The Sports Gene is a fascinating look at how our genetics and environment impact our sporting ability or lack of it.
Even if you’re not a sports fan it’s worth reading. You will learn a lot about our genetic code influences our lives, but also how your environment is a factor too.
The author, David Epstein, is trying to get to the heart of why some people are better at sports than others. Is it because of their genes, environment, or a combination of the two?
When I was in school, I loved competing in athletics. Whether it was the 100m, 400m or the long jump, I loved the competitive aspect. I had very good athletic ability and was in the top three for most events, but I could never quite win those events.
There was always someone else who was that little bit faster than me or had slightly better technique. When I practised, I would do much better and beat them, but if I didn’t I regressed.
Despite this, Epstein’s premise in the book is that hard work may not make all the difference. If someone is genetically predisposed in an event, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
If you want to learn more about how genetics can impact our sporting ability or lack of, The Sports Gene is a book you have to read!
The Sports Gene summary
Takeaway 1 Genetics and Environment affect your sporting ability
Sporting ability is often thought of as coming down to your genetics. This is true, but only to an extent. There is no doubt, your genes play a vital role in determining your ability.
Chinese basketball player, Yao Ming is a prime example. His parents were professional basketball players, both over 6ft tall, who were brought together with the intention of procreating a basketball player.
Yao eventually grew to tower over both his parents at 7ft 6in. There is no doubt that his genetic ability was predisposed towards basketball because of his height.
The same is true of why someone is better at long-distance running than they are at short distance running.
Sprinters have shorter legs, which allows them to accelerate faster, while they have more fast-twitch muscles which aid in their ability to run quickly over a short distance.
Long-distance runners, on the other hand, tend to have thin legs, which are not ideal for sprinting but are perfect for running at length.
Their slim bodies and greater skin surface area relative to body volume, allows them to release heat more efficiently.
However, your ability does not just come to down your genetics. The environment you live in plays a part too.
Kenyans dominate long-distance running and this may be down to the environment they grow up in rather than genetics. Living at high altitude, one that is not too high nor too low allows them to have the perfect training environment for running at distance.
The same was true of Eero Mantyranta, who grew up in rural Finland and became an Olympic champion in cross-country skiing. His genetic profile helped, but the environment and consistent practice in his sport went some way to allow him to succeed at the highest level.
Takeaway 2 There is no such thing as the perfect athlete
It’s easy to think that some people are born to play sports. Lionel Messi, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, the names are synonymous with the sports they participate in, but none are what you would call a perfect athlete.
Messi is 5ft 7in and had to take hormones as a teenager to boost his growth. Despite his prodigious talent, he does not fit the description of the archetypal footballer, yet he is arguably the greatest ever player.
The same is true of Jordan and Woods. Yes, they may be legends in their respective sports, but they are not paragons of perfection in either. The idea that there is a perfect athlete out there is flawed.
A fantastic example of this is Tom Brady. He was picked in the sixth round of the 1999 NFFL draft. He is notoriously slow, yet he has led the New England Patriots to six Superbowl victories and is regarded as the greatest quarterback in the history of American Football.
He was passed over by most of the scouts and coaches as not having the requisite skills to succeed, yet succeed he did. Success comes down to much more than your genetic makeup and the environment you grew up in.
If you don’t have the desire to win, the desire to suffer you will only get so far.
The Sports Gene makes it clear that there is no one gene that indicates whether you will be a sporting success or not. It’s the variation of your genes, how they interact with each other, your environment and mental strength that determine your success.
In an imperfect world, the perfect athlete does not and cannot exist.
Takeaway 3 Training can make you better to an extent
The 10,000-hour rule has attained an almost mythical place when it comes to acquiring expertise in a given field. A large part of this is down to the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.
In this book, Gladwell argues that acquiring 10,000 hours of practice at anything whether it is playing the violin, football or chess it the minimum requirement to master that skill.
While you certainly need to practice in order to succeed, this rule can only take you so far when it comes to sport and perhaps other pursuits too.
Epstein shows in the book that your genetic makeup may play a part in how much you can use training to improve your ability. Some people may respond well to training and improve their base level, while others can do all the training in the world and see minimal improvements.
The Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm practised and practised to the point where he could high jump in his sleep. This enabled him to win Olympic gold in 2004. There is no doubt his disciplined practice played a part in his success.
However, within the high jump, the inverse has also been true.
Donal Thomas played on the basketball team at Lindenwood University when he was challenged by members of the track and field team who reacted to his claims about his ability to slam dunk.
On his first attempt, Thomas cleared a height of 1.98m (6ft 6in). When he attended his first track meet two days later, he cleared 2.22m 7ft 3in. This was his seventh ever-jump.
Thomas took to the sport like a duck to water without any of the training that Holm had gone through. Eight months later, Thomas won gold in the World Championships at Osaka.
When scientists examined Thomas a year later, it became clear that he was predisposed to success in the event. His long legs relative to his height and giant Achilles tendon gave him an advantage over other athletes.
He may not have been the perfect high jumper, but he had a lot of traits that worked in his favour. Training, as Holm did, can help you to become better, but there will always be people who can take to something immediately.
They have an innate ability, genetically, to succeed where others cannot. Practice will help, but sometimes it’s not enough.
- “These may be kids that have a very strong drive to be active, and maybe we’re blunting it with medications.” (Director of the Sydney J.L. Huffines Institute for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Texas A&M, Tim Lightfoot on children diagnosed with ADHD.)
- “…the perceptual sports skills that separate experts from dilettantes are learned, or downloaded (like software) via practice.”
- “No one is born with the anticipatory skill required of an elite athlete.”
- “But he (Claudio Berardelli) also knows that no matter their talent or body type or childhood environment or country of origin, 2:05 marathon runners do not fall from the sky. Their gifts must be coupled with herculean will.”
The Sports Gene review
The Sports Gene is a fascinating book. As a big sports fan, I found it to be a riveting read.
It’s easy to dismiss the success of many sports stars such as Tiger Woods and Roger Federer to pure talent, but while that is a factor, genetics and environment play, just as big, and maybe an even bigger role.
Epstein takes us to various places across the globe where we meet different sports stars who have all thrived because of their environment. Be it the Kenyan long-distance runners, or the Finnish cross-country skier.
These factors play a much bigger role in success than we realise. What we attribute to talent is often the result of hard work and the luck of being born to the right parents in the right environment.
I really enjoyed this book as it helped to enlighten me on the success of some people opposed to others. Much like Epstein’s other book on sports, Range, it’s a great page-turner!
Who should read The Sports Gene?
Anyone with an interest in sports will find this book interesting. The concepts challenge many of the cobventions that we hold and it will make you think differently about success in sport.
If you’re from a scientific background, you’ll enjoy this book too. There’s a lot of scientific discussion regarding biology and the effects of altitude on athletic performance for example.