What you will learn from reading The Sports Gene:
– The role genetics plays in athletic ability as well as environmental factors.
– Why early specialisation in one sport may not be the best path to athletic success.
– How variation in genes related to athletic performance exists not only between individuals but also within populations, challenging assumptions about racial or ethnic predispositions.
Nature or Nurture in Athletic Performance:
The interplay between nature and nurture is so intertwined in the realm of athletic performance that the answer is always a combination of both. However, this is an unsatisfactory conclusion for scientists who must delve deeper and ask more specific questions such as how each factor contributes and in what way. Consequently, sports scientists have entered the realm of modern genetic research to seek answers to these inquiries. In this book, Epstein examines the known or debated information regarding the innate abilities of elite athletes.
The investigation for this book took David Epstein to various locations, including those below the equator and above the Arctic Circle. He interviewed world and Olympic champions, as well as individuals with rare gene mutations or unusual physical characteristics that significantly influence their athleticism. Throughout his journey, he discovered that some traits that he believed were entirely based on willpower, such as an athlete’s commitment to training, may have significant genetic components. Conversely, other characteristics that he assumed were primarily innate, such as the lightning-fast reactions of a baseball batter or cricket batsman, may not be entirely so. Let’s explore this further.
Chapter 1 Beat by an underhand Girl
Athletes reaction speed, built in or learnt?
Scientists have been working for 40 years to understand how elite athletes are able to intercept fast-moving objects. The commonly held belief is that athletes like Albert Pujols and Roger Federer possess a genetic advantage that enables them to react more quickly to the ball, but this notion is, in fact, incorrect.
The time it takes for a baseball to travel from the pitcher’s hand to the plate is a mere 400 milliseconds, leaving a small window for major league batters to determine where they should swing. In fact, half of that time is required just to initiate muscular action, meaning that batters must anticipate their swing shortly after the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, well before it reaches the halfway point.
The window for making contact with the ball, when it is within reach of the bat, is only 5 milliseconds. Due to the rapid angular movement of the ball as it approaches the plate, the popular advice to “keep your eye on the ball” is physically impossible for humans to follow. Our visual system isn’t fast enough to track the ball all the way to the plate, making it a miracle that any ball is hit at all.
Despite this, elite batters such as Albert Pujols are skilled at hitting 95-mph fastballs. However, they struggle when faced with 68-mph softballs because hitting a high-speed pitch requires the ability to predict the future. Unfortunately, softball pitchers throw at slower speeds, leaving baseball players without their crystal ball.
Testing reaction times:
Despite efforts to test innate physical traits, such as simple reaction time, which an athlete is supposedly born with, these tests have not contributed much to our understanding of expert performance in sports. In fact, the reaction times of elite athletes, which are typically around one fifth of a second, are similar to those of average individuals who were tested.
In search of what sets elite athletes apart, researchers like Janet Starkes from McMaster University had to explore other avenues beyond physical traits. Starkes discovered research on air traffic controllers that used “signal detection tests” to measure how quickly an experienced controller could process visual information to detect critical signals. She believed that studying perceptual cognitive skills, which are learned through practice, could provide valuable insights.
Starkes conducted an occlusion test, which yielded astounding results. Unlike the reaction time tests, the difference between top volleyball players and novices was enormous. Elite players could determine the presence of the ball with just a fraction of a second glance, and the better the player, the faster they could extract relevant information from each slide.
What was once a mere blink of light for one player, had turned into a fully-formed narrative for another. This finding hinted that the key difference between expert and novice athletes was in their learned ability to perceive the game, rather than their raw capacity to react quickly.
Following her Ph.D., Starkes became a faculty member at McMaster University and continued to study occlusion with the Canadian national field hockey team. Back then, the prevailing coaching belief in field hockey was that innate reflexes were the most important factor for success. On the other hand, the notion that learned perceptual skills were a defining feature of expert performance was, as Starkes described it, “heretical.”
Chess grandmasters and Perception:
De Groot assembled a panel of four chess players as representatives of their varying skill echelons: a grandmaster and world champion; a master; a city champion; and an average club player.
De Groot enlisted another master to come up with different chess arrangements taken from obscure games, and then did something very similar to what Starkes would do with athletes thirty years later: he flashed the chessboards in front of the players for a matter of seconds and then asked them to reconstruct the scenario on a blank board.
What emerged were differences between the skill levels, particularly the two masters and the two nonmasters, “so large and unambiguous that they hardly need further support,” de Groot wrote.
In four of the trials, the grandmaster re-created an entire board after viewing it for three seconds. The master was able to accomplish the same feat twice. Neither of the lesser players was able to reproduce any boards with complete accuracy. Overall, the grandmaster and master accurately replaced more than 90 percent of the pieces in the trials, while the city champion managed around 70 percent, and the club player only about 50 percent. In five seconds, the grandmaster understood more of the game situation than the club player did in fifteen minutes. In these tests, de Groot wrote, “it is evident that experience is the foundation of the superior achievements of the masters.” But it would be three decades before confirmation would come that what de miraculous memory.
Groot saw was indeed an acquired skill, and not the product of innately miraculous memory.
Experience performers and perceptual hacks:
Research tracking the eye movements of experienced individuals across various fields, including chess players, pianists, surgeons, and athletes, has found that with increased expertise, individuals become more efficient at processing visual information. Experts have the ability to quickly identify relevant information, sifting through irrelevant data and focusing on the key details that inform their next move.
Rather than fixating on individual elements, experts are able to perceive the relationships and connections between different components, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the situation at hand. This skill is particularly important in sports, where elite athletes can extract critical information from the arrangement of players or subtle changes in their opponent’s movements, allowing them to make accurate predictions about future outcomes on an unconscious level.
Over the years, occlusion tests have been used to investigate the foundation of perceptual expertise in sports, moving from the video screen to real-world settings like the field and court. These experiments have included providing tennis players with goggles that block their vision just as their opponent is about to hit the ball, and giving cricket batters contact lenses with varying degrees of blurriness. This research has consistently shown that expert athletes require less visual information and time to anticipate future events, and they have a remarkable ability to focus on critical visual cues, much like expert chess players. Expert athletes are also adept at chunking information about player arrangements, much like grandmasters do with chess pieces. The research has revealed that even seemingly instinctive skills, like rebounding a missed basketball shot, are grounded in learned perceptual expertise and a vast database of knowledge on how subtle changes in an opponent’s movements can affect the ball’s trajectory, which can only be acquired through intense practice.
