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What Separates Pro Athletes from the Rest of Us?

How much your genetics, hard work, and mental tenacity play into your likelihood of scoring a gold medal one day.

Trying to see how you can create the next Lebron James or Serena Williams in your son or daughter (who doesn't want a super baby?) Or maybe you're curious if you have what it takes to dominate an athletic pursuit even if you're not 25 anymore. We spoke with Tony Rienzo, CSCS, CPT, founder of Athletes Peak—a sports performance training facility that creates personalized programs for athletes across all sports—to separate fact from fiction when it comes to determining what it is that makes an athlete truly great, or truly average.

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How Much of a Role Do Genetics Play? 

Genetics certainly play a role in your athleticism. But people often give genetics more credit than they deserve. "Sure, some are born with different body types and compositions that will put them at a physical advantage," Rienzo says. "However, to say that an athlete is able to succeed at a certain sport because their parents were successful at it doesn't always tell the full story," he explains. What's more telling of success is if you were exposed to the sport at an early age. So, see next question...

Does It Matter When an Athlete Starts a Sport? 

Most sports—like tennis, basketball, and baseball—will require a good amount of experience and drilling before you can master the intricacies of the game, Rienzo says. "The old adage 'practice makes perfect' certainly rings true unless someone is ultra-talented," he explains. "However, a few sports—track and crew come to mind—don't necessarily require years of experience to excel," he adds. Putting in the hard work (that means training in ways you don't necessarily want to) can speed up the process. So, there's still hope for a personal best in a marathon, but you might want to let go of your dreams of being the MVP in your rec league soccer games if said rec league is your first experience kicking around a soccer ball. 

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So, Hard Work Can Pay Off?

"Absolutely," Rienzo says. If you're born with a body type that puts you at a disadvantage, you can manipulate that. "Through specific training, you can work to become faster, stronger, leaner, etc.," Rienzo explains. And while some research shows you're not able to change the composition of your slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers, you are able to train one or the other to become more dominant. For instance, you can coax slow muscle fibers to act like fast muscle fibers, meaning you can train yourself to be a pretty darn good sprinter even if your genetics make you naturally a better marathoner. (Find out how to hack your genetics.)

How Much Does Mental Toughness Matter?

New research published in Frontiers suggests attitude and how athletes face or deal with obstacles has a lot to do with what distinguishes champions among the rest. "We've found that there are universal psychological characteristics amongst those who are aspiring to get to the top," the study's lead author Dave Collins said in a press release. "We have a good idea of what makes people excellent and how we can help them reach peak performance." "Super-champions" have a natural inclination, commitment, and internal drive to excel that "almost" athletes lack. Elites athletes also have a "never satisfied" attitude; whereas "almosts" have a greater tendency to avoid challenging training sessions and really push themselves. After an injury or a botched performance, high-performers are more determined to get back on their feet, better and stronger than ever; low achievers are surprised by failure and ultimately lose enthusiasm as a result.

Rienzo agrees. Grit, attitude, and inner drive will separate the champions from the almosts, he says. "When playing a sport at the highest level, the physical attributes of each athlete are so similar that the mental edge will serve to push one over the top and distinguish herself or himself from the rest of the pack," he adds. Might want to put yourself in Mental Toughness Training!

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