Genetics, Hard Work and the Power of Environment: How to Elevate Your Training to the Next Level

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We are surrounded by the continuous debate of genetics vs. hard work:

Are the most successful individuals reaping benefits because of their IQ or genetic capabilities? Did these individuals have to work hard, perhaps close to 10,000 hours? 

We are so eager to know what a successful person is like (aka what talents and qualities they possess) because we assume their personal qualities will give us insight into how they’ve reached the top.

Success stories are a perfect example in their ability to create myths of the greatest of all time and the near 'self-made' nature of x talent.   In fact, they tend to water down the success of said person to an association of special characteristics we cannot all possess...and it’s complete nonsense.

Most of us neglect the environment in which we choose to dwell. You know the saying, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect?” Well, training hard in a crappy environment breeds stress, not success. It doesn’t matter if you are the most gifted athlete there is, if you aren’t in the right situation you can't be in the right mind set.

Observational Learning

Innate talent is clearly apparent in many athletes, but why some excel and others plateau or fall off is quit an interesting topic that can be debated from many angles. I believe this idea, that successful people are just genetically gifted, is completely put to shame when you place an average athlete in an above average environment and give them the opportunity needed to develop skills for success. Conversely, if you place someone with incredible talent in an environment that doesn't facilitate his or her progress, the result will show no value.

Although biological forces, such as genetics, do limit individuals, we contain a remarkable amount of plasticity, both physically and mentally speaking. Each of us live in various communities that contain different cultural norms, and the social influences placed on us by each group will result in how we formulate our identity.

Luckily, we are quite flexible and capable of learning a multitude of attitudes and skills via vicarious experiences because a considerable amount of what we learn comes from observing others (aka observational learning). Bandura (1986) stated:  if knowledge could be acquired only through the effects of ones own actions, the process of cognitive and social development would “be greatly retarded, and not to mention exceedingly tedious.”

Modeling is the core theory of observational learning, involving a symbolic representation of information and storing it for use at a future time. Several factors determine whether a person will model. People who lack skill are most likely to model, and are more likely to model high status people than those of ‘low status’. The greater the value an observer places on a behavior, the more likely the individual will acquire it.

After attaining what we have observed, we produce the behavior by converting cognitive representations into appropriate actions. If it pertains to a motor skill that we cannot actually see ourselves performing, such as weightlifting, many athletes will use videos, or better yet coaches.


The Power of Environment

I'm going to make a bold statement by saying your environment is the most important factor in your training, even more important than your mind-set. You can only avoid so many external forces before they start to settle internally. Mental skills are tough even when you are in a positive situation, but it’s incredibly hard to train your mind if you are in an unsupportive or unhealthy atmosphere.

My coach explained that years ago when you first entered a weightlifting gym you had to earn your stripes. The beginners would load the bar for the advanced lifters and watch them practice. If you were using something that someone stronger needed, you gave it up. This wasn’t exactly a punishment, but rather a learning environment. It facilitated the desire to want to grow and be better, and separated those who were not serious about the sport and those who were willing to put in the work. Whether you realized it at first or not, you absorbed experience watching their successes and failures through observational learning.

A few months ago I was asked how in one year I was able to accomplish so much in terms of my training. I had to think about this for a while because, as athletes, we may never give ourself the credit we deserve when it comes to making progress. As far as I’m concerned, I'm not even close to where I need to be in terms of strength, so my progress kind of went unnoticed to me. But it got me thinking nonetheless:  what exactly changed?

Training Atmosphere

My training atmosphere transformed drastically, which lead to a spiral of fortunate events. The minute I began training with certain people and under both of my coaches supervision is when I began to progress. This change wasn’t just about programming specifics or adding new exercises, in fact, we don’t follow a typical weekly weightlifting “program” or scheme.

And it definitely had nothing to do with having fancy equipment or a state of the art facility.  I mean...I trained in a basement or a carpet factory the majority of the time.  So what was so special?

Dani Carpet Lifting
Dani Carpet Lifting

Last May (2014) I began to train seriously for weightlifting by consistently lifting 4 times a week with my younger cousin under both of our coach’s supervision. Prior to this we were lifting in the morning at a local CrossFit gym or in his garage, and we were only lifting with our team once a week. We have been supporting each other for a few years now in our athletic endeavors, and I have seen him grow from being told by a doctor he could never squat, to a junior national level qualifying weightlifter (hmm maybe it was the environment change).

