The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein
David Epstein is a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated and one of the best sports reporters in the business. This is his first book and he takes on the question, are the best athletes born that way or made?
Of course this question has been debated on every couch in front of every television from hard core sports fans to the casual girlfriend who is trying to be impressive. In the Age of Science we live, everything is broken down through a science narrative. So of course, this question would be asked. Epstein asks it and travels the world for scientists and athletes to answer the question.
The answer: it’s both.
This had much more promise than it lived up to. It was a book with periods of intense interest followed by drops of too many stats and too much technical talk (and I’m someone who reads poll results for fun). The book is page wise short but read much longer than the 294 pages it is in hardback. This has been one of the best selling sports books of the year and I will say I was a little disappointed.
This is a good book for sports fans who like the nitty gritty. It is not for casual fans of sports. There are very few big names dropped or interviewed in this book. But there are a lot of scientists whose work is discussed.
If someone is interested in sports science, they will love this book. It also spends a lot of time on running, so runners will probably know a lot more of the athletes than non-runners.
I give this 3 out of 5 stars.
Factual, with much to discuss and ponder, but boring at times.
Epstein begins by spending two chapters discussing men versus women in athletics. I’ll save you some time, read our article. It makes the same argument, comes to the same conclusion, but mine has more personality while his has more scientific stats. Truly, he takes an entire chapter to say what we said, men are better athletes than women because of biology.
He started the book with a case study of Jennie Finch, the softball star, striking out a host of A-list baseball hitters. I was certainly nervous about this opening. But it began a search at how professional hitters hit 95 mile and hour fast balls on a regular basis (if we considered 3 out of 10 regular).
Scientists have shown that it is impossible to react in that amount of time. So scientists have concluded all good hitters are actually not watching the ball, they are watching the pitcher for minute cues the rest of us wouldn’t understand. The same is true of professional tennis players on the serve.
He discusses how professional baseball players, on average, have much better eye sight than the rest of the population. He even went to a ophthalmologist within the Dodger organization who successfully picked out the best prospects based on their eye sight. (One of his picks, Mike Piazza, one of the greatest Met’s of all time).
David Epstein discusses regularly the 10,000 hour rule best articulated in Malcolm Gladwell’s wildly popular Outsiders. Gladwell’s theory in Outsiders is to be a master at anything, from Bill Gates technology mogul to athletics, one must put in 10,000 hours of practice. Epstein is really bothered by this idea and from his interviews finds that most scientists are as well.
He interviews a man, Dan McLaughlin, who quit his job at 30 to pursue a career in the PGA. Yes, at 30 years old with no real experience in golf, he wanted to make it as a professional, touring golfer. His plan, to follow the 10,000 hours of practice rule. He began in 2009. But 10 years later, it’s still a plan and it seems his business model is more motivational speaking than making the Tour. His website, The Dan Plan, documented his attempts. But the last post was in 2017 and he has not earned his spot onto the tour.
There must be more than just practice to make an athlete great, Epstien argues. But is it all genetic?
Here was one of his more interesting case studies. He looked at two high jumpers, Stefan Holm and Donald Thomas. Holm from Sweden is a walking example of the 10,000 hour rule. He began the sport as a child and dedicated his life to it. From skipping high school classes to practice to being a professional on the circuit, Holm put in every penny at the practice bank to earn his Olympic medals and international ranking. However, it wasn’t enough to beat Donald Thomas at the 2007 World Championships.
Thomas had only picked up the sport a year prior. For Thomas he earned a spot on the non-powerhouse Lindenwood University track team on a dare. When it came to practicing, he often skived off because he thought it was boring. This man had no where near the 10,000 mark. But at the biggest stage of track and field in 2007, it was Thomas not Holm who took home the trophy.
Epstien interviews various sports scientists and doctors to talk about the physical advantages that might have played into the unconventional win. But they all come up flat.
Here is an illuminating quote from this case study:
“Studies of athletes have tended to find that the top competitors require less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status. According to scientific literature, the average sports-specific practice hours to reach international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.” (34)
“A study of athletes on Australia’s senior national (field hockey) teams found that 28 percent of them started their sport at an average age of seventeen, having previously tried an average of three other sports, and debuted at the international level just four years later.” (34)
Here we run into an argument we have made about specializing to early in sports (you can read our argument here). Basically, it’s not solely about time practiced, there are other things involved. General athleticism and development of that athleticism play a key role.
Here we can move to what I thought was his best portion of the book, distance runners and sprinters.
Epstein’s best research, in my opinion, was his look at why Jamaicans are such good sprinters and Kenyan’s are such good distance runners.
