"In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?" We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they? The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training? The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research. In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle.
"Step by surprising step, David Epstein takes our hand, grips our mind, and leads us deeper and deeper into the fascinating jungle of sports and genetics... until we finally begin to see the miracle we've been watching in our stadiums and on our TV screens all our lives.” (Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated writer and four-time National Magazine Award winner)
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When I joined the Army at 17, I only finished my first two mile run because two burly male trainees in my company literally dragged me the last half mile. 18 months later, I was a member of the women's cross country team at an army school that competed in the Garden State Athletic Conference. My endurance was phenomenal, and thanks to a very small team, I earned points for our team at meets. I was so far at the back of the pack, the only advice the coach ever gave me was to wear a better bra. I would have followed his advice, but athletic bras weren't even made at the time.
David Epstein's "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance" (2013) gave me an explanation both for why the training was so effective for me (I am a quick responder); why I had and still have endurance; and why - although I cut my two mile time by 32% - the only time I would ever see my astounding teammate (who is still a top ranked Ultra Runner) during a race was at the starting line, where she quickly disappeared from sight.
Epstein's discussion of the geographic origins and genetic factors that make the right body for a sport is not only understandable, it's fascinating. Epstein adroitly addresses the subject of race and sports performance, a topic most scientists and sociologists avoid because they are afraid of being accused of racial prejudice. He discusses the origins of man,and how migrations of Africa affected the genes and gene mutations that occurred in those populations. Epstein raises, in some detail, the genetic differences between athletes of recent African origin, especially Jamaicans (sprinters) the Kalenjins of Kenya (distance and marathon runners). The discussion of the difference between the congenital traits that give male and female athletes advantages and disadvantages in athletic competition.
Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory (Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008) argues that practice is the key to athletic success. Epstein points out the statistical flaw in the argument that extraordinary performers need 10,000 hours of practice to be great: the studies Gladwell relied on studies were based on individuals who were already successful, in varying degrees, in athletics - not us average Janes. I could practice basketball 10,000 hours, and I'd be much a much better player - but I would still be 5'5". I probably would have fun in a rec league and there would be lots of health benefits, but no amount of practice would ever make me a world class point guard.
"The Sports Gene" raises many, many questions. There is the effect of geographic location of birth and training, such as altitude. Culture can make a difference: children who run miles to school every day have an advantage over children who are driven. Endemic disease, like malaria, means there are more people with sickle cell trait, which protects against malaria - and makes someone with more fast twitch muscle. Strong sports programs in schools and early identification of talent make a huge difference. Epstein uses the example of an athlete in Sudan, who, no matter how good she is, has almost no chance of competing internationally because of the country's war.
Importantly, genetic differences mean what training and practice works for some athletes may make other athletes worse - or, in some cases, kill them. "The Sports Gene" discusses sudden deaths in sports, which, alarming news stories aside, largely isn't unexplained. There have been 10 sudden deaths of Division I college football players since 1974 caused by sickle cell trait. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is another leading cause of sudden athlete death. There are tests for both. Modified training can prevent the former, and an implanted defibrillator can prevent the latter.
The questions Epstein raises can't be answered yet: DNA sequencing names the gene sequences, but It doesn't tell us what the genes do, or what happens if the genes are in the wrong order. Scientists are finding that out, but we are just starting the exploration of an enormously complex gene world.
Epstein's answer isn't that genes are everything; or practice is everything. It's a combination, sometimes one much more than the other, plus opportunity.
As much as I love this book (if only to imagine a whole generation of students suddenly interested in genetics and statistics because this book makes the sciences real, and not an obscure discussion about breeding sweet peas) the narrator annoyed me to no end. No accent is better than really bad accents.
