When I joined the Army at 17, I only finished my first two mile run because two burly male trainees in my company literally dragged me the last half mile. 18 months later, I was a member of the women's cross country team at an army school that competed in the Garden State Athletic Conference. My endurance was phenomenal, and thanks to a very small team, I earned points for our team at meets. I was so far at the back of the pack, the only advice the coach ever gave me was to wear a better bra. I would have followed his advice, but athletic bras weren't even made at the time.
David Epstein's "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance" (2013) gave me an explanation both for why the training was so effective for me (I am a quick responder); why I had and still have endurance; and why - although I cut my two mile time by 32% - the only time I would ever see my astounding teammate (who is still a top ranked Ultra Runner) during a race was at the starting line, where she quickly disappeared from sight.
Epstein's discussion of the geographic origins and genetic factors that make the right body for a sport is not only understandable, it's fascinating. Epstein adroitly addresses the subject of race and sports performance, a topic most scientists and sociologists avoid because they are afraid of being accused of racial prejudice. He discusses the origins of man,and how migrations of Africa affected the genes and gene mutations that occurred in those populations. Epstein raises, in some detail, the genetic differences between athletes of recent African origin, especially Jamaicans (sprinters) the Kalenjins of Kenya (distance and marathon runners). The discussion of the difference between the congenital traits that give male and female athletes advantages and disadvantages in athletic competition.
Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory (Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008) argues that practice is the key to athletic success. Epstein points out the statistical flaw in the argument that extraordinary performers need 10,000 hours of practice to be great: the studies Gladwell relied on studies were based on individuals who were already successful, in varying degrees, in athletics - not us average Janes. I could practice basketball 10,000 hours, and I'd be much a much better player - but I would still be 5'5". I probably would have fun in a rec league and there would be lots of health benefits, but no amount of practice would ever make me a world class point guard.
"The Sports Gene" raises many, many questions. There is the effect of geographic location of birth and training, such as altitude. Culture can make a difference: children who run miles to school every day have an advantage over children who are driven. Endemic disease, like malaria, means there are more people with sickle cell trait, which protects against malaria - and makes someone with more fast twitch muscle. Strong sports programs in schools and early identification of talent make a huge difference. Epstein uses the example of an athlete in Sudan, who, no matter how good she is, has almost no chance of competing internationally because of the country's war.
Importantly, genetic differences mean what training and practice works for some athletes may make other athletes worse - or, in some cases, kill them. "The Sports Gene" discusses sudden deaths in sports, which, alarming news stories aside, largely isn't unexplained. There have been 10 sudden deaths of Division I college football players since 1974 caused by sickle cell trait. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is another leading cause of sudden athlete death. There are tests for both. Modified training can prevent the former, and an implanted defibrillator can prevent the latter.
The questions Epstein raises can't be answered yet: DNA sequencing names the gene sequences, but It doesn't tell us what the genes do, or what happens if the genes are in the wrong order. Scientists are finding that out, but we are just starting the exploration of an enormously complex gene world.
Epstein's answer isn't that genes are everything; or practice is everything. It's a combination, sometimes one much more than the other, plus opportunity.
As much as I love this book (if only to imagine a whole generation of students suddenly interested in genetics and statistics because this book makes the sciences real, and not an obscure discussion about breeding sweet peas) the narrator annoyed me to no end. No accent is better than really bad accents.
Finally, I desperately wish Audible had a true table of contents. I couldn't find one on line, so here it is from a relisten to the start of each chapter: Introduction (Audible 1-1) Ch 1 - Beat by an Underhand Girl: The Gene-free Model of Expertise (1-2); Ch 2 - A Tale of Two High Jumpers, or 10,000 Hours , Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours (1-3); Ch 3 - Major League Vision and the Greatest Child Athlete Sample Ever. The Hardware and Software Paradigm (1-4); Ch 4 - Why Men Have Nipples (1-5); Ch 5 -The Talent of Trainability (1-6); Ch 6 - Super Baby, Bully Whyippets, and the Trainability of Muscle (1-7); Ch 7 - The Big Bang of Body Types (1-8); Ch 8 - The Vitruvian NBA Player; Ch 9 - We're All Black. Sort of. Race and Genetic Diversity (2-2); Ch 10 - The Warrior-Slave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting (2-3); Ch 11 - Malaria and Muscle Fiber (2-4); Ch 12 - Can Every Kalenjin Run? (2-5); Ch 13 - The World's GreatestAccidental Altitudinous Talent Sieve (2-6); Ch 14 - Sled Dogs, Ultra Runners, and the Couch Potato Genes (2-7); Ch 15 - The Heartbreak Gene: Death, Injury and Pain on the Field (2-8); Ch 16 - The Gold Medal Mutation (2-9); Epilogue: The Perfect Athlete (2-10).
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