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Determinants of sports performance

Several factors influence the performance of an individual in sports. These factors include the following: talent, technique, tactics and physical, as well as psychological conditioning.

Talent, which signifies aptitude or endowment, is an attribute that is inherited or can be acquired early in life but essentially before age 7. Talent determines the proficiency for the acquisition of the skills or techniques required for each sport. Acquired techniques facilitate the formulation of tactics, which comprise manoeuvres that make up a game plan, ploys, or strategies. Talent is a most misused term, especially in Nigeria. In this country, it is common to hear that an athlete is a talented footballer or sprinter but no one ever speaks of a talented cyclist. This is because nobody is born with the talent for any sport. Rather, proficiency in a particular sport depends largely on the popularity of that sport in the athlete’s environment. For instance, we have not been able to produce elite baseball players, cricketers, rugby players, triathletes and canoeists because these sports are not popular here. Accomplishment in any sport depends on certain attributes that are inherited at birth. There attributes are known as biomotor abilities and are strength, speed, endurance, balance and flexibility. When an athlete participates in a sport that requires one or a combination of biomotor abilities, the essential skills may be acquired. Which biomotor abilities an athlete possesses depends on the predominant type of his skeletal muscles. This topic will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent articles.

Physical conditioning involves the manipulation of certain variables (age, gender, physique, and nutrition) to place the athlete in his / her best possible performance level.

Psychological training is designed to surmount mental and psychological difficulties.

What Has Science Got to do with it?

Science employs knowledge that are predictable and verifiable. Modern sports training is based on scientific principles. Science encompasses a broad field of knowledge that deals with observed facts and the relationship among those facts. The word Science is derived from the Latin word Scientia which means knowledge. Scientific theories are normally tested experimentally for verification. In science, new ideas replace old ones. Scientific knowledge, especially in the life sciences of Anatomy, Physiology, Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Genetics (World Book, 2001), has been assimilated into contemporary sports training.

A reality check will reveal that sports training programmes in Nigeria have over the decades substantially followed a fixed pattern: distance running, sprints, calisthenics, and sports-specific drills.  Even when weight training is incorporated into training programmes of athletes such athletes usually go to the weight room, work out to exhaustion, unsupervised, and then go home. This pattern is repeated erratically without check or control.  Success in competition was rather by chance than the result of a scientifically – based training process.

In contrast, the basic utility of a scientifically devised sport training programme are Measurement and Evaluation or Performance Analysis. These are necessary in order to establish the efficiency of a particular training programme by determining the improvement achieved with that programme.

The current training concept is High-Performance Training. High performance is largely determined by genetics and training. It is not easy to explain the phenomenon of high performance with one single factor. A training programme of the same duration and intensity may not produce the same results on different athletes. It is strongly believed, though not yet conclusively proved, that genetics plays a dominant role in the performance of an athlete. However, certain traits which are largely inheritable have been identified as key performance indicators. These include physique (height, limb-length), predominant type of muscle fibre, aerobic capacity, bone mass, and adaptation of body tissue to training. In other words, efficiency differs from person to person because of factors such as height, limb proportion, and muscle mass which are determined by genes. For instance, it has been established that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covers the 100 meters with 41 strides, while others use 45 strides.  Considering that their strides frequency or turnover is about the same, it is not a surprise that Bolt is a more efficient sprinter than his competitors.

Training is an essential component of performance. It improves stamina, speed, power, core strength and agility. Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson has promoted the idea that any individual can become a high performance athlete if he engages in a cumulative duration of 10,000 hours of practice and coaching, and this does not depend on talent or skill. This may take up to a decade to achieve, and the practice must be “deliberate”. Deliberate training is described as a training programme that is designed to overcome unfamiliar difficulty. This concept has led to the emergence of a “ten-year rule” which propounds that even gifted athletes need a minimum of 10 years or 10,000 hours (20 hours, 50 weeks a year for 10 years) of intense and consistent training before they can win medals in international competitions.

However, Ericsson maintains that to win an Olympic medal, the athlete must start an early age and must be trained and mentored by experts of international standing. There is yet no scientific evidence to support Ericsson’s claims.

Though training is essential for high performance, it does not absolutely predict performance. There are different individual responses to training. Some individuals may be high responders and others low responders to training. In addition, responses to training in sports with a high physical component such as athletics, football, tennis differ from those in sports with a high mental component like chess and scrabble. However, in both, preparation and practice may influence performance.

New information concerning performance tends to support the complementary roles of genetics and training. Having the right genes and being in the right environment may lead to the emergence of an elite athlete. Without appropriate training it may be difficult to fulfill the genetic potentials of an individual. In addition to faulty techniques and equipment, and accidental injuries, the tendency of an athlete to get injured is also and inheritable trait. So, many individuals may not achieve their potential because of their susceptibility of injury.

Science has also influenced sports performance by bringing advances in techniques such as the Fosbury flop in the high jump, functional training, and periodization training and in technology such as the carbon fibre pole in pole vault, production of tennis rackets, golf clubs, swim suit designs, designs of bicycles in cycling, computer simulation of activities, and carbon spokes for running.

• Professor Ken Anugweje is a professor of Sports Science and Medicine at the University of Port Harcourt

•Till next week keep attacking.

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