Ever since I started competing in Track and Field, as far back as freshman year in High School, I was always fascinated with athletic performance, and what contributed to an elite athlete’s athletic performance.
This book finally cleared up that mystery. The answer - no surprise - is a combination of Nature and Nurture - one needs to have the right genetics (i.e. ‘hardware’), to be able to respond to training, but also the right ‘software’ (i.e. the training itself).
Here are a few factoids from the book that I found especially facinating:
the single best predictor of a major league hitters batting average is not reaction time but visual acuity. A study of this comparing batting averages of elite players (even as far back as Ted Williams) all had eyesight around 20/10 - some with score of 20/8 - approaching the biological limit of human sight. This allowed the players to not only see the type of pitch being thrown in the 1/16th of a second it takes to leave the pitchers hand - but gave them the ability to mentally process this information in milliseconds, based on subconsciously viewing the the ball’s trajectory, spin and pitchers’ shoulder (i.e. they had the hardware (eyesight) but the software part (thousands of hours of batting practice) imprinted these patterns on their brain.
A study of Kenyan marathon runners (some of the best distance runners in the world) found NO difference in Vo2 MAX, hemoglobin levels or other physical trains when compared to european runners. What made Kenyans so great? For any given size Kenyans evolved with very narrow leg bones, which made their legs 1-2 lbs lighter than the europeans. A study done showed that even 1/10th of 1lb lighter leg weight contributes to 8% greater running efficiency. That’s why sneaker companies strive to make lighter shoes. Kenyans have significantly more efficient running as a result. Another factor of the Kenyans is that they train at altitudes of 6,000 - 8,000 feet, which is considered ideal for adaptation to endurance. Lastly, Kenyans have a system whereby all students are required to train for endurance sports - so they have a lot more people to choose from.
What makes a great sprinter - someone with long legs relative to body height, with narrow hips, high concentration of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and a center of gravity that’s 3 cms above the navel. It just so happens that Jamaicans have evolved with this set of physiology - but they also have a structured system whereby they seek out the best of the best and have an elaborate training system when they find athletes with potential.
About 6 in 1,000 people come ‘out of the box’ with elite genes - and this blows away the 10,000 hours rule (a reference to the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell) which states that the average time it takes to become elite - is based on 10,000 of ‘deliberate practice’ - in all fields from music, sports or Chess. Not so. The original study of this had a range from 1,000 hours to 40,000 hours. The book talked about the 2007 world champion high jumper - who literally took up the sport 7 months prior to competing - and his first jump ever (taken on a dare when he was in high school - he cleared 7 feet.
The book gave many more examples and was written in a very eloquent manner.Overall - the book reinforced the point that all people benefit from training. But to be elite, you need to have the right genetic factors specific to the sport AND the right training.