This all seems to say that anticipatory skills of elite athletes are not innate. In a study of eye movements in badminton players, novice players were found to be looking at the correct area of the opponent’s body, but lacked the cognitive database to extract meaningful information from it. If they had that knowledge, it would be easier to coach them to become experts. But simply telling them where to look doesn’t work, it can even make good players worse.
All this research on expertise, all points to the same conclusion: “It’s software, not hardware.” Perceptual sports skills that distinguish experts from amateurs are learned and developed through practice, not innate. They are like software that needs to be downloaded to the human machine.
How best to install the software?
The concept that success in elite performance is based on learned skills rather than innate abilities gave rise to the most renowned theory in modern sports expertise, which does not acknowledge the role of genetics.
In the paper titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” the authors applied their conclusions to sports, referring to Janet Starkes’s occlusion tests, which demonstrated that learned perceptual expertise is more crucial than natural reaction abilities. They proposed that accumulated practice hours were often mistaken for inherent talent in both sports and music.
Although he never referred to it as a “rule,” K. Anders Ericsson, the lead author of the paper and a psychologist now at Florida State University, became recognized as the originator of the “10,000 hours” to expertise concept, which is often referred to as the “deliberate practice framework” by those who investigate skill acquisition.
The 10,000-hour rule, or ten-year rule, has become engrained in the field of athlete development and is a motivation for initiating early, rigorous training for children, thanks to numerous best-selling books and articles. But is the 10,000 really true?
Chapter 2: A Tale of Two High Jumpers (Or: 10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours+
Does 10,000’s work?
Dan McLaughlin is an individual who set out on a journey to prove that anyone can become an expert in any field with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. He started by logging hours towards his goal of becoming a professional golfer.
After reading bestsellers like “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin and “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, McLaughlin was motivated by Ericsson’s research. He learned about the “magic number of greatness,” also known as the 10,000-hour rule, and the idea that seemingly innate skills are often the result of thousands of hours of practice.
On April 5, 2010, McLaughlin began logging his hours of deliberate practice with the goal of becoming a pro golfer and making it onto the PGA Tour. His plan is to document each hour of practice on his journey towards the 10,000-hour mark to show that there is “no difference between experts, me, or other people, not just in golf, but in any field.” McLaughlin is approaching this experiment as a serious scientific endeavour and has enlisted a PGA-certified instructor and Ericsson as a consultant. He is dedicated to counting only those hours of practice that meet Ericsson’s criteria for deliberate practice. By the end of 2012, McLaughlin had logged 3,685 hours towards his goal.
The problem with the 10,000 hours rule:
All evidence supporting the 10,000-hours rule has been “cross-sectional” or “retrospective,” which is biased against discovering innate talent. A “longitudinal” study would follow subjects as they accumulate hours practicing a skill to watch their skill progression, but recruiting and tracking participants like Dan McLaughlin is challenging.
Retrospective studies look at subjects who have already attained a certain skill level and ask them to reconstruct their history of practice hours, while longitudinal studies follow subjects as they accumulate those hours in order to watch how their skills progress. Longitudinal studies are a much higher standard of experimentation, but they are more difficult to conduct.
Are some people easier to train?
In 2007, psychologists Campitelli and Gobet conducted a study of 104 competitive chess players and found that 10,000 hours was close to the amount of practice needed to attain master status, but the range of hours needed varied greatly between individuals. One player reached master level in 3,000 hours, while another needed 23,000. Several players who started in childhood had logged over 25,000 hours but had not achieved basic master status.
The comparison between a natural talent and hard worker:
The short version of the story is at the 2007 World Championships, Stefan Holm, a high jumper with about as much practice as you could possibly have, like 25 years worth, gets beat by Donald Thomas, who, after eight months of high jump practice, was a world champion. On Thomas’ first day of jumping he cleared 6’8″. After eight months he cleared 7’8.5″.
Thomas, who entered the professional circuit with less than a year of serious practice, has not improved since his debut. It’s worth noting that in every study of sports expertise, there is a vast range of practice hours logged by athletes who reach the same level, and elite performers usually have experience in various sports, acquiring multiple athletic skills before specialising in one. Ultra endurance triathletes who perform similarly had a tenfold difference in practice hours on average.
What the book failed to mention and I found this on Quora – At the age of around 22, Donald Thomas began his high jumping career, but it’s highly likely that he had been jumping since he was five years old, mainly through his passion for basketball. As basketball players tend to play a lot and jump frequently during games, Thomas had already accumulated a significant amount of jumping experience before he started high jumping. In particular, he had been practicing dunking, which he was exceptionally skilled at, as evidenced by his YouTube videos from years ago.
So does practice matter?
The role of practice in skill development is widely acknowledged, but it’s not enough for scientists to simply state its importance. They must tackle the challenging task of determining precisely how much practice is required. According to Joe Baker, a sports psychologist at York University in Toronto, no geneticist or physiologist disputes the significance of hard work in achieving success. However, scientists cannot rely on the strict 10,000-hour rule to explain all of the variation in skill. Studies across domains such as swimming, triathlons, and music report that practice accounts for only a moderate or low amount of the variance.
Chapter 3: Major League Vision and the Greatest Child Athlete Sample Ever The Hardware and Software Paradigm
Where talent meats innate advantage:
Studies conducted on baseball players in virtual-reality batting have demonstrated the importance of identifying ball rotation. The players who could pick up on the rotation of the ball performed more accurately and executed more precise swings. Additionally, it was observed that when the red seams of the ball were accentuated, hitters performed better, while covering the seams with white paint had the opposite effect.
The importance of visual hardware in sports tasks varies depending on the speed of the ball. In a study of catching skill among Belgian college students, those with weak depth perception had similar catching abilities as those with normal depth perception at low ball speeds. However, at high speeds, catching skill differed significantly. Therefore, while innate traits like visual acuity or depth perception are important, they are useless without sport-specific software.
It is worth noting that individuals with exceptional visual hardware, such as pro baseball players and Olympic softball players, are more likely to have a better computer once the sport-specific software is downloaded. For instance, Louis J. Rosenbaum was able to predict two straight NL Rookies of the Year using visual hardware tests, although this is not enough to qualify as a scientific study.
The pace advantage in Football:
The Groningen talent studies were a longitudinal study conducted by four scientists from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The study tracked the development of soccer players who were in professional team development pipelines for a decade, starting at the age of 12. The study aimed to identify predictors of future success in professional soccer, including both hardware (e.g., physical attributes) and software (e.g., cognitive and perceptual skills) factors.
