and adequate recovery - eustress. Conversely, a sedentary lifestyle, chronic inflammation from misinformed diet choices, and poor recreational habits can be just as strong of a signal for adaptations to be made -distress.
Genetic predisposition to potential success in specific sports is certainly possible, however it is not guaranteed. Aside from genes, environment and culture provide the greatest influence on an individual – they provide the greatest amount of eustress and distress to the individual – they influence the genes.
An environment can be defined as the surroundings and conditions a person operates in or the geographical area affected by the individual – this provides opposing, but equally meaningful explanations. In the first, an individual exists and is molded by their given surroundings. For example, it can be winter-like conditions for 10 months out of the year – this provides a greater opportunity to pursue snow- and ice-based sports. In the second, the “geographical area” is influenced by the individual. The winter-like conditions can be combated by the individual and the society they are a part of by building indoor facilities to pursue other sports.
The slight variation in definitions were provided to emphasize the relationship that must be acknowledged for possible sport success – the environment acts on the athlete and the athlete can act on the environment. The first definition must also be dissected to understand that the individual, with adequate resources, can change the “surroundings and conditions” that they are in. This is not a new idea since athletes have and will pursue specific educational and professional opportunities across the globe that provide them a more ideal environment to prepare and compete in. The individual’s genes and environment will work dynamically and be affected by the culture they are a part of.
Culture is comprised of ideas and accepted social behavior of the people living together in an organization or community formed for a specific purpose. This means that an athlete will be affected by the people around them, their ideas, and the rules that are set and consistently enforced upon them.
Let’s address “the ideas”. Who is the best coach to play for? Context is important. What is the sport? Are we asking the all-pro couch potato or hall-of-fame player? Are you looking at coaches in the city? In the state? In the country? In the league? In the world? How do you define “best”? What objective criteria do you have to make that decision? There will never be a definitive answer because every opinion will be biased from personal experience and emotion – tell a New England sports fan that Bill Belichick is not the greatest coach ever.
The behaviors of an individual are contingent upon the interaction of the genes of every individual involved in the society, the physical environment in which they are in, and reinforced social behaviors that the community allows. Culture and environment become the two largest influences on gene expression – most of the stress placed upon an individual are due to the ideas, customs, acceptable and unacceptable social behaviors of a society and the surroundings in which those occur in.
To tie it all together, I’ll use the example of ice hockey players. Many high-level ice hockey players come from gene pools common in cold weather countries – likely to have immediate family members who competed in ice hockey throughout their lives – which can affect the nervous system and fiber type disposition – having genes catered toward specific sport success. Having been born into a cold-weather community, as well as assuming sufficient economic support around them, the opportunities to spend time on an artificial ice rink or outdoor skating space are immense – providing an environment for sport success. Having a large amount of people with a love for the sport, a community that promotes high-level competition within the sport, and families willing to make sacrifices to get their child to the highest level possible are a part of the culture for sport success. Replace Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with sport success factors: physiological needs = genes, security = environment, and social = culture. As professionals in sport, we tend to focus on factors more prevalent in day-to-day activities like physical, technical, and tactical preparation, but I think we all can appreciate the important influence our environment and culture have on the psychological and emotional preparation of athletes at any level. Sometimes it’s important to look below the surface of sport.
Sports Performance Coach, University of Massachusetts