He spends 3 chapters in the middle of the book on this discussion. His arguments range from DNA (his look at the variety of DNA within Africa alone was fascinating), to how how West Africans had to develop a resistance to Malaria and how that resistance created the fast twitch muscles. He takes it a step further at how the transcontinental slave trade mainly happened in West African nations and how these West Africans brought with them a powerful fast twitch expertise that has served them well within the western world, not simply in sports.
After discussing Jamaica and the West African advantage in quick twitch muscles he moves to the distance running dominance of Kenya.
For West Africans, some scientists believe their evolutionary resistance to malaria has caused them to be faster. But within the high altitudes of Kenya there is no need for that malaria resistant gene.
Though most of the world believes it is Kenya that is dominate at the distance running it isn’t all of Kenya. Rather it is a 12 percent minority in Kenya, a people called the Kalenjin people the account for all of their success. He traces these people to ancient descendants of the Nile Valley and attributes this lineage that gives them their advantage. Sudan is another country that has a host of peoples descended from these same Nilotic people, yet Sudan has existed in a state of such turmoil it is impossible to fully test the theory. Opportunity for the Sudanese people has not allowed athleticism to exist in any meaningful way.
Which leads to a discussion on culture and access. Epstein discusses culture within different areas in the world and how that affects sports and the athletes that make it. In Jamaica, sprinting and track and field meets are the biggest events on the island every year. In Kenya, opportunity to escape the poverty of their life is afforded them by college coaches who pluck them out of their villages and place them at universities with track scholarships. In Australia there is an expectation to play multiple sports and succeed.
Epstein points to the Kenyans who all walk or run to school every day for multiple miles as a reason they don’t fear the pain or struggle in such grueling events. He tells us of his meeting Eero Mantyranta of Finland. He was one of the greatest cross country skiers in his prime. He also spent most of his childhood trekking the wilds of Napapirri (the Arctic Circle).
In a culture of the United States, sports like distance running aren’t succeeding not because the talent isn’t there but because the work ethic isn’t there. The Kenyan’s don’t dominate because of their Nile ancestry as much as they do because of the miles of distance they have to travel just to get to school each day. Or do they?
Epstein very briefly opens up a discussion of why there isn’t more research on race as it applies to athletic ability. He says that there are many scientists who won’t even broach the subject out of fear. They fear that their research will be used by racists to further their agenda. They are also afraid that by doing research they will be branded racist. The few scientists that continue to try to study this do not study it solely on the color of skin but on the ancestry of individuals. There are some scientists that have studied these issues, Epstein writes, but refused to publish because of the fear of backlash.
It does point out that we wish science to be independent of cultural persuasion. But even in the Age of Science that we live in, it is as biased and skewed as all other forms of study.
My final thoughts go along with this. We live in a world where we believe everything can be solved by science. We look to science for everything from how to eat to how to manage our relationships. A regular statement of legitimacy is, “It’s backed by science.” Science runs our life.
In the Middle Ages, man believed that science, religion and magic were all inter-related. There was a belief in monsters and spirits, in miracles and villains, even in an organized, constructed randomness of life. Since the rise of the Scientific Revolution, science has changed into being the final arbiter of truth. “What does science say,” Billie Jean King said when asked about allowing transgenders to compete in their chosen gender. It is in science we trust.
This book is exactly that in sports. It exhibits that we, as a culture, look to scientists for truth. I am not saying this is a bad or good thing. But it is a thing. It is a sign of our age. There is no such belief anymore in a person who worked hard to get where they are and lets cheer for them. Now it is, they are good because of the fast twitch muscles they inherited and you have no chance of inheriting. Even work ethic, Epstein says, has to do with our genetic make-up. There are some predisposed to stand more physical pain than others and there are some who have genetic drivers to compete and train more than you.
In the Narnia Code by Michael Ward, he talks about the change that occurred within man with regards to the stars. For a millennia, man looked to the stars and saw their hero’s and friends. They made up stories about the stars. The Egyptians believed the stars were their ancestors boats sailing on the sea of night. The Greeks put their mythological stories and religion into the constellations. Even the Christian Medieval Europeans, who abhorred star worship, believed the planets had personality and affects upon their life. Science taught us the stars are giant balls of gas existing millions of light-years away. And since we have learned that, we have turned away from the stars. Once, the whole world was united in their knowledge of the night sky they shared, now only the most passionate spend their nights looking at it.
So this book feels to me. Sport, which has united the world in an unprecedented manner over the last 100 years might be losing it’s magic in the name of science.