The Groningen talent studies, a longitudinal study of youth soccer players, found that successful players were not born with innate abilities, but rather developed their skills through deliberate practice and training. The study followed players for a decade, starting at age 12, and found that those who ultimately made it to professional teams had accumulated more practice time than those who did not. The study also found that practice quality, such as focused attention and feedback, was more important than quantity.
However, a hardware-and-software narrative emerges from the extensive monitoring of athletes from their youth to their professional careers. It was reported that, out of the over ten thousand boys tested, not one boy transitioned from being slow to fast.
The study “Late Specialisation: The Key to Success in Centimeters, Grams, or Seconds (cgs) Sports” is a literature review that examines the concept of early versus late specialisation in sports. The authors argue that athletes who specialise in a sport at a later age tend to have more success in that sport. They review several studies that support this idea and suggest that early specialization can lead to burnout, overuse injuries, and psychological stress. The authors conclude that a focus on skill development, physical literacy, and diversification of sports in childhood may be more beneficial for long-term athletic success than early specialisation.
Genetic advantages do exist:
The idea that Tiger Woods’ success is solely due to practice is appealing because it suggests that anyone can achieve greatness with the right environment. However, narratives that ignore innate talent can have negative effects in the field of exercise science.
Physiologist Jason Gulbin explains that the word “genetics” has become taboo in talent-identification, so researchers have shifted their language to terms like “molecular biology and protein synthesis” to avoid mentioning genetics. This avoidance of genetics in research proposals can limit scientific understanding and progress.
Chapter 4: Why Men Have Nipples
The trouble is that human biology simply does not break down into male and female as politely as sports governing bodies wish it would. And no technological advances of the last two decades have made the slightest difference, nor will any in the future.
Albert de la Chapelle is a Finnish geneticist who is known for his work on understanding the genetic basis of gender. He has pioneered the study of individuals with XX chromosomes who develop as males, a condition called male pseudohermaphroditism. This condition occurs when there is a problem with the sex chromosomes during embryonic development, leading to ambiguous genitalia at birth.
De la Chapelle identified a genetic abnormality that leads to male pseudohermaphroditism, which he named “De la Chapelle syndrome”. This occurs when genes from the tip of the Y chromosome break off and end up on an X chromosome during meiosis, leading to a male development pathway even in individuals with two X chromosomes. De la Chapelle’s work has greatly advanced our understanding of the genetic basis of gender and has helped to identify genetic abnormalities that can cause disorders of sexual development.
Genetic Trainability advantages:
The HERITAGE research group made a significant discovery in exercise genetics in 2011 by identifying 21 gene variants that predict the inherited component of an individual’s aerobic improvement. Although this only explains half of aerobic trainability, the gene markers can distinguish between high and low responders. Participants with at least 19 “favorable” versions of the genes improved their VO,max three times more than those with less than ten. The research team is now searching for genes that predict trainability for each physical trait, including blood pressure and heart rate drop with training. The study also showed that explosive exercise training programs have low and high responders, indicating that there is no one-size-fits-all training plan.
Testing Identical twins:
Dr. Claude Bouchard, currently at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the brain behind the HERITAGE Family Study, had an intuition about what the outcomes of the study would reveal. In the 1980s, Bouchard conducted an experiment with a group of thirty extremely inactive individuals, providing them with identical training routines to measure how much their aerobic capabilities would increase. Endurance exercises have a profound impact on the human body, including increased blood production, the emergence of new capillaries, muscle strengthening, and the proliferation of energy-generating mitochondria in cells.
Bouchard assumed there would be some variance in VO₂max improvement among people, but he didn’t expect “the range from 0 percent to 100 percent change.” This intrigued him enough to conduct three different studies on identical twins, each with a unique training regimen. As expected, there were high and low responders to training, “but within pairs of brothers, the resemblance was remarkable,” Bouchard said. “The range of response to training was six to nine times larger between pairs of brothers than within pairs, and it was very consistent.”
All these studies suggest that individuals vary in their ability to improve their endurance through training, with some having higher trainability than others. Similarly, some people have a high baseline aerobic fitness level, while others do not. However, it raises an important question for sports: is it possible for anyone to have elite-level aerobic endurance before engaging in training?
Starting at an Elite level:
One of the key indicators of a well-trained athlete is an increase in blood volume. Occasionally, professional athletes are caught using blood volume loaders in an attempt to enhance endurance through doping. However, some individuals, like the naturally fit six, seem to have been born with a natural doping advantage. Moreover, some of the world’s most outstanding endurance athletes appear to be in better physical condition than their peers right from the start.
The ultimate athlete would be someone with a naturally high aerobic capacity and a quick response to training. However, it is challenging to identify such individuals before they begin training, as athletes are typically not subjected to lab tests until after they have achieved something. Science is better equipped to examine elite athletes and retroactively explain why they are successful rather than identifying potential athletes before they begin training and monitoring their progress.
Chapter 6 Superbaby, Bully Whippets, and the Trainability of Muscle
The Double Muscle Gene – The myostatin Mutation
A myostatin mutation can result in an increase in muscle mass and strength, as myostatin normally acts as a negative regulator of muscle growth. Individuals with myostatin mutations may have a condition known as “double-muscling,” characterized by an increase in the size of skeletal muscle fibers. However, this condition can also have negative health effects, such as increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries and metabolic disorders.
Although having double muscles may seem like an advantageous trait, myostatin serves an important purpose in evolution. The gene is “highly conserved,” meaning it serves the same function in various animals such as mice, rats, pigs, fish, turkeys, chickens, cows, sheep, and humans. This is likely because muscle is an expensive tissue that requires a lot of calories and protein to maintain, and having excessively large muscles can be problematic for organisms like early humans who didn’t have a steady supply of protein to sustain their organs. However, this concern has decreased in modern society.
Athletes have been intrigued by glimpses of the latest genetic advancements. After studying myostatin, Lee turned his attention to mice and manipulated a protein involved in muscle growth, follistatin, while blocking myostatin. The outcome was a four-fold increase in muscle. Lee then collaborated with researchers at Wyeth pharmaceutical company to create a molecule that binds to and inhibits myostatin, resulting in a 60 percent increase in mouse muscle after just two injections.
In 2012, a study by the pharmaceutical company Acceleron reported that a single dose of the same molecule increased muscle mass in postmenopausal women. Multiple companies currently have drugs that inhibit myostatin in clinical trials.
