As a non-athlete living with an athlete, I found The Sports Gene: inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance by David Epstein to be fascinating and illuminating.
Epstein travels the globe, from Africa to Alaska to Jamaica and on, interviewing top athletes and the people who surround them, to shed light on the eternal nature versus nurture debate. I’m probably not giving away too much when I say that superior athletes, according to Epstein, seem to be produced by a combination of the two.
Epstein reflects a lot on the notion of the 10 000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell referred to in his book Outliers. While he agrees that intense practice and focus will improve performance it is not the only aspect to consider. Body type is also a huge consideration, as is geography.
Jamaica is known for producing top sprinters and Kenya is renowned for its distance runners. Kenyan runners have long lean body type determined by environmental factors and a lung capacity developed by running at a high altitude. Those factors aside there are also economic and social considerations. In Kenya, the children are not driven to school, rather they walk or run long distances daily as their mode of transportation. Kenyans can earn far more as winning runners than with other forms of employment. Track and field is to Jamaicans as hockey is to Canadians. A high school track and field meet is a great community event. Young athletes are identified early and are carefully and gently nurtured until they are well into their teens and can begin intensive training. Epstein speculates that had Usain Bolt grown up the US, he would probably be a professional basketball player at this point rather than the fastest man on earth.
What about the desire to train? Is there a determination gene that makes intensive training a reward unto itself? Epstein relates several stories of driven athletes whose parent were like-minded, but again is this genetic or are they a product of their environment? He tells a fascinating story about a sled dog breeder in Alaska who couldn’t afford the fastest dog, so he chose a dog who was the hardest working and seemed to have a desire to pull the sled without stopping. He bred this dog and the subsequent generation of dogs were equally hardworking and had a strong desire to pull that sled. His dogs would go on to win the Iditarod.
The Sports Gene is a fascinating read for athletes, and those with an interest in science and genetics would enjoy this thought-provoking and engaging read. You might also enjoy: The Violinist’s Thumb: and other lost tales of love, war and genius, as written by our genetic code by Sam Kean; What Makes Olga Run? the mystery of the 90-something year old track star, and what she can teach us about living longer, happier lives by Bruce Grierson; and The Perfection Point: Sport Science predicts the fastest man, the highest jump, and the limits of athletic performance by John Brenkus.