Finally, I desperately wish Audible had a true table of contents. I couldn't find one on line, so here it is from a relisten to the start of each chapter: Introduction (Audible 1-1) Ch 1 - Beat by an Underhand Girl: The Gene-free Model of Expertise (1-2); Ch 2 - A Tale of Two High Jumpers, or 10,000 Hours , Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours (1-3); Ch 3 - Major League Vision and the Greatest Child Athlete Sample Ever. The Hardware and Software Paradigm (1-4); Ch 4 - Why Men Have Nipples (1-5); Ch 5 -The Talent of Trainability (1-6); Ch 6 - Super Baby, Bully Whyippets, and the Trainability of Muscle (1-7); Ch 7 - The Big Bang of Body Types (1-8); Ch 8 - The Vitruvian NBA Player; Ch 9 - We're All Black. Sort of. Race and Genetic Diversity (2-2); Ch 10 - The Warrior-Slave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting (2-3); Ch 11 - Malaria and Muscle Fiber (2-4); Ch 12 - Can Every Kalenjin Run? (2-5); Ch 13 - The World's GreatestAccidental Altitudinous Talent Sieve (2-6); Ch 14 - Sled Dogs, Ultra Runners, and the Couch Potato Genes (2-7); Ch 15 - The Heartbreak Gene: Death, Injury and Pain on the Field (2-8); Ch 16 - The Gold Medal Mutation (2-9); Epilogue: The Perfect Athlete (2-10).
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Ever since I started competing in Track and Field, as far back as freshman year in High School, I was always fascinated with athletic performance, and what contributed to an elite athlete’s athletic performance.
This book finally cleared up that mystery. The answer - no surprise - is a combination of Nature and Nurture - one needs to have the right genetics (i.e. ‘hardware’), to be able to respond to training, but also the right ‘software’ (i.e. the training itself).
Here are a few factoids from the book that I found especially facinating:
the single best predictor of a major league hitters batting average is not reaction time but visual acuity. A study of this comparing batting averages of elite players (even as far back as Ted Williams) all had eyesight around 20/10 - some with score of 20/8 - approaching the biological limit of human sight. This allowed the players to not only see the type of pitch being thrown in the 1/16th of a second it takes to leave the pitchers hand - but gave them the ability to mentally process this information in milliseconds, based on subconsciously viewing the the ball’s trajectory, spin and pitchers’ shoulder (i.e. they had the hardware (eyesight) but the software part (thousands of hours of batting practice) imprinted these patterns on their brain. A study of Kenyan marathon runners (some of the best distance runners in the world) found NO difference in Vo2 MAX, hemoglobin levels or other physical trains when compared to european runners. What made Kenyans so great? For any given size Kenyans evolved with very narrow leg bones, which made their legs 1-2 lbs lighter than the europeans. A study done showed that even 1/10th of 1lb lighter leg weight contributes to 8% greater running efficiency. That’s why sneaker companies strive to make lighter shoes. Kenyans have significantly more efficient running as a result. Another factor of the Kenyans is that they train at altitudes of 6,000 - 8,000 feet, which is considered ideal for adaptation to endurance. Lastly, Kenyans have a system whereby all students are required to train for endurance sports - so they have a lot more people to choose from. What makes a great sprinter - someone with long legs relative to body height, with narrow hips, high concentration of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and a center of gravity that’s 3 cms above the navel. It just so happens that Jamaicans have evolved with this set of physiology - but they also have a structured system whereby they seek out the best of the best and have an elaborate training system when they find athletes with potential.
About 6 in 1,000 people come ‘out of the box’ with elite genes - and this blows away the 10,000 hours rule (a reference to the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell) which states that the average time it takes to become elite - is based on 10,000 of ‘deliberate practice’ - in all fields from music, sports or Chess. Not so. The original study of this had a range from 1,000 hours to 40,000 hours. The book talked about the 2007 world champion high jumper - who literally took up the sport 7 months prior to competing - and his first jump ever (taken on a dare when he was in high school - he cleared 7 feet.
The book gave many more examples and was written in a very eloquent manner.Overall - the book reinforced the point that all people benefit from training. But to be elite, you need to have the right genetic factors specific to the sport AND the right training.