How we gain muscle:
As we become stronger, our muscle fibres generally do not increase in number but rather in size. As a fibre grows, its myonuclei command centre governs a larger area until the fibre is large enough to require backup. This is where satellite cells come in, forming new command centres so the muscle can continue to grow.
Individual differences in gene and satellite cell activity are critical in determining how people respond to weight training, as shown in a series of studies conducted in 2007 and 2008 at the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Core Muscle Research Laboratory and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Birmingham. In these studies, sixty-six people of varying ages participated in a four-month strength training plan involving squats, leg press, and leg lifts, all matched for effort level. At the end of the training, subjects were classified into three groups: those whose thigh muscle fibres grew 50 percent in size, those whose fibres grew 25 percent, and those who had no increase in muscle size at all.
Just like the HERITAGE Family Study, differences in trainability were immense, with some weightlifters classified as extreme responders, adding muscle furiously, some as moderate responders with decent gains, and others as non responders with no muscle fibre growth.
Different Fibre Types:
Coarsely speaking, muscle fibres come in two major types: slow-twitch (type I) and fast-twitch (type II). Fast-twitch fibres contract at least twice as quickly as slow-twitch fibres for explosive movements— the contraction speed of muscles has been shown to be a limiting factor of sprinting speed in humans-but they tire out very quickly
Most people have muscles comprising slightly more than half slow-twitch fibres. But the fibre type mixes of athletes fit their sport. The calf muscles of sprinters are 75 percent or more fast-twitch fibres. Athletes who race the half-mile, as I did, tend to have a mix in their calves closer to 50 percent slow-twitch and 50 percent fast-twitch, with higher fast-twitch proportions at the higher levels of competition.
The proportion of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibres in an individual not only influences muscle growth potential, but also their ability to burn fat. Studies from the United States and Finland have shown that individuals with a high proportion of fast-twitch fibres have a harder time losing fat, despite their ability to build muscle. This is because fat is primarily burned by slow-twitch muscle fibres. Sprint and power athletes, who typically have more fast-twitch muscle fibres, tend to have a stockier build compared to endurance athletes, who typically have more slow-twitch muscle fibres. While training and diet can significantly change an athlete’s physique, there are limitations imposed by an individual’s skeletal structure.
It begs the question of whether the athletes get their unique muscle fibre combinations via training or whether they gravitate to and succeed in their sports because of how they’re already built. A vast body of evidence suggests that it is more of the latter. No training study ever conducted has been able to produce a substantial switch of slow-twitch to fast-twitch fibres in humans, nor has eight hours a day of electrical stimulus to the muscle.
Physiology research has demonstrated that endurance training can improve the resistance to fatigue of fast-twitch muscle fibers, but it does not increase the speed at which slow-twitch fibers contract. Therefore, a high proportion of fast-twitch fibers is crucial for elite sprinters. As football coaches say, “You can’t teach speed.” While this is not entirely true, as speed and the ability to sustain it can be developed, studies such as the Groningen soccer talent studies in the Netherlands have shown that even with training, slower individuals are unlikely to catch up to faster ones in sprint speed.
If innate body type differences that are hidden from our naked eyes, like fibre type proportions, are not accounted for, some athletes are sacrificed to the idea that the same hard training works for everyone.
Chapter 7 The Big Bang of Body Types
Sports specific body types:
With the emergence of winner-take-all markets, the early-twentieth-century notion of a singular, perfect athletic body has faded, giving way to increasingly rare and highly specialised bodies that fit into their athletic niches like finches’ beaks. Norton and Olds found that modern world-class high jumpers and shot putters, when plotted according to height and weight, are stunningly dissimilar. The average elite shot putter is now 2.5 inches taller and 130 pounds heavier than the average international high jumper.
Just as galaxies are hurtling apart, body types required for success in a given sport are speeding away from one another toward their respective highly specialised and solitary corners of the athletic physique universe. Elite distance runners and athletes who have to rotate in the air such as divers, figure skaters, and gymnasts are getting shorter. In the last thirty years, elite female gymnasts have shrunk from an average of 5’3″ to 4’9″. Meanwhile, volleyball players, rowers, and football players are getting larger. (In most sports, height is prized. At the 1972 and ’76 Olympics, women who were at least 5’11” were 191 times more likely to make an Olympic final than women under five feet.) The world of pro sports has become a laboratory experiment for extreme self-sorting or artificial selection, as Norton and Olds call it, rather than natural selection.
From time to time, changes in athletic techniques have swiftly altered the preferred body types in sports. The introduction of Dick Fosbury’s “Fosbury flop” high jump method in 1968, which gives an advantage to athletes with a high centre of gravity, is a perfect example. In just eight years following Fosbury’s innovation, the average height of elite high jumpers increased by four inches.
As elite sports markets have shifted from participatory events to spectator events for the masses, the bodies required for success have become increasingly rare, necessitating greater financial incentives to attract those specific body types to a given sport. In 1975, athletes in major American sports earned an average of around five times the median salary for an American man. Today, average salaries in those sports range from about forty to one hundred times the median full-time salary. To equal the annual income of the highest-paid athletes in a single year, an American man earning the country’s median annual income for a full-time job would have to work for five hundred years.
The Human Muscle Bookcase:
The physical frame that you inherit can play a significant role in determining whether you can achieve the weight requirements for a particular sport. According to Holway, the skeleton can be likened to an empty bookshelf. Two bookshelves of different widths may only have a slight weight difference. However, when books are added to both shelves, the slightly broader bookshelf will weigh considerably more. This same principle applies to the human skeleton. After studying thousands of elite athletes from various sports, including soccer, weightlifting, wrestling, boxing, judo, and rugby, Holway discovered that each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bone can support a maximum of five kilograms (11 pounds) of muscle. Therefore, five-to-one represents a general limit of the human muscle bookshelf.
Chapter 8 The Vitruvian NBA Player
Dissecting the NBA player:
The vast majority of American men fall within a narrow height range, with 68% measuring between 5’7″ and 6’1″. The distribution of adult height resembles a steep slope that drops off sharply on either side of the average. Only 5% of American men are 6’3″ or taller, while the average height of NBA players is consistently around 6’7″. This means that there is very little overlap between the heights of the general population and those of professional basketball players, contrary to what Cowherd claimed.
