“The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is always: it’s both. But that is not a satisfactory endpoint in science. Scientists must ask, ‘How, specifically, might nature and nurture be at work here?’ and ‘How much does each contribute?’ In pursuit of answers to these questions, sports scientists have trundled into the era of modern genetic research. This book is my attempt to trace where they have gone and to examine much of what is known or haggled over about the innate gifts of athletes.” (The Sports Gene – pxiii)
Title: The Sports Gene – Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
Author: David Epstein
Publication Date: 2013
Origin: I found out about The Sports Gene (then not yet published) when I read an excerpt in Sports Illustrated in the article Why MLB hitters can’t hit Jennie Finch and the science behind reaction time. I love science, and I love sports, so this is a perfect intersection and I preordered the book the moment I finished the article.
Summary: Here’s part of Epstein’s own introduction: “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 Sports Gene contains the answers Epstein found in his quest to understand why athletic performance varies. The book takes the reader around the globe to meet cultures, elite athletes, and the scientists who study both, in a search for answers, and provides the most up-to-date explanations that science has produced. Reading it, you’ll find explanations (both genetic and not) of why individuals of Jamaican (specifically from Trelawney Parish) descent dominate sprinting, why Kenyans own a disproportionate number of endurance records, why not all tall people are equally well-equipped for the NBA, and why you might not be getting the results you want out of your exercise regimen.
Update (2014-05-06): My friend Brent passed along a TED talk from David Epstein, “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?”, in which he touches on many of the same subjects covered in The Sports Gene. Thanks buddy!
My Take: I enjoyed The Sports Gene, and read through it at a mighty fast clip. The mix of science and illustrative anecdotes keeps things educational yet accessible, without getting overwhelmingly academic. Even if your interest is only with the sports aspect, rather than diving into genetics, you’d still benefit from learning about the most up-to-date sports science. (Personally, I’m interested in the science and the sports: as I was typing this out, I remembered in consecutive years in elementary school I chose “DNA” and “Genetic Engineering” as my public speaking topics.)
Read This Book If: You are or aspire to be an athlete or coach, or just want to better understand why there is such variation in human athletic performance. Also, if you are Melissa, Brent, or Brent’s friend who runs this site.
Notes and Quotes:
- Pretty early on, on no particular page, I started recalling what I know about Epigenetics: here’s an entertaining primer.
- p10 talks about the “chunking theory” of expertise, “a pivotal idea in the study of games like chess, but also in sports”. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: Bounce definitely talks about it (at length), and I assume Outliers does but (gasp!) I haven’t read that one. Here’s Epstein’s summary, “Chess masters and elite athletes alike ‘chunk’ information on the board or the field. In other words, rather than grappling with a large number of individual pieces, experts unconsciously group information into a smaller number of meaningful chunks based no patterns that they have seen before.”
- I just thought this was neat, but if you happen to hear me humming along on the soccer field or while hacking away in a golf tourney, then you’ll know why: “University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting – paralysis by analysis, she calls it – by singing to himself, and thus preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain.”
- Since metaphors make things easier to understand, here’s one from p37: “The data quite clearly support a view of skill – from chess and music to baseball and tennis – that is based on a paradigm not of ‘hardware not software,’ but of both innate hardware and learned software.”
- p89 summarizes some of the lessons of many, many scientific studies (here’s one) about natural variation in human response to exercise (there are high and low responders, there are high and low baselines, there are high and low maxima, etc.): “If there is a lesson to be gleaned from this branch of exercise genetics, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all training plan. If you suspect that you aren’t responding well to a particular training stimulus as your training partner, you might be right. Rather than giving up, try something different.”
“There is no one-size-fits-all training plan. If you suspect that you aren’t responding well to a particular training stimulus as your training partner, you might be right. Rather than giving up, try something different.”
- I guess this is why I’ve never pulled a hammy, and why Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Gareth Bale, and Jermain Defoe are frequently injured (and, outside of soccer but close to home, Jose Reyes); from p112: “Despite his successful applications of muscle fiber research in track and field and kayaking, soccer vexes (Jesper L.) Andersen. Soccer coaches all want the fastest athletes, so Andersen wondered how it could be that many of the Danish pros have fewer fast-twitch fibers than an average person on the street. He turned to F.C. Copenhagen’s development academy, where he found that the swiftest players are lost to chronic injuries before they ever reach the top level. ‘The guys that have the very fast muscles can’t really tolerate as much training as the others,’ he says. ‘The guys with a lot of [fast-twitch fibers] that can contract their muscles very fast have much more risk of a hamstring injury, for instance, than the guys who cannot do the same type of explosive contraction by who never get injured.'”
- Listen to your body…and genes, p126: “Again, when innate biological differences are taken into account, it becomes clear that successful training plans are those tailored to the individual’s physiology.”
- This one’s a bit long, but illustrative (shows how genetic variations can form in human populations) and funny, from p147-148: “As ancestral humans spread across the world and became separated by all manner of obstacles – mountains, deserts, oceans, social affiliations, and later national boundaries – populations developed their own DNA signatures. For nearly our entire history, people lived, married, and procreated predominantly where they were born. As pioneers set up civilizations in new locales, gene variants became more or less common in populations both by random chance, or ‘genetic drift’, as well as by natural selection when a version of a gene helped humans survive or reproduce in a new environment. The gene variant that allows some adults to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, is one example. The general rule for mammals is that the lactose enzyme is shut down after the weaning period, and milk can no longer be fully digested. That held true for essentially all humans just nine thousand years ago, before the domestication of cattle. Once humans kept dairy cows, though, any adult who could digest lactose was at a reproductive advantage, so gene variants for lactose tolerance spread like brushfire through societies that relied on dairy farming to thrive during winter, like those in norther Europe. Almost all present-day Danes and Swedes can digest lactose, but in populations in East Asia and West Africa, where cattle domestication is more recent or nonexistent, adult lactose intolerance is till the norm. Comedian Chris Rock famously joked that lactose intolerance is a luxury of wealthy societies: ‘You think anybody in Rwanda’s got a f—–g lactose intolerance?!’ Rock asked in one of his routines. In fact, most people in Rwanda are lactose intolerant.”
- Drat, there are no easy conclusions, so you might want to hold off on genetic testing of your kids, p157: “Though the ACTN3 gene does appear to influence sprinting ability, making a sports decision based on it is like deciding what a puzzle depicts when you’ve only seen one of the pieces. You need that piece to complete the puzzle, but you certainly can’t see a meaningful picture without more pieces.”
“Though the ACTN3 gene does appear to influence sprinting ability, making a sports decision based on it is like deciding what a puzzle depicts when you’ve only seen one of the pieces. You need that piece to complete the puzzle, but you certainly can’t see a meaningful picture without more pieces.”
- This bodes well for my running career: “The scientists’ most unique finding, though, was not the length of the legs, but their girth. The volume and average thickness of the lower legs of the Kalenjin boys was 15 to 17 percent less than in the Danish boys. The finding is substantial because the leg is akin to a pendulum, and the greater the weight at the end of the pendulum, the more energy is required to swing it.”
- p203 has the conclusion of a track-and-field statistician who examined endurance running data (note that this applies to averages – every population will have extremes): “In these days of computer games, sedentary pursuits, and driving our children to school – it is the ‘hungry’ fighter or the poor peasant who has the endurance background, and the incentive to work on it, who makes the top distance runner.”
- p239 and 240 raise some interesting points about ADHD, including the evolutionary advantages it might convey and the negative consequences of trying to treat it
- p265: “Pain is innate, but it also must be learned. It is unavoidable, and yet modifiable. It is common to all people and all athletes but never experienced in quite the same way by any two individuals or even by the same individual in two different situations…Like most traits discussed in this book, an athlete’s ability to deal with pain is a braid of nature and nurture so intricately and thoroughly intertwined as to become a single vine. As one scientist told me: without both genes and environments, there are no outcomes.”
“Without both genes and environments, there are no outcomes.”
- I liked this quote from Paavo Nurmi: “Mind is everything. Muscle – pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.”
- p284: “In reality, any case for sports expertise that leans entirely on either nature or nurture is a straw-man argument. If every athlete in the world were an identical sibling to every other athlete, then only environment and practice would determine who made it to the Olympics or the professional ranks. Conversely, if every athlete in the world trained in exactly the same way, only genes would separate their performances on the field. But neither of those scenarios is ever the case.”
- p289: “In large part, humanity will continue to rely on chance and sports will continue to provide a splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity. Amid the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, make sure to look for the extremes of the human physique. The 4’9″ gymnast beside the 310-pound shot putter who is looking up at the 6’10” basketball player whose arms are seven and a half feet from fingertip to fingertip. Or the 6’4″ swimmer who strides into the Olympic stadium beside his countryman, the 5’9″ miler, both men wearing the same length pants.”
“Amid the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, make sure to look for the extremes of the human physique. The 4’9″ gymnast beside the 310-pound shot putter who is looking up at the 6’10” basketball player whose arms are seven and a half feet from fingertip to fingertip. Or the 6’4″ swimmer who strides into the Olympic stadium beside his countryman, the 5’9″ miler, both men wearing the same length pants.”
- p289, beautifully relating to the previous quote, this one from Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species: “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
- Still more from p289: “Because we are each unique, genetic science will continue to show that just as there is no one-size-fits-all medicine, there is no one-size-fits-all training program. If one sport or training method isn’t working, it may not be the training. It may be you, in the very deepest sense. Don’t be afraid to try something different. Donald Thomas and Chrissie Wellington weren’t, and Usain Bolt, after all, had his heart set on cricket stardom.”
“If one sport or training method isn’t working, it may not be the training. It may be you, in the very deepest sense. Don’t be afraid to try something different. Donald Thomas and Chrissie Wellington weren’t, and Usain Bolt, after all, had his heart set on cricket stardom.”
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