France’s World Cup victory is a reminder that nurture—not nature—determines success

The oldest of the three is 27.
The oldest of the three is 27.
Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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The French national soccer team is stacked with young soccer prodigies of extraordinary talent—a fact that was on full display as France celebrated the team’s World Cup win on Sunday (July 15).

But where does this kind of athletic talent come from? Is it something soccer players and other elite athletes are born with, or the result of years spent perfecting their craft? According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, co-author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, there’s little reason to think the World Cup champions were predestined for greatness. “Innate talent has little to do with a person’s ultimate success,” Ericsson wrote in a 2016 article for Quartz. A far more influential factor is whether children grow up with an adult in their lives who is willing to invest time and effort in their success.

Supportive mentors are the key to children’s success

As Ericsson explains, in a landmark 1985 study, psychologist Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues studied 144 top performers in six fields–swimming, tennis, piano, sculpting, mathematics, and neuroscience–to identify patterns that could explain their phenomenal talents. The subjects had the drive and will to succeed, which was essential. But “one thing that stood out about these very accomplished people was that as children, they all had at least one very supportive adult in their lives,” Ericsson writes. “This person told them that they were special, and had unique potential.”

Bloom and his team found no evidence that the 144 prodigies had been measurably better than their peers in their respective fields before they started their training. The key difference was the work they’d put into developing their skills via so-called “deliberate practice,” in which a teacher or coach oversaw their training and emphasized gradual, incremental improvements. In order for a child to get that kind of training, an adult has to believe in their ability—and have faith that the investment will pay off.

It’s often parents who encourage children to initially get involved with developing a given skill. But as Bloom notes, at every stage of success, kids need teachers who can set high standards, make their field interesting, and motivate kids to perform at their best. “Over and over,” Bloom and his team write, the young participants “made reference to the impact of teachers for whom they felt love, admiration, and respect, and from whom they felt dedication [to the field] and to their students’ development.”

That seems to be the case for the young players on the French national soccer team, Les Bleus, who are at an average age of less than 26 years old. A New York Times profile of the players, many of whom come from the under-privileged, immigrant suburbs of Paris known as banlieues, sheds light on the importance of the mentor-child relationship. For soccer players who come from unstable families, coaches can become substitute parents, playing a big role in the child’s later success. “We tend to forget the crucial role played by the coaches,” Cyril Nazareth, a professor of sociology, told the Times. “They help provide structure to the kids and often act as a key authority figure.”

The French soccer team is gloriously diverse and incredibly talented. But there’s one thing they all have in common—at some point in their lives, they all benefited from the support of an adult who told them over and over that they could succeed, until they began to believe it.