This is not to say that shorter individuals cannot excel in basketball. Players like Muggsy Bogues (5’3″), Nate Robinson (just under 5’8″), and Spud Webb (5’7″ with shoes) all thrived in the league, but only with unique skills compensating for their height. For instance, Robinson and Webb, two of the shortest players in NBA history, both won the Slam Dunk Contest. Meanwhile, Bogues had an astonishing vertical leap of 44 inches, but his small hands made it difficult to grip a basketball, leading him to dunk volleyballs during practice. However, it is extremely rare for shorter people to make it to the NBA without exceptional jumping ability.
The NBA players also have an average arm-span-to-height ratio of 1.063, which is greater than the traditional diagnostic criteria for Marfan syndrome. This means that an average height NBA player with a height of 6’7″ has a wingspan of seven feet, requiring a rectangle and an ellipse, not a square and circle, to fit the Vitruvian NBA player. Even players considered “undersized” for their position have extra arm span to compensate.
Teams like the Miami Heat strategically assemble players with long wingspans, as statistics show that a player’s wingspan can influence key statistics like blocked shots. Essentially, NBA players are not only incredibly tall, but also preposterously long, even relative to their height. It’s rare for an NBA player to lack the height required for their position, but if they do, they typically have the arm span to make up for it. In the current era of body types in sports, functional size is crucial for success, often pushing the limits of what is typical for a human.
Genes and Size:
J.M. Tanner, a growth expert in the 1960s, conducted a study on identical twins that provided evidence of the influence of environmental factors on height variability. The twins were separated at birth and raised in vastly different environments: one was brought up in a nurturing household, while the other was subjected to abuse, being locked up in a dark room and made to beg for water. As adults, the brother who was raised in the nurturing household was three inches taller than his identical twin, but their body proportions were similar. In his book “Fetus into Man,” Tanner concluded that the genetic control of shape is more precise than that of size, and that the smaller twin was simply a shrunken version of the bigger one due to the abuse he suffered.
Studies on identical twins indicate that, although the genes that determine height are difficult to identify, height is largely genetically programmed. Due to varying intrauterine conditions, identical twins are often less similar in birth size than fraternal twins. However, the smaller twin of an identical duo catches up with the bigger twin after birth, and they end up nearly or exactly the same height as adults. Similarly, female gymnasts may delay their growth spurt due to intense training, but this does not affect their eventual adult height.
Chapter 9 We are all Black (Sort Of)
A more linear build:
Studies examining Olympic athletes consistently find that individuals of African descent, including African Americans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African Canadians, tend to have a more “linear” physique compared to their Asian and European counterparts. This is evidenced by longer legs and a more narrow pelvic breadth.
A summary of measurements taken from 1,265 Olympians during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City found that successful body types within a given sport are more similar than those between sports, regardless of ethnicity. However, the researchers noted that the most persistent differences within sports were the longer arms and legs and narrow hip breadths of athletes with recent African ancestry, which were observed in almost all events.
Also according to a report, black adults have a centre of mass, approximately the belly button, that is approximately 3 percent higher than white adults of the same height. Using engineering models of bodies moving through fluids such as air or water, they calculated that this 3 percent difference results in a 1.5 percent advantage in running speed for athletes with higher belly buttons (i.e., black athletes) and a 1.5 percent advantage in swimming speed for athletes with lower belly buttons (i.e., white athletes).
This is not to downplay the significance of access to equipment and coaching, but this book examines genetics and athleticism. It would be equally unwise to overlook the noteworthy dominance of individuals with specific geographic ancestry in certain sports with global competition and few barriers to entry. It is clear that the fastest runners in both short and long distances are black athletes.
Joel Asaph Allen, an American zoologist, published a groundbreaking paper in 1877, in which he observed that as one approaches the equator, the extremities of animals become longer and slimmer. This is evident in the case of elephants, where African elephants have larger, floppy ears than their Asian counterparts. The larger ears act as a radiator to release heat and, due to their larger surface area compared to volume, can release heat more efficiently. This adaptation has occurred due to the African elephants’ proximity to the equator. This observation, known as “Allen’s rule,” has been applied to humans through numerous studies that show that individuals from warmer climates tend to have longer limbs.
As humans migrated and settled across the globe, they faced various obstacles such as oceans, mountains, deserts, social affiliations, and later, national boundaries. Due to this, populations developed their own DNA signatures. People lived, married, and reproduced mainly where they were born, resulting in the spread of gene variants through genetic drift or natural selection.
A prime example of this is the gene variant that allows some adults to digest lactose. In mammals, the lactase enzyme is usually switched off after the weaning period, but this changed after the domestication of cattle. Gene variants for lactose tolerance spread rapidly in societies that relied on dairy farming, such as those in northern Europe, providing reproductive advantages to adults who could digest lactose. This is why almost all present-day Danes and Swedes can digest lactose. However, in East Asia and West Africa, where cattle domestication is more recent or non-existent, adult lactose intolerance is still the norm. As comedian Chris Rock once joked, lactose intolerance is not just a luxury of wealthy societies, as even most people in Rwanda are lactose intolerant.
The doping variant:
Regarding sports, it’s worth noting that approximately 10% of people with European ancestry possess two copies of a gene variant that allows them to use performance-enhancing drugs without consequences.
The primary method of testing for illegal testosterone doping in sports is the “T/E ratio,” which analyses the ratio of testosterone to another hormone called epitestosterone. A normal ratio is one-to-one, and a ratio above four-to-one is typically regarded as a sign of potential doping. However, individuals with two copies of a specific version of the UGT2B17 gene can pass the test regardless of how much testosterone they’ve injected.
This gene variant affects testosterone excretion, and one form of it keeps the T/E ratio normal despite the amount of injected testosterone. Therefore, 10% of European athletes have the ability to cheat without failing the most widely used drug test.
Chapter 10 The WarriorSlave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting
The test for genetic athleticism:
Genetic testing for athleticism in consumer markets is of limited value. Scientists have found that complex traits like athleticism are influenced by many genes interacting with environmental factors. Even if you possess a specific variant of the ACTN3 gene, which has been linked to sprinting ability, it is not enough to determine Olympic potential.
Making a decision based on one gene is like trying to guess a puzzle’s image with only one piece. A stopwatch and direct observation are still the most reliable indicators of athletic ability. As Carl Foster, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, points out, gauging speed through genetic testing is impractical and inaccurate compared to directly measuring it, like using a tape measure to determine height.
Why does Jamaica seem to have a sprint factory?
When Yannis Pitsiladis asked the Jamaican people about their beliefs regarding the secrets behind their sprinting success, he received a variety of responses. These ranged from their consumption of yams to the rural children’s habit of chasing animals, and even to their history of sprinting away from European slave masters. While the latter may seem far-fetched, it has roots in the deep caverns of northwest Jamaica, where the idea originates.
