Is It Genes, or the Gym, That Makes Great Athletes? Q&A With Author of “The Sports Gene”

A sports science writer unlocks the mysteries behind championship performances

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The Sports Gene

Usain Bolt’s speed. Michael Phelps’ dominance. Serena Williams’ court savvy. What drives these athletes to rise above their competitors, to push the limits of human ability and achieve what no one before them has ever accomplished? Is it their endless hours of training, or are the endowed with a special recipe of DNA that destines them to greatness?

David Epstein, a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who was just hired as an investigative reporter at Pro Publica, asked these questions of elite and non-elite athletes, leading sports scientists and psychologists, among others. And what he found, as described in his new book The Sports Gene, is both encouraging and eye-opening.

So is there a sports gene?

There is absolutely no such thing as single sports gene. I think it’s a metaphorical concept.

But there are cases where genes, depending on sport, are not sufficient for elite performance, but necessary. One obvious example is height for the NBA. And less obvious is the gene that tells you that you absolutely are not going be in the 100m final in the [Olympic Games in] Rio in 2016. The ACTN 3 gene, the so-called sprint gene, explains a small amount variation at very high levels of performance. So if you don’t have the correct copies [of this gene] for sprinting, you’re not going to be in the 100m final.

What genetic science is showing us is that the more important part of talent — and certainly of endurance – is the ability to respond to training, the biological setup that makes you train better than your peers. If you’re not set up that way, you can put up a heck of a lot of work, but it might be impossible to reach elite levels.

What does this mean for the 10,000 hours rule?

That’s the idea that 10,000 hours of effortful practice is both necessary and sufficient to achieve excellence in almost everything. It originated in 10 violinists who already were highly pre-screened [for their ability], so much of humanity was already screened out since it focused on high performing violinists at a world class academy. Among those performers, they accumulated more than 10,000 hours of practice by age 20, and were better than people who accumulated less practice.

But the part of the 10,000 hours idea that’s less talked about is the assumption that every person’s one hour of deliberate practice moves them forward in skill progression by the same amount, which is debunked by every genetic study done so far. Everybody’s genome is unique; even between siblings, they are so unique that no one has identical responses, other than sometimes identical twins, to the same type of training,

It’s become a catch phrase to mean that practice is important, which was never something that was controversial in the scientific literature. But the job of the scientist is to decide how important it is. The fact is there is no evidence whatsoever that 10,000 hours are necessary and sufficient for elite performance.

What are some of the myths about how great athletes achieve their extraordinary level of performance?

One of the big surprises for me was that pro athletes, particularly in baseball, don’t have faster reflexes on average than normal people do. I tested faster than Albert Pujols on a visual reaction test. He only finished in the 66th percentile compared to a bunch of college students.

This question came up when I first saw [Olympic softball champion] Jennie Finch striking out Major League Baseball players. The pitches had the same transit time, and the ball was bigger, so why couldn’t these players come close to hitting her pitches? If they reacted fast enough, why couldn’t they do it? It turns out it’s not the reaction time that’s so important but learned perceptual skills that the MLB players don’t know they learned. Through practice, by picking up on body cues they can predict where the projectile is going, and when it will get there, long before it does. When they are stripped of these cues with a softball pitcher who has a different wind up, they become like you and I.

So this points to the fact that using things like pitching machines are good for warming up, but they are irrelevant for the skills that batters need to develop anticipatory skills. It’s not something I thought would have been a learned component, so it surprised me. I would have thought that all these guys tested off the charts for [fast] reflexes.

Since performance is not just about genes and not just about practice, is it about trainability?

Trainability is the ability to respond well to certain training. The best examples involve endurance training. Some people start with a high aerobic capacity, and the amount O2 [the body] uses is a powerful predictor of endurance. Some people start at a high baseline and don’t improve [their endurance] even after the same training as someone next to them. They might have to put in many, many more hours than the next man or woman [to reach the same endurance]. Or they might never get there.

What genetic science is telling us is that the range in talent is not pre-set, but based on our ability to respond to training. It sounds gloomy, that some people can train harder than others and still not achieve high performance, but I think it’s encouraging that if something is not working you, you should try something else. So you should pay attention to your training [and what it’s producing].

Did coaches you interviewed feel they could train anyone to become an elite athlete?

I came across a range of views on coaching, but I didn’t come across any elite coaches who felt they didn’t want to start with a population that was somewhat pre screened.

Some elite coaches would tout the 10,000 hours rule. So I asked them, if you believe that, you should just take the first 100 people who walk in the door and train them to be high performers. But none were willing to do that. All of them are using some type of prescreening system.

The best recent example of this was Great Britain, which increased its home team medal haul [at the last] Olympics with the Sporting Giants program. When it was awarded the Olympics, Sporting Giants officials went to schools to measure students, and used the height and limb lengths to predict which skills they would excel in. That’s how they found Helen Glover, who never rowed, and she became [the country’s] first Olympic gold medalist. So when the rubber hits the road, coaches know that they want their athletes prescreened.

Does that mean that China may have the ideal sports program – they pre-screen young children for certain sports, then train them in intensive programs.

It’s an ideal system if you have a massive population. They tend to be focused on certain skill sports. Yao Ming is the product of multiple generations of tall people. I’ve also seen videos of [how] Chinese divers are screened – rows of kids put their arms over their heads, and if their elbow joints aren’t above the top of their heads, they are sifted out. The thinking is that if the joints aren’t above the head, they would make too wide an imprint when they hit the water, and make too big a splash. So that’s it – you would be out.

In terms of increasing the medal haul, it’s a great system. It’s also what you see in Jamaica. Every kid is made to sprint, and they keep the ones who have the ability to win in the pros. If a country puts a huge number of people in the funnel, in terms of winning medals, I think it’s ideal. In terms of personal development in a sport, I don’t think it’s always ideal.

So if some athletes start out with genetic advantages, and are more trainable than others, where is the line between natural ability and ability that has been enhanced?

That’s such a tricky question. We’ve already shown how little sports governing bodies have thought about it, with the case of Caster Semenya, [the female South African runner whose gender was questioned when she tested with high testosterone levels], and cases in the past of female athletes with a natural condition in which they have elevation of testosterone or other traits that people consider more typical of males. It’s not their fault that biology doesn’t break down as cleanly as [sports governing bodies] would like.

There is clearly some philosophy behind having rules [against performance enhancement] – the idea that if it’s natural, then it’s okay and in the spirit of the sporting endeavor, but if you do something to synthetically enhance performance, it’s not. That speaks to our understanding that sports relies on agreed upon certain core values, and one of those is that you bring to the sport what you came in with, through natural talent and training.