By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - It's a debate you might expect to hear in a psychology class. Are we influenced more by genetics or environment?
When you shift the conversation to athletics, asking Auburn's coaches what factors lead to the development of elite athletes, it's not a question of Nature vs. Nurture.
The answer, they say, is "All of the Above." Nature and Nurture, plus work ethic, coaching and mental toughness.
For equestrian coach Greg Williams, whose teams have won four national championships, it starts with God-given ability.
"Like a lot of athletes, they're born in the womb. They've got a talent," Williams says. "But that talent and opportunity have to meet. So the ones who just are born with an unbelievable amount of talent, also wind up in some sort of situation, whether it's their parents or trainers, they happen to fall in with the right trainer who will put them riding anything and everything. They just put in the hours, but they also are born with a level of talent and feel, something you can't coach."
But talent alone won't take you to the top. There's a saying, popular among coaches, that "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."
You'll get no argument from Auburn's coaches.
"They just wanted to do everything in their power to help us win every single day. Whether it was in practice or a game. That's really what separated them," Hoppa says. "Their goals were in the right place, and they were trying to help us win. Obviously they were great players who put the work in and reaped the rewards."
Shortcuts are not an option.
"I think the elite-level players, they practice when nobody is looking," says basketball coach Terri Williams-Flournoy. "They're working when nobody tells them to work out. And they're not just in the gym working on things they do extremely well. They're actually working on things that they don't do well.
"They're constantly thinking of how they can get better. They're taking care of their bodies. They're working out properly. They're eating right. Those elite players, they understand what it takes. And that's the level you try to get all of them at. It's just a certain mentality you have to have to be at that level."
When a talented student-athlete with a relentless work ethic receives superior coaching, the results can be extraordinary.
Take, for example, Kasey Cooper, the SEC softball Player of the Year.
An excellent player in high school, Auburn's coaches saw no need to prescribe radical changes.
"She was already successful. What we did with her was gave her some insight, gave her some knowledge that she can make herself better," coach Clint Myers says.
"She knows what she has to do, she knows the commitment it's going to take to achieve greatness. She has that internal drive. Some of it is God-given and some of it is they make themselves into that great player because they are driven for excellence," he says.
The last piece of the puzzle, say Auburn's coaches, is the rare ability to perform at the highest level when the pressure is most intense.
"I think that's really the thing that sets the best ones apart," gymnastics coach Jeff Graba says. "There are a few who rise to the occasion on the biggest nights."
Graba referenced Caitlin Atkinson, the SEC Gymnast of the Year, who anchored all four events for Auburn.
"When we needed the score at the end of the Alabama meet, she was able to get the score, because she's that type of an athlete," he says.
The ability to shine brightest on the biggest stage is what coaches refer to as mental toughness.
"If you took two people, and they had equal talent, and they had equal ability, it's that mental toughness, that one thing, that's going to propel them to the next level," tennis coach Lauren Spencer says.
"Sometimes I say, to be the best athlete in your sport, you have to have this crazy chip, where you just believe so much in what you want to do, and what you can do, that it exceeds all fear."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer