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Vol. LXVII, No. 16
July 31, 2015

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Superior Athleticism: Is It in Your Genes?

Many sports scientists bristle at the notion that athletic talent is a genetic trait. Athletic ability, they say, is not predestined. Rather, it is the result of many hours of disciplined practice. But prominent sports journalist David Epstein has been questioning that “gene-free model” of sports research. An investigative reporter at ProPublica and author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene, he recently shared his thoughts during a keynote address at the NIAMS intramural research program’s annual scientific training event, where NIAMS scientific director Dr. John O’Shea—a fan of Epstein’s writing—gave the speaker an enthusiastic introduction.

Epstein’s work focuses on the intersection where sports, science and medicine overlap. Last year, he gave a dynamic TED talk titled, “Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, Stronger?” that has garnered millions of views. The NIAMS audience was smaller than the average TED crowd, but no less engaged.

Epstein described how favored athletic phenotypes have changed over the last century. “In the 1920s, the average white male build was thought to be optimal for athletes.” Now, the extremes are considered ideal, with large athletes getting larger (e.g., 7-ft.-tall basketball players), diminutive athletes getting smaller (e.g., female gymnasts) and “weird” body types getting weirder.

Prominent sports journalist David Epstein has been questioning the “gene-free model” of sports research.

Prominent sports journalist David Epstein has been questioning the “gene-free model” of sports research.

Photo: Rich Clark

Epstein also explained the “10,000-hour rule” of sports, the basic tenet that assumes one can achieve mastery at a sport by engaging in deliberate practice for 10,000 hours—give or take a few thousand. The rule essentially levels the playing field, de-emphasizing the once-popular idea that athleticism was a gift that you either had or did not have.

But is that true? Epstein noted some glaring exceptions to this rule, in which an athlete, at first just average in ability, trains his entire life to eventually become the best, only to be defeated in competition by an unknown contender with little training experience but tremendous natural ability. How does the 10,000-hour rule hold up then, asked Epstein?

How specialized you become can also affect performance, he said. Consider record-breaking baseball player Barry Bonds, who once challenged softball pitcher and Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch. Because he could hit fastballs going at speeds of 100 m.p.h., he assumed he could easily hit her bigger, slower softballs. To his surprise, she struck him out repeatedly, and she has done the same with other professional baseball hitters.

Epstein says that Bonds and other hitters like him train themselves for many hours to interpret and anticipate the body language of the typical fastball pitcher—eventually becoming so adept at reading signals that swinging decisions are made before the ball even starts moving. But Finch pitched using the underhand technique—a body cue Bonds was unaccustomed to. The experience prompted the question—was Bonds truly a talented, disciplined ball hitter, or had he just learned to read familiar signals? “Bonds had no contextualized practice against Finch,” said Epstein.

Epstein is careful to illustrate many examples in which intense training can lead to athletic success, but he urges sports and other scientists not to discount genetics. “Differences in genes may influence how we adapt to training—whether one is a low responder or a high responder.” He concluded with a quote from British pediatric endocrinologist J.M. Tanner: “Everyone has a different genotype. Therefore, for optimal development, everyone should have a different environment.”

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