During his explorations in Jamaica, Pitsiladis discovered that the island not only produces a remarkable number of the world’s top sprinters, but also the national 100-meter record holders for Canada and Great Britain are Jamaican expatriates, and numerous American sprinters have Jamaican roots. Furthermore, many of these exceptional athletes originate from the small parish of Trelawny, located in Jamaica’s northwest quadrant.
Selection of the fittest slaves:
According to Pitsiladis, there is evidence to suggest that the strongest and fittest slaves were selected and taken from Africa to Jamaica, particularly to the northwest quadrant of the island, which is where many of today’s Olympic sprinters hail from. Pitsiladis notes that historical records, interviews with experts, and demographic studies of the Jamaican slave trade support this theory.
The strongest and fittest individuals were likely sold by their own neighbours, with the strongest of the strong surviving the grueling journey to Jamaica. These individuals then went on to feed the Maroon society that inhabited the isolated and remote region, further developing their genetic stock. While it may seem like a convenient story, there is some evidence to support it. However, it’s important to note that it’s not the only factor contributing to Jamaica’s success in producing top sprinters.
According to Pitsiladis, his comparison of two dozen gene variants associated with sprint performance in Jamaican sprinters and control subjects showed some promising results, but nothing too significant. While sprinters tended to have more of the “right” gene variants than nonsprinters, it was not always the case. Interestingly, one of Pitsiladis’s graduate students, who served as a control subject, had more of the sprint variants than someone like Usain Bolt. This suggests that genes do play a role in sprinting, but the number of relevant genes identified by scientists is still quite small.
The Jamaican Sprint System:
During his ten years of frequent visits to Jamaica, Pitsiladis’s theories on the origins of the world’s sprint factory have been shaped more by the information he has collected using two crucial scientific instruments – his own eyes – than by the data he has accumulated through expensive DNA sequencers and chromatographs.
Youth sprint races are ubiquitous in Jamaica, and those with a keen interest in track and field, such as Fuller and Gayle, keep an eye out for speedy youngsters whom they recruit for high schools with strong track programs. There, the young athletes are slowly developed and gain valuable experience in big races at Champs, where exceptional performances can earn scholarships, adoration, and even endorsement deals with shoe companies or pro clubs.
This Jamaican sprint system resembles the American football system, complete with its own unsavory recruiters. Some Champs coaches even admitted to being banned from offering parents refrigerators in exchange for their children’s attendance. This island-wide talent scouting and recruitment approach has resulted in Olympic gold for Jamaica. Even Usain Bolt, who dreamed of being a cricket star as a youth (with soccer as a backup plan), was encouraged to switch to track and field at the age of fourteen after displaying a remarkable talent for sprints during sports day races. Despite his initial reluctance to train, he set Champs records in the 200 and 400 in 2003.
Pitsiladis credits Jamaica’s system of talent-spotting and capturing as a key to their world sprint domination, as every child is made to try sprinting at some point. The fervor at Champs, where athletes earn scholarships and even endorsements from shoe companies, is comparable to state championship meets in big sprinting states like Texas. However, many of America’s potential Olympic sprinters opt for more popular sports like basketball and football. A Jamaican sportswriter even expressed concern that the rising popularity of basketball on the island could detract from track talent.
Pitsiladis acknowledges the importance of genes, stating that “you absolutely must choose your parents correctly to be a world record holder,” but also notes that Jamaica has a vast pool of sprinters to choose from, allowing the best to rise to the top. According to Pitsiladis, if any other country had a similar system in place, they would likely see the same level of success.
Chapter 11 Malaria and Muscle Fibres
Differing hemoglobin Levels:
Based on data from nearly 30,000 people across ten states with age ranges from infancy to old age, a study revealed that African Americans have lower hemoglobin levels at every stage of life than white Americans, even when their diet and socioeconomic status are taken into account. Fay Whitbourne, the former head of Jamaica’s National Public Health Laboratory Services, reported that Jamaicans’ hemoglobin levels are similar to those of African Americans. This finding has been replicated in several studies and population data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, including among athletes. A 2010 study of 715,000 blood donors across America found that African Americans have a “lower genetic set point for hemoglobin” regardless of environmental factors like nutrition. Although endurance sports may be affected by the genetic disadvantage of having low hemoglobin levels, it is similar to sickle cell trait.
In a paper published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, the authors noted that African Americans have lower hemoglobin levels than white Americans at all stages of life, even when adjusting for socioeconomic status and diet. This finding has been replicated in numerous studies, including in athletes, indicating that genetically low hemoglobin is a disadvantage for endurance sports. Some scientists have suggested that African Americans may have a compensatory mechanism to make up for the lack of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin. This led Cooper to investigate further.
Cooper found a potential compensatory mechanism in a 1986 study by Bouchard and colleagues from Laval University in Quebec. The study compared muscle samples from sedentary students of African descent and white students who were identical in age, height, and weight. The African students had a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres and lower proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres than the white students. They also had higher activity in metabolic pathways that require less oxygen and are used during all-out sprints. The researchers concluded that the African students were “well endowed for sport events of short duration” compared to the white students.
The Malaria Gene:
Cooper’s 2003 book and 2006 paper with Morrison proposed that West Africans evolved with the sickle-cell gene mutation and other gene mutations causing low hemoglobin to protect against malaria, leading to an increase in fast-twitch muscle fibres for energy production that does not rely mainly on oxygen. The first part of Cooper’s hypothesis is now widely accepted, with sickle-cell trait and low hemoglobin being recognised as evolutionary adaptations to malaria. While individuals with one sickle-cell gene variant are generally healthy and protected from the malaria parasite’s effects, the sickle-cell disease shortens lives, and the sickle-cell gene will not spread throughout an entire population. Today, the sickle-cell balance with malaria resistance is one of biology’s classic examples of an evolutionary tradeoff.
Cooper and Morrison never intended their hypothesis, that a shift to more explosive muscle properties was induced by reduced oxygen-carrying capacity, to be limited to “black” athletes. However, even if the hypothesis is true, there is significant physiological variation within any ethnic group, and the two were specifically theorising about black athletes with certain geographic ancestry. On the opposite side of Africa, where there is little malaria and sickle-cell gene, another group of athletes emerged as some of the world’s best due to the favourable environmental conditions.
Chapter 12 Can Every Kalenjin Run?
