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Gary Ablett and the Spectre of Inheritance

September 30, 2010

Reading the Hobart Mercury in the morning, it was certainly easy to get mixed impressions about the reasons for star Australian Rules football player Gary Ablett leaving Geelong for new club the Gold Coast Suns. One article states “the dual premiership hero yesterday made no secret of the fact that money- and the lure of mountains of it- had been the telling factor in his decision to go” But in the same newspaper, Gary Ablett wrote an article about his motivations and said “The two biggest things that swayed me in the end were the idea of really being challenged again, and the chance to reinvent the way people look at me around the football club.” Okay, let’s assume it was a mixture of all three, remembering it’s not a crime against humanity for a player to go to another club for more money. But by far the most interesting of the reasons was the third, the chance to reinvent himself.

Ablett wrote about this and said “At Gold Coast they see me as a leader, a role model for the young players….I won’t be the son of a club legend, a guy who just made it because I was born with skill. There won’t be anyone who’ll wonder if I worked hard enough to make the most of what I inherited. Nobody will make jokes about it, they’ll just respect the way I go about it.”  Of course, this a reference to his dad, Gary Ablett Sr, so revered by fans his nickname was ‘God’.

While it’s hard to live up to the standard of someone named God, and perhaps having the same name hasn’t helped, but the statement seems extraordinary. Ablett Jr is widely considered one of the best, if not the best player in the game at the moment and had a very good year (in 2010, he had 756 Disposals, 44 goals and 35 scoring assists) but somehow there must be a belief within the club that he hasn’t lived up to his potential or that his talent was gifted to him on a gold platter. It’s ludicrous but it’s also the darker side of the prevailing view that  sporting talent is predominantly product of genes or in-born talent, rather than dedication, effort and persistence in gaining skills to be a sporting success.

This view, thankfully, is under challenge by British Sports Journalist and former table tennis champion Matthew Syed, who has written a book Bounce: How Champions are Made, in which he argues world-class athletes are made, not born. He gave a fascinating interview on ABC’s Lateline, a few months ago, which explains his views that can be found here.

About innate talent he stated “I give innate talent almost no weight at all, and that’s a controversial view and I know it’s a radical and rather subversive view, but I think the evidence backs up that assertion.

If you dig down into the narrative histories of anyone who has reached a high level in virtually any task with a certain level of complexity, what you find is they have spent many, many hours, many months, many years building up to that level.

There is no shortcut, even if sometimes we look at young performers and it seems as if they’ve short-circuited that long road to excellence, when you actually find out about what they did, you find that they started super-young.

Tiger Woods as a two-year-old, the Williams sisters at three-year-olds, Mozart, who was dazzling the aristocracy with piano skills at six and a half. His most eminent biographer assesses that he had already practiced 3,500 hours.

The process of ingraining excellence is long-term, but what the evidence suggests is that almost all of us who are healthy have the potential to get there, provided we’re willing to stick at it for all those many hours.

And that, “in virtually all the tasks characterised by what I describe as complexity, the limiting factor is not hardware, it is software. So, for example, Lionel Messi’s not the greatest soccer player in the world because he’s faster than everybody else; Federer is not the best tennis player in the world because he’s faster or stronger.

What they have is acquired mental representations that enable them to play in the most efficient way. So, for example, Lionel Messi can discern the pattern of players around a football pitch which enables him to select the right pass into an on-running teammate whilst avoiding the defenders”

Now I can’t say I’m an expert on genetics but his explanation rings home to me and seems a much more materialist explanation of how certain people become so good in certain sports, rather than biological determinism. It also points to a more liberating view, that all people have within themselves high levels of talent, it’s what they choose to or can choose to under their own circumstances which they will become talented at. There is no biological talent hierarchy.

Syed also points to the social factor in him becoming a table tennis champion. “I grew up in a very anonymous street in an anonymous suburb of south-east England, and yet that one street – Silverdale Road it’s called – produced the vast majority of the top players in the 1980s in England.”

“Of course, my natural inference when I became the top table tennis player was, ‘Wow, I must have special table tennis genes.’ But there hadn’t been some mutation that had only hit that street and avoided all the surrounding neighbourhood. So in actual fact what created the excellence was the fact that we had access to a very good coach, access to the only 24 hour-a-day club and over many years we transformed ourselves from ordinary table tennis players into extraordinary performers.”

This would, it seem to me, be a much more important factor in Gary Ablett Jr becoming a football superstar, he would have grown up around football, he would have been influenced and inspired by his father and his father in turn would have encouraged to take up the sport, he would have learnt from his dad certainly but this is much different from being born with a certain talent for Australian Rules Football. His social position would have strongly influenced his decision to play AFL but it was his effort, persistence and dedication that managed to make him into the fantastic player that he is.

It’s hard also not to feel the biological pressure had a major impact on Gary’s brother, Nathan, who retired from Australian Rules after 3 years in the top competition to become a plumber.

You can see why Gary would be angry by people thinking, after he has put thousands upon thousands of hours into the game, that he didn’t have to do anything to gain those skills. The reality is that Gary had to gain his sporting abilities through his own work and he should be celebrated for his achievement and if he felt as if he needed to leave Geelong to relieve himself of that stifling pressure, all I can say is good luck to him.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 30, 2010 8:27 am

    Hey Mate,

    Love the article although i do have some comments.

    Gary Ablett is a great player, thats without a doubt. And whether or not he was the “Son of god” he would have been a great player with the ammount of work that he has put into becoming the best that he can be. But i also think that in his becoming that he has had a massive leg up from being who he was.

    Its not that players are born so much with a “football gene”, although some people are naturally gifted. It is true to say that its been through Ablett Jnrs hard work that he has become great. But it has also been the product of significant *investment*.

    Increasingly, the top players in sport come from very defined pathways. It is almost essential for an aspiring footballer to play in state under 16’s competitions ect. To make those sides can be highly political. These teams select heavily from some pretty limited areas, such as certain “football schools” (all private schools, such as St Josephs in Geelong or Xavier college).

    My point being that yes Ablett Jnr has made his own success, but all the doors were opened too him by his father. Matthew Sayed rightly points out that it wasnt anythign natural that made him a champion, just a good coach and a 24hour club. Being born into greatness provided the oppertunities for ablett to become great.

    The other thing that opens these oppertunities, is money. Good schools, coaching and well resourced clubs open up doors to many others- and while all superstars have to work hard to achieve greatness, being born in a working class suburb or not from a family with history makes it a struggle just to open the opertunities.


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