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A DRIVE WITH… BENJAMIN

A DRIVE WITH… BENJAMIN RIOS, MOTOCROSS, AGE 7 Clockwise from above: Benjamin Rios seems to be an example of both nature and nurture at work. Dad’s a motocross champion, but a sense of fearlessness he was born with As the son of a motocross world champion, Benjamin has fuel running in his veins. At just seven, he is riding competitively and already performing at levels way beyond his age. “Benjamin definitely has it in his DNA,” says Claudia Rios, Benjamin’s mother. “The dirt bike part you can write down to environment, as his father is a motocross champion. But he was always a daredevil. Even before he was on a bike, he’d do things that other kids his age wouldn’t do. He is fearless by nature, like his father, brother and grandfather.” Claudia says that Benjamin is essentially not aware of his talent, and that to the young daredevil, the constant push for new challenges simply seems to be the way his mind works. “There is definitely a genetic predisposition at play. His DNA means that his brain is wired differently; he has great spatial awareness, and even though he knows his limits and he might feel scared, he receives a great mental reward from overcoming it and doing it anyway. That has to be genetic because we don’t coach him mentally in any way. We cannot limit him, and I don’t think anyone can. We just want him to find his talent, but it may not be on a bike. We use the bike as school of life for him, but as soon as it’s not fun anymore for him, we’ll be done doing it. But for now, he is enjoying every second.” 56

BORN WITH IT has been raging for decades, but it’s hard to find a definitive answer. This is, in part, because child prodigies are extremely rare. A true prodigy is as rare as one in five to 10 million. NURTURE OVER NATURE A psychologist at a top University in Boston, has studied child prodigies aged three to nine with extraordinary skills in writing, math and music. He notes that nurture plays a rather large role, and observes that an enormous amount of work, practice, and study are needed to develop talent. Prodigies need a great deal of assistance from parents and teachers. This points to the importance of engaged parents, who help define a track for their children, who will typically reach adult levels of performance before the age of 10. Another champion of the nurture argument is the psychologist who is credited as the first to espouse the ‘10,000-hour rule’: the notion that most skills can be perfected with 10,000 hours of practice. The theory is the environment a child is brought up in always explains ability. Only very basic traits, like height, are genetically prescribed. Even so, the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performances in a specific domain. In other words: without practice, genetic predisposition becomes irrelevant. SOMETHING IN THE GENES Others disagree. Altough practise is important, it cannot explain everything. One of the most famous chess players became a grandmaster with ‘just’ around 3,000 hours of practice. And this is far from the only example. There is the story of a Finnish skier, who suffered from a rare medical condition that caused overproduction of red blood cells, equipping him with a special genetic advantage. In the 1964 Olympics, he beat his closest competitor in the nine-mile race by 40 seconds, a margin of victory that has never been equaled before or since. Another athlete, a high jumper, had only eight months of training before the 2007 World Championships. Yet he beat a Swedish competitor, who had been training since childhood and had an estimated 20,000 hours of practice behind him. He had very long legs and very long Achilles tendons, which made him appear to catapult into the air like a kangaroo (which also has long tendons). Genetic predisposition also explains why Kenyan runners, in particular members of the Kalenjin tribe, dominate most of the world’s long-distance races. The Kalenjin are famous for having particularly thin ankles and calves, which give them a great advantage when it comes to certain physical activities. They are, in effect, born to run. And it isn’t just physical performance that can be affected by our DNA. “ H I S T O R Y I S Researchers identified a link L I T T E R E D W I T H between the gene CHRM2 and performance IQ, supporting T A L E S O F the notion that when it comes to mental prowess, genes APPARENTLY matter more than the I N E X P L I C A B L E environment we grew up in. TALENT” BEST OF BOTH? Still and this is where nature and nurture become irreversibly interlaced a Kalenjin needs to begin running before that talent can be unleashed. If they grow up in an environment where the activity isn’t promoted or supported, chances are the skill will never develop. While it’s tough to argue that Mozart and Beethoven were born without some sort of innate musical genius, we also should not overlook the fact that their fathers pushed them both incredibly hard. This is why, when it comes to answering the question of nature vs. nurture, the answer is almost always: it’s both. 57

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