Long Distance Champions:
The Kalenjin people are a group of ethnic tribes inhabiting the Rift Valley region of Kenya. They are known for their remarkable athletic achievements in long-distance running and have produced numerous world-class marathoners and Olympic champions.
Consider the following statistics: only seventeen American men in history have completed a marathon in under 2 hours and 10 minutes, which is equivalent to a pace of 4 minutes and 58 seconds per mile. However, in October 2011 alone, thirty-two Kalenjin men achieved this feat. The numbers that highlight the dominance of Kalenjin distance running are countless, and some are so remarkable that they may seem unbelievable. For instance, while only five American high-schoolers have ever run a mile under four minutes, St. Patrick’s High School in Iten, a Kalenjin training town, once had four sub-four milers attending the school simultaneously.
Discovering distance running talent in Kenya is not an isolated incident. In the same way that Jamaica has systematised the process of identifying sprinting talent, the process of discovering endurance talent has been refined into a tactical filtering system. The key question is whether finding endurance talent is more likely to occur in Kenya or among the Kalenjin people specifically, and if this is primarily due to biological factors. It is widely accepted that certain populations will produce more or fewer gifted athletes in certain sports. For example, Pygmy populations have an average height of around five feet for adult males, so a basketball scout taking a random sample from a Pygmy population is less likely to find athletes who, with proper training, might make the NBA compared to a sample taken in Lithuania.
What hidden advantage do the Kalenjin have?
Starting in 1998, researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre conducted a study to investigate the theories surrounding Kalenjin distance running dominance, including the possibility of a high proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, higher aerobic capacity, and a quicker response to endurance training. The study included elite runners, as well as Kalenjin boys from both rural and urban areas, and Danish boys living in Copenhagen.
In general, the conclusions did not provide evidence for any of the longstanding theories that had not been investigated.
Elite runners from the Kalenjin tribe and from Europe did not differ on average in their proportion of slowtwitch muscle fibres, nor did Danish boys differ from Kalenjin boys who lived in cities or those who lived in rural villages.
Kalenjin boys from villages did have higher VO₂max than Kalenjin boys from cities, who were much less active, but it was similar to the VO₂max of the active Danish boys. And Kalenjin boys, as a group, did not on average respond to three months of endurance training-as measured by aerobic capacity-to a greater degree than did Danish boys.
As expected from their latitudes of ancestry, though, the Kalenjin and Danish boys did display body type differences. A greater portion of the body length of the Kalenjin boys was composed of legs. The Kalenjin boys were, on average, two inches shorter than the Danish boys, but had legs that were about three quarters of an inch longer.
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.”
Why slim legs matter:
“Distal weight,” which refers to weight on the limbs, is a disadvantage for distance runners. A research team found that adding just one tenth of one pound to the ankle can increase oxygen consumption during running by about 1 percent. The Kalenjin runners tested by Danish scientists had almost a pound less weight in their lower legs compared to Danish runners, resulting in an energy savings of 8 percent per kilometer. Running economy, which measures how much oxygen a runner uses to run at a certain pace, is important for elite distance runners. Untrained Kalenjin boys had better running economy than untrained Danish boys, due to their proportionally long and thin lower legs.
When comparing Danes and Kenyans who were training the same amount of mileage per week, or not training at all, the Kenyans had better running economy. This means that while using the same amount of oxygen, the Kenyans were able to run faster with less effort than the Danes.
Chapter 13 The World’s Greatest Accidental (Altitudinous) Talent Sieve
The altitude advantage:
Pitsiladis is a strong proponent of the idea that altitude is a crucial factor contributing to Kenyan running success, along with the large number of running kids. According to him, living at high altitude is essential, and some suggest that the best way is to live high and train low, but Kenyans live and train at even higher altitudes.
However, Brother Colm O’Connell, while sitting with 800-meter world record holder David Rudisha in his Iten home, raises an intriguing question: if altitude is the key, why aren’t runners from other high-altitude regions such as Nepal dominating the sport? While the altitude in the Rift Valley likely prevented genetically lowered hemoglobin in Kenyan runners, which is a disadvantage for distance runners with ancestry in malaria-prone areas, the question remains as to why altitude hasn’t benefited runners from other high-altitude regions in the same way it has for Kenyans and Ethiopians.
The effects of altitude:
Scientists in the late nineteenth century believed that they had a good understanding of altitude adaptation. They conducted studies on the native people of the Andes, who lived at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet. At such a high altitude, the amount of oxygen molecules in each breath of air is only about 60 percent of that at sea level. To compensate for this lack of oxygen, Andeans have a profuse amount of red blood cells, which carry oxygen-carrying hemoglobin.
The amount of oxygen in the blood is influenced by two factors: the amount of hemoglobin present and its “oxygen saturation,” or the amount of oxygen carried by the hemoglobin. Due to the scarcity of oxygen in their air, many hemoglobin molecules in the blood of Andean highlanders pass through the body without a full load of oxygen, like roller coaster cars with few passengers. However, Andeans compensate for this by having a larger number of cars. This is not necessarily an advantage in athletics because they have so much hemoglobin that their blood can become thick and have poor circulation, leading to chronic mountain sickness in some Andeans.
Nineteenth-century scientists also observed that Europeans who traveled from sea level to high altitude responded in the same way by producing more hemoglobin.
So what is the Kenyan Advantage?
In 1995, a team led by Beall studied the Amhara ethnic group in Ethiopia who live at 11,600 feet along the Rift Valley and found that they had normal levels of hemoglobin and oxygen saturation, unlike other populations at high altitude who have adapted by increasing their hemoglobin levels. The Amhara people were able to move oxygen unusually rapidly from their lungs into their blood. Being born at altitude can lead to larger lungs, allowing for more oxygen to pass from the lungs into the blood. This adaptation occurs not only in natives of the Himalayas but also among American children who grow up high in the Rockies. While altitude alone doesn’t necessarily create great distance runners, it can be helpful to have sea-level ancestry to elevate hemoglobin quickly upon training at altitude and be born at altitude to develop larger lung surface area. This is the story of many successful Kenyan and Ethiopian runners.
Kenyans may have an inherent talent for running, but becoming a 2:05 marathoner requires more than just talent. It also takes immense willpower, which is not entirely separate from innate talent.
Chapter 14 Sled Dogs, Ultrarunners, and Couch Potato Genes
During the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sled dogs were the main source of transport in frozen Alaska. Breeding for strength, endurance, and resistance to cold became a serious business until snowmobiles replaced sled dogs. When dog sled racing became popular, breeding for athleticism began and Alaskan huskies evolved into athletes unique on the planet.