A silent shift began to commence in our training. We would walk in more determined with a goal in mind for the day. We were spending less time chatting and more time focusing on preparing for every single rep. What appeared to be antisocial behavior was actually the opposite:  we were soaking in every aspect of the room in an attempt to apply as much as we could to our own lift. Every training night we drove together to lift, went home, ate dinner and went to bed. The cycle repeated throughout the summer.

My small accomplishments had everything to do with my coaches fostering an environment that cultivated a success mindset. Amongst the weightlifters on my team are various national level lifters, as well as coaches who have coached at the highest level possible. I spent the prior year not being able to clean and jerk less than my body weight. After a summer of training hard I put on about 15 kilos just to my clean and jerk. I too, along with my cousin, had earned my way to a national event. It was baffling, really.

I began to train with people far beyond my capabilities as a lifter. At first, the shift of training atmosphere scared me. I was far less experienced and quite weak compared to everyone else that was lifting with us. I was terrified of one of my coaches and afraid to miss a lift and look like an idiot.

When an opportunity is present, sometimes it may appear as a boundary. The opportunity may be given to those with talent, but only the individuals who posses the strength and mind to seize them will become great. Learning to foster and decide which environment is best for you may be one of the hardest choices you make as an athlete.

The Success Mindset

What I’ve learned is it's incredibly important to have like-minded training partners. If you want to start competing, you’ve got to embrace a competitive mindset and stop lifting with those who are just there for a hobby.

There is NOTHING wrong with going to the gym just for the sake of it, but there is a difference between working out and training with a purpose. You need to separate yourself from those people, regardless of how hard it can be. They will keep you stagnant, whether they mean well or not.

Our environment is a crucial agent in formation of personality. However, our decision to choose our environment is of more importance. It is the first step in realizing we need to create a new approach to cultivating our success mindset. We are the only ones who can bring forth success by combining our mental and physical characteristics and using them together to foster the best environment for our goals.

Ultimately, you need an honest evaluation of whether or not your environment is killing your progress. Granted, being honest is a lot harder than we think and can often offend our egos, but it's something we have to do.  So...go ahead and ask yourself the question most of us don’t mind avoiding:

Is my environment killing my progress? Am I surrounded by people I admire? Is this the best possible environment for me to reach my goals?

Go Fast Quote
Go Fast Quote

Being a self-made individual cannot exist.

Both team and individual athletes are of high caliber, but the intrinsic drive to be self-governing and efficacious is an underlying theme of athletes who compete alone. You can be “the best basketball player in the world”, (cough LeBron, cough) but you must rely on your teammates to follow through as well. Conversely, in an individual sport, you are your competition.

Confusion arises because we seem to get jumbled by the desire to be self-made individuals. I think as strength athletes competing in an individual sport we share a common desire and longing for a different type of success versus those who play team sports. We are not looking for cohesion or a sense of affiliation. We have no one to blame but ourselves for failure, but we have many to thank for our success. The point being:  self-made individuals do not exist at all, all of us develop by relying on many others.

Every athlete must accept that achieving high levels of success is something you cannot do by yourself.

Many of you may not be able to train with others, but I believe lifting with a team is one of the best ways to take your training up to the next level. Very few elite athletes train in solidarity. When we have off days, training with a group of people who have a great amount of energy will off set these times. If they are the right kind of people they will also put you in check when needed. Energy is transmittable and it can shift the mood of the room, whether it’s success or misery.

What distinguishes many of the most successful people is not their incredible talent, but rather, making the most of the opportunities that facilitated their learning and practice. In other words, their paths were shaped by particular events, which began to happen once they found the correct environment.

Dani Team
Dani Team

Final notes

1.  There isn’t a best coach, but there is a ‘best coach for you’.

2.  Pick a high quality teacher or coach. Do not seek someone who makes you comfortable and happy constantly. This is a good person to have in your life, but not as a coach.

3.  Find an environment that facilitates further education in the subject.

4.  Don’t be a big fish in a little pond; you need to know when it’s time to move on.

5.  An atmosphere must be intense, focused, and organized. Loud heavy metal music and screaming doesn’t always correlate with intensity.

6.  Trim the fat.  If you want to be serious you need to let go of those who are holding you back.

Energy is contagious, negative energy can ruin an athlete, and make them less productive regardless of the effort put in. It has been said you become the five people you spend the most time with. Surround yourself with people who reflect who you want to be and how you want to feel. Surround yourself with individuals who possess traits that will help reach your goals. Anything less will steer you in the wrong direction.

about the author


Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.


Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.