Endurance Skating

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Book Review: The Sports Gene – David Epstein

Nature or Nurture? The Sports Gene firmly says that both matter.

Innate Talent vs Hard Work. Nature vs Nurture. Whether you are a 30hr/week age group athlete or an armchair supporter of a Division 2 team, it’s banter we all like to take part in. The debate captures the imagination and is something that we can all very easily relate to it.

In this fascinating book, Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein takes a long, hard and scientifically rigorous look at the nature of sporting success. What differentiates the 1% elite from the pack, and furthermore the Olympic medalists – the 0.1%, or even 0.01% – from the also-rans?

sports_geneNo one really argues that both genetics AND work ethic matter immensely; all Olympic finalist managed to hit the genetic lottery jackpot, and all have worked incredibly hard to exploit this luck. That much is a given, and Epstein acknowledges as much. However, in science it’s not nearly enough to say that both matter – how much does genetics matter? And how can hard work and training really pay off if you don’t have the “hardware” in the first place?

Through the course of this book, Epstein methodically takes apart the fallacious belief that “hard work is all you need”. It’s a sobering read. He tackles many interesting topics, including:

– A firm rejection of the “10,000 hours rule” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and the problem of positive confirmational bias in after-the-fact studies of experts in any field.

– Natural “freaks” such as Donald Thomas (high jump) and Chrissy Wellington (triathlon) who almost effortlessly rose to the top above other athletes with a lifetime of training behind them.

– The Big Bang of body types – How football players got larger, gymnasts got smaller… athletes became more specialised, and the “winner-takes-all” nature of sports will self-enforce this pattern going forward.

– An interesting look at what physical attributes it take to become an NBA pro (“height” is only a pre-requisite,  “length” is equally important), or an elite swimmer.

– An viable explanation of Jamaican sprinting and East-African middle/long distance dominance.

One of the greatest takeaways from this book is nature of baselines vs trainability. The truth is natural fitness and response to training, while certainly not mutually exclusive, are independent and determined as with everything by our genes as much as our environment. You may have a high natural ability but a low response to training or vice versa. The best athletes will have a high baseline and respond well to (the correct type of) training. However, as observers, we like to attach a narrative to what we see happening — we like to weave a story of “the plucky athlete who showed no promise as a junior who worked harder than anyone to become a worldbeater… vs the gifted youth who wasted his talent,” which may or may not actually have been the most likely genetically pre-determined outcome anyway.

Furthermore, Epstein talks about how different people respond to different types of training. Why is it that some people respond well to HIITs and poorly to Aerobic conditioning, and others completely the opposite? The important takeaway is that, just with diet there is no one-size-fits-all training method. So it is possible that if you are not seeing the results that you believe you should from training there are various possibilities:

– You are a low responder
– You are doing the wrong type and/or amount of training for your genetic predisposition
– You are not maximizing your response to training with poor diet and/or lifestyle choices
– Any combination of the above

In the end, the book paints a pretty convincing argument that genetics are an essential pre-condition of reaching the top – “you must absolutely pick the right parents” if you dream of the Olympics. From the practical point of view, there is not much actionable advice on offer.. it’s not that sort of a book.

Despite this somewhat sobering message that the vast majority of us will never reach the top no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t mean that we should not gain just as much enjoyment and satisfaction from the process of learning and striving to becoming the most elite version of ourselves that we can be. I can only hope that by knowing we are ultimately limited by our own genes, it will encourage us to compete more against ourselves than strive for arbitrary goals set by others.

5/5. Outstanding.

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This entry was posted on July 9, 2015 by in Resource and tagged , , , , .

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