They were bred for voracious appetite, webbed toes, pulse rate, and remarkable ability to adapt almost instantly to exercise. Elite Alaskan huskies can move four to five times as much oxygen as a healthy, untrained adult man and can reach a VO₂max about eight times that of an average man and four times higher than a trained Paula Radcliffe. The best sled dogs adapt on the run, depleting energy reserves in their muscles and increasing stress hormones, but continue without fatigue or soreness.
Addiction to exercise:
According to research, the work ethic of rodents can be influenced by genetics. Theodore Garland, a physiologist at UC Riverside, has been studying this for over a decade. He offered mice a wheel to run on at their own discretion and found that normal mice run three to four miles each night. Garland separated a group of average mice into two subgroups: those that ran less than average and those that ran more than average. He then bred “high runners” with other high runners and “low runners” with other low runners. After one generation of breeding, the progeny of high runners voluntarily ran even farther on average than their parents. By the sixteenth generation, the high runners ran an impressive seven miles each night. In contrast, the normal mice “putz around on the wheel.”
High-running mice that were denied the chance to run had brain circuitry similar to that of humans craving food, sex, or drugs activated and became agitated. Surprisingly, the longer a particular mouse was used to running, the more frenetic its brain activity became when it was made to sit still. These findings suggest that exercise may be needed for these mice to feel normal. As with Garland’s mice, these rodents were genetic exercise addicts.
Chapter 15 The Heartbreak Gene Death, Injury, and Pain on the Field
The BU researchers garnered widespread attention in 2009 with their report on the high incidence of brain damage in boxers and football players. However, the media overlooked the fact that five of the nine affected individuals with genetic data had the ApoE4 variant, which is present in 56 percent of them, two to three times the general population’s proportion. Los Angeles-based physician Brandon Colby, who treats former NFL players, notes that all his head trauma patients with noticeable issues had an ApoE4 copy. Colby now offers ApoE testing of children to parents considering football as a sport.
According to Collins, a person’s genetic profile increases their risk of injury, and athletes need to modify their training to reduce the risk or strengthen vulnerable areas through “prehabilitation” training. Unlike smoking cessation, one cannot alter their DNA.
Genes have now been linked to sudden death, brain damage, and injury on the field, and researchers have started identifying genes that influence pain perception, making it another unavoidable part of sports.
Research into pain tolerance and management is a fundamental aspect of high-level sports, and the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University in Montreal is investigating why some individuals have a higher pain threshold than others.
Individuals born with congenital insensitivity to pain typically have a shorter lifespan due to the lack of instinctual movements such as shifting weight when sitting, sleeping, or standing, resulting in joint infections that can be fatal.
During periods of acute stress, the brain inhibits pain, allowing individuals to fight or flee without feeling pain. This pain-blocking system has evolved in the genes of all humans and is also used in everyday sporting situations.
Pain is both inherent and learned, and while it cannot be avoided, it can be modified. While pain is experienced by all individuals and athletes, no two individuals experience it in the same way, and an individual’s experience of pain can differ between different situations. Ultimately, we are all like Greek tragedy heroes, limited by our nature but with the ability to alter our fate within those limitations.
Chapter 16 The Gold Medal Mutation
Eero Mantyranta was one of the greatest cross country skiers ever. He competed in four Winter Olympics (1960–1972) and won seven medals. In the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, he won the 15 kilometer race by an incredible forty seconds and then won the 30 kilometer race by more than a minute. When athletes are much better than everyone else, they are always likely to be accused of cheating. Although there were no drug restriction rules in the Olympics at that time, Mantyranta was found to have a red blood cell count that was much higher than normal. Normal healthy men have a hemoglobin of 14 to 16. His hemoglobin was always above 20 and in his 70s, it was recorded at 23.6.
His sister Aune, and two of Aune’s children have the same mutation. Elli was twice a world junior champion in the 3x5K relay in 1970 and ’71. And Pertti, competing at the site of his uncle’s most famous triumphs, won an Olympic gold medal in the 4x10K relay in 1976 at the Innsbruck Winter Games. In 1980 he added a bronze at the Lake Placid Games.
EPILOGUE The Perfect Athlete
As psychologist Drew Bailey pointed out, outcomes are the result of both genes and environments. Instances in which a single gene has a dramatic effect are rare, and discovering athleticism genes is a highly complex and challenging task.
Yannis Pitsiladis, the scientist who collects athlete DNA in Africa and Jamaica, is concerned that if genes that influence athletic performance are found to be more concentrated in one ethnic group or region than another, it may detract from the hard work undertaken by athletes. However, we already know that certain ethnic groups possess genes that equip them with superior or inferior abilities for specific athletic activities. For instance, Pygmy populations are unlikely to produce NBA stars because they tend to have fewer gene variants that result in tall stature compared to other populations, according to Yale geneticist Kenneth Kidd’s example.
Height is clearly an innate advantage in basketball. But does it detract from Michael Jordan’s achievements that he had the good fortune to be endowed with genes that contributed to his being taller than Pygmies, and than most other men on earth? If there exists a scientist or sports fan who would denigrate Jordan’s hard work and skill because of his obvious gift of height. In fact, the opposite extreme-ignoring gifts as if they didn’t exist-is much more common in the sports sphere
Recognising the presence of talent and genes that impact athletic potential does not diminish the effort required to turn that talent into success. Research conducted by K. Anders Ericsson and his team, who are known for the “10,000-hour rule,” generally doesn’t consider genetically-based talent because their research focuses on individuals who have already attained high levels of achievement in music or sports. Since most of the population is typically excluded from such studies, they may not be able to make any conclusions about the presence or absence of innate talent.
An argument that solely relies on either nature or nurture for sports expertise is flawed. If all athletes were genetically identical, then only environment and practice would distinguish who succeeds in sports. On the other hand, if every athlete trained in the same way, genetics would be the only factor determining their performance. However, these scenarios are never the case in reality.
As each individual is unique, genetic research will continue to demonstrate that there is no universal medicine or training program. If a particular sport or training method does not yield results, it may not be the training but the individual, at their core. It is important not to be afraid to try something new. Athletes like Donald Thomas and Chrissie Wellington have done so, and even Usain Bolt initially aspired to become a cricket star.
J.M. Tanner, a renowned growth expert and world-class hurdler, said it best: “Everyone has a different genotype. Therefore, for optimal development … everyone should have a different environment.” Happy training.