The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

Pinned on August 12, 2013 at 7:35 pm by Eldridge Johnson

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

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. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence.

Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components.

This subject necessarily involves digging deep into sensitive topics like race and gender. Epstein explores controversial questions such as:

  • Are black athletes genetically predetermined to dominate both sprinting and distance running, and are their abilities influenced by Africa’s geography?
  • Are there genetic reasons to separate male and female athletes in competition?
  • Should we test the genes of young children to determine if they are destined for stardom?
  • Can genetic testing determine who is at risk of injury, brain damage, or even death on the field?

Through on-the-ground reporting from below the equator and above the Arctic Circle, revealing conversations with leading scientists and Olympic champions, and interviews with athletes who have rare genetic mutations or physical traits, Epstein forces us to rethink the very nature of athleticism.


Geraldine Ahearn "Author Geri Ahearn" says:

“FASCINATING, ELEGANT, AND IMPRESSIVE!” David Epstein delivers an interesting and impressive narrative, through extensive research on sports and genetics. The author highlights what makes a successful athlete, and how to obtain excellence to become one of the elite. The stories and interviews are thought-provoking, and inspiring. This insightful account is a must-read not only for athletes, but coaches, and parents as well. Of all the sports information I’ve read in books about athletes, this one is a golden gem on this topic. The science behind an athlete’s performance is covered to a great extent, and the more you read, the more interesting it becomes. Informative, and educational. Highly recommended!

J. Gomez "Book Shark" says:

The Science Behind Elite Athletic Performance The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein”The Sports Gene” is an enjoyable book that shares the latest of modern genetic research as it relates to elite athleticism. In the never-ending quest to settle the debate of nature versus nature, David Epstein takes the readers on a journey into sports and tries to answer how much does each contribute. This fascinating 352-page book includes the following sixteen chapters: 1. Beat by an Underhand Girl: The Gene-Free Model of Expertise, 2. A Tale of Two High Jumpers: (Or: 10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours), 3. Major League Vision and the Greatest Child Athlete Sample Ever: The Hardware and Software Paradigm, 4. Why Men Have Nipples, 5. The Talent of Trainability, 6. Superbaby, Bully Whippets, and the Trainability of Muscle, 7. The Big Bang of Body Types, 8. The Vitruvian NBA Player, 9. We Are All Black (Sort Of): Race and Genetic Diversity, 10. The Warrior-Slave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting, 11. Malaria and Muscle Fibers, 12. Can Every Kalenjin Run?, 13. The World’s Greatest Accidental (Altitudinous) Talent Sieve, 14. Sled Dogs, Ultrarunners, and Couch Potato Genes, 15. The Heartbreak Gene: Death, Injury, and Pain on the Field, and 16 The Gold Medal Mutation.Positives:1. Well-written, well-researched book. Epstein is very engaging and keeps the science at a very accessible level.2. Fascinating topic that sports fans will enjoy. A look at elite athleticism through the eyes of science. Sports elites. I’m there!3. Epstein does a fantastic job of skillfully handling the very sensitive topic of race and genetics. Any minor miscue and it would have derailed the book but Epstein never lets that happen and should be commended for his utmost care.4. There are very few books on this interesting topic and this one covers multiple sports. And behind it all is the quest to find what’s behind elite athleticism, “The question for scientists is: What accounts for that variance, practice, genes, or something else?”5. You are guaranteed to learn something new. As an avid sports fan and reader, I didn’t expect to learn too many new facts but I am always humbled and pleasantly surprised when I do.6. The importance of experience in athletics. “Studies that track the eye movements of experienced performers, whether chess players, pianists, surgeons, or athletes, have found that as experts gain experience they are quicker to sift through visual information and separate the wheat from the chaff.”7. Golfers will pick up a valuable scientific tip…I’m not going to spoil it here.8. The 10,000 hours rule in perspective. “Studies of athletes have tended to find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status. According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.”9. Understanding the importance behind visual acuity and its importance in sports like baseball. “Coincidentally, or perhaps not, twenty-nine often is the age at which visual acuity starts to deteriorate and the age when hitters, as a group, begin to decline.”10. Important lessons shared, “To this day,” Woods said in 2000, “my dad has never asked me to go play golf. I ask him. It’s the child’s desire to play that matters, not the parent’s desire to have the child play.”11. Addressing the differences in gender. “Much of sexual differentiation comes down to a single gene on the Y chromosome: the SRY gene, or “sex determining region Y” gene. Insofar as there is an “athleticism gene,” the SRY gene is it.” Great stuff!12. So who was the greatest high-school athlete of all time according to ESPN? Find out.13. The impact of the Human Genome Project as it relates to sports. The naturally fit six…14. The science behind muscle growth. “Something that myostatin does signals muscles to cease growing. They had discovered the genetic version of a muscle stop sign. In the absence of myostatin, muscle growth explodes.” A lot of good information here.15. Discusses physical traits by sport that give the athletes innate advantages over the competition. “The height of a sprinter is often critical to his best event. The world’s top competitors in the 60-meter sprint are almost always shorter than those in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprints, because shorter legs and lower mass are advantageous for acceleration.”16. A cool look at the NBA. My favorite team of all time, the 95-96 Chicago Bulls (Jordan, Pippen and Rodman). Some eye-opening facts concerning wingspan.17. Scientific observations, “Low-latitude Africans and Australian Aborigines had the proportionally longest legs and shortest torsos. So this is not strictly about ethnicity so much as…

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