Olympic greatness: Biology or motivation?

If you tried hard enough, could you have won Olympic gold in the 100 meter dash?

If you’re an entity theorist, your answer is probably “no.” Entity theorists believe that attributes such as personality characteristics, athletic ability, or intelligence are relatively stable traits that are pretty much fixed at birth. However, if you’re an incremental theorist, you might believe that if you had started young enough or trained hard enough, you could have had a chance at earning a spot on the podium. Incremental theorists believe that attributes are malleable, meaning that they can always be improved with practice and effort.

Not surprisingly, these two different outlooks predict markedly different psychological outcomes. People with entity views tend to prioritize “looking good” over actually developing competence. After all, if you believe that you are born with a set “ability level” and it can’t really be altered, it makes more sense to focus on how you appear than waste your time in a futile attempt to change your innate ability level. Incremental theorists, on the other hand, are more likely to set goals that revolve around learning and increasing competence. Generally, this becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy: People who believe that they can improve their abilities with hard work generally end up working harder, and they end up gaining mastery and becoming better in that domain as a result.

Several studies have looked at incremental and entity beliefs in the athletic domain by asking people if they think that athletes “need to be naturally gifted” or if athletes “could always get better, if they put enough effort into it.” As it turns out, teenagers who hold entity beliefs about athletic ability tend to be less motivated to pursue athletic goals; teens with incremental beliefs, on the other hand, are more likely to enjoy sports and genuinely want to increase their athletic abilities. So, it seems that holding incremental beliefs is significantly more adaptive for both learning and performance — believing that you can improve is better for both motivation and enjoyment than believing that you must be “born” into greatness.

However, one might note that it’s not necessarily a “this-or-that” distinction. There is a chance that people could hold both entity and incremental theories about ability. As Richard Schmidt wrote in Motor Control and Learning, “abilities represent the collection of ‘equipment’ that one has at his or her disposal and limit the effect of learning on performance.” Essentially, this view states that abilities are determined by genetics and can be described as something you are “born with,” but you can still greatly improve your skills by working hard.

Take running, for example. Dominant sprinters must have an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs, which give them the explosive power and speed necessary to run 100 meters in 10 seconds. Marathoners’ legs, on the other hand, are filled with slow-twitch muscle fibers, which provide the endurance to maintain aerobic activity over an extended period of time. Certain groups of people are born with more slow- or fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can predispose them to be better at sprinting or distance running. However, regular workouts and focused training can also alter the form of your muscles, so you can change your muscle composition and improve your performance at sprinting or running marathons. Even so, you still might not ever reach the performance level of a runner who was born with a more adaptive muscle composition, especially if he/she has also trained hard. Therefore, running success depends on a delicate balance of several different key variables – it helps to be born with the genetic predisposition towards the “right” body type, but once that body type is in place, it is even more helpful to believe that one’s abilities can be improved and work hard as a result. While not everyone is born with the ideal body type to become the fastest man or woman in the world, it is still optimal for most positive outcomes to maintain the belief that you can improve your abilities through hard work and effort.


Dweck, C. (1992). The study of goals in psychology. Psychological Science, 3, 165-167

Dweck, C.S., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273

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

Sarrazin, P., Biddle, S., Famose, J.P., Cury, F., Fox, K., & Durand, M. (1996). Goal orientations and conceptions of the nature of sport ability in children: A social cognitive approach. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 399-414

Schmidt, R.A. (1982). Motor Control and Learning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

24 responses to “Olympic greatness: Biology or motivation?

  1. Interesting perspective on the importance of psychology.

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  14. Very interesting! Similar research has been done about writing; students who believe that writing is a “talent” or requires “genius” not only don’t try as hard, they feel discouraged and assume they can never be good writers. Those who believe writing is a “skill,” though, assume it can be learned and put in great effort. Interestingly, Stephen King has expressed a mixed view; in his book On Writing, he says that no one can make you a great writer, but that he can help you (with your own hard work) become a good writer. For teachers, the “take-away” seems to be that our first job is to convince students that what we are teaching is a skill, not a talent–that while genius, privilege, background, etc. may well play a part, competence in any skill is acquirable. I usually introduce my students to the research on expertise, the “ten thousand hours” concept; as Malcolm Gladwell summarized it, not one of the musicians who devoted ten thousand hours was NOT an expert, and almost no musicians were experts who had NOT devoted the ten thousand hours. Perhaps the most important aspect of birth or background is how early you start putting in those hours.
    Anyway, a very interesting post!

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