Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Sport, the Nature v Nurture Debate and Luck - A fresh look at fortune by Ed Smith

Luck by Ed Smith is an eclectic discussion of, well, luck (there's a clue in the title - Ed) and its associated concepts of chance, fate, randomness, risk and fortune. 
The narrative draws on insights from the ancient Greeks, history, economics and anthropology; illustrated with anecdotes and examples from everyday life and, unsurprisingly (given it's a book written by a former England batsman turned Times columnist) from sport.  

Nature v Nurture
The most interesting part of the book is an exploration of the nature-nurture debate in relation to sport. In many ways it is a much-needed counterblast to the current orthodoxy that there is no such thing as talent (pace Matthew Syed's Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell Outliersand that we all have the potential to be champions if only we put in the 10,000 hours. 
In discussing nurture, Smith argues that there isn't a level playing field, highlighting the difference in opportunity that that comes with an independent education compared to one in the state system. (He doubts whether he would have opened for England had he not had the undoubted privilege of honing his cricketing talent as a boy at Tonbridge). This is supported by further analysis of the backgrounds of England's rugby and cricket sides and of Team GB. 
Beyond these advantages, Smith accepts that top sportsmen and women need to put in the hours, but that there is still an element beyond our control (= luck). 
Roger Federer and Usain Bolt don't train any harder than their rivals - the differentiating factors come down to innate advantages (= talent). 
In fact Smith predicts that days of the top sportsman (generic) who succeed because of hard work alone (e.g. Ivan Lendl) are numbered. His argument is simple but persuasive: today there are no secrets that bring the sporting elite a competitive advantage (diet, training methods, coaching, tactics, facilities etc) - these are all universal. Thus, the only differentiator at the highest level is innate talent. 
Ceteris paribus talent will triumph. 

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