The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance Audiobook | David Epstein | Audible.com
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The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance | [David Epstein]

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training? In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle.
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Publisher's Summary

"In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?"

We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they? The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training?

The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research. In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle.

©2013 David Epstein (P)2013 Gildan Media LLC

What the Critics Say

"Step by surprising step, David Epstein takes our hand, grips our mind, and leads us deeper and deeper into the fascinating jungle of sports and genetics... until we finally begin to see the miracle we've been watching in our stadiums and on our TV screens all our lives.” (Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated writer and four-time National Magazine Award winner)

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  •  
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 08-17-13
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 08-17-13 Member Since 2012

    Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!

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    "Epstein writes! He scores!"

    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).

    [If you are using a smart phone andwould like to refer to this review later for the Table of Contents, press on the title of the review until you get the option to copy, copy the link, and paste it into your Notes..

    If this review helped, please let me know by clicking Helpful. Thanks!]

    102 of 113 people found this review helpful
  •  
    James 10-20-13
    James 10-20-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Brilliantly researched and narrated."

    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.

    10 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tiama Cambridge, MA, United States 08-27-13
    Tiama Cambridge, MA, United States 08-27-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Engaging and well-researched"

    Downright fascinating, this book was a joy to listen to. It completely captured the complexity of understanding the genetics of any trait with captivating examples from scientists around the world. Well written, and well narrated I recommend this book.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Saratoga Springs, UT, United States 08-21-13
    Ryan Saratoga Springs, UT, United States 08-21-13 Member Since 2013

    Ryno Reader

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    "Very informative and well researched"
    Would you listen to The Sports Gene again? Why?

    Yes, this book is packed with so much interesting information I feel like I need to listen again and take notes.


    Would you recommend The Sports Gene to your friends? Why or why not?

    I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about sports and elite athletes.


    Did the narration match the pace of the story?

    The narration was very appropriate and well done. However, I was a little distracted and turned off when the narrator tried to match the accents of the many individuals that were interviewed.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    No, it was not. Sometimes I needed to stop listening to process the information that was being given. This isn't a Dan Brown or Vince Flynn page turner.


    6 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CBlox Las Vegas, NV 09-09-13
    CBlox Las Vegas, NV 09-09-13 Member Since 2004
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    "5 stars for a reason! Best non-fiction of 2013"

    Regardless if you interested in sports writing or not this book can be enjoyed by all lovers of non-fiction. Written in the same style of Outliers and Freakonomics David Epstein takes the listener down the road of ultra-athletes, bio-genetics, and nature vs. nurture. Im very impressed with the way he waded into the complicated waters of race and genetics in sports.
    You'll be hooked and wont want it to end.
    Well done David Epstein!

    He also nailed the narration!

    8 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Thug4life Sutton, MA 03-16-14
    Thug4life Sutton, MA 03-16-14 Member Since 2012

    I'm just a dumb troglodyte who like reading. Me feel good after I read book.

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    "Yawn!"
    Any additional comments?

    David Epstein, author of the Sports Gene (SG) and writer for SI, is all over ESPN speaking about his book. Throughout SG you have the impression that Epstein is trying too hard to debunk the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice rule of success. He criticizes Malcolm Gladwell and others for studying a very narrow subset of successful professionals that resulted in making sweeping generalizations about the success associated with deliberate and sustained practice. The SG suggest that dedication and practice is no match for being blessed with certain physical traits (long Achilles tendons, superhero visual acuity, narrow hips, and fast twitch muscles). Personally, I don’t like the message.

    Overall the SG is a fair book for those interested in identifying the physical traits associated with athletic greatness. SG will not appeal to the typical the sports fan, instead it appeals to those athletic professionals immersed in athletic training. If you an endurance runner or college jock attempting to score a spot in the upcoming Olympics, the SG is for you. Otherwise, the book runs out of gas about 50% through. According to my personalized rank order system of book evaluation, SG ranks in the lower third of books I read or listen to over the last two year (40th of 59).

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David Enzel Chevy Chase, MD USA 02-16-14
    David Enzel Chevy Chase, MD USA 02-16-14 Member Since 2007
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    "Lots of Useful Information But Too Technical f"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    I learned about the science and finance of sport and gained a new appreciation.


    Would you be willing to try another book from David Epstein? Why or why not?

    Probably not. He got more technical than I wanted. I am a casual reader on this topic.


    Who would you have cast as narrator instead of David Epstein?

    I can't name anyone but someone who can imitate people much better than David Epstein. I also felt Epstein spoke to quickly.


    Could you see The Sports Gene being made into a movie or a TV series? Who should the stars be?

    No, way too technical.


    Any additional comments?

    Epstein is brilliant. I think he needs to consider who his audience is more than he did. Or maybe I am just not his audience. I am not sure but it is one or the other.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michael St. Louis, MO, United States 08-08-13
    Michael St. Louis, MO, United States 08-08-13 Listener Since 2009
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    "Perfect for anybody who has ever been an athlete!"
    What made the experience of listening to The Sports Gene the most enjoyable?

    Well constructed and narrated, this book systematically examines stereotypes about athletes and training using data from research studies. As a runner, I easily related to the anecdotes Epstein wrote.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of The Sports Gene?

    I particularly enjoyed the explanation and examination of the "10,000 hour rule" of training.


    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Renee Dean FL, USA 08-30-13
    Renee Dean FL, USA 08-30-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Thoroughly researched and fascinating"
    What made the experience of listening to The Sports Gene the most enjoyable?

    Epstein does a spectacular job reviewing the nature vs. nuture debate in athletic performance with an unbiased, critical eye. He covers the breadth of the current research, tells engaging stories about the athletes and scientists behind the statistics and breakthroughs, and paints a dynamic picture of the role genetics play in producing elite athletes, including the many shades of grey inherent in scientific research findings. I especially appreciated that he didn''t shy away from the question of race. I believe Epstein's review is the first thorough explanation of what we currently know about racial/ethnic differences in athletic performance. Worth reading purely for those chapters, if you ask me.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    I loved the descriptions of all the scientists the author interviewed and visited in this book.


    Have you listened to any of David Epstein’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    I haven't listened to any of his previous books, but his performance was really fantastic. He approximated the accents and voices of the characters quite well.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

    I would love to see this made into a documentary, but I'm not sure there is a better tag line than Inside The Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance


    Any additional comments?

    Required reading for coaches and trainers!

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tedd United States 06-17-14
    Tedd United States 06-17-14 Member Since 2005
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    "Excellent"
    What made the experience of listening to The Sports Gene the most enjoyable?

    As an exercise physiologist, I am impressed with the depth and breadth of Epstein's research and as a teacher, his accessible style. Having also met and heard speak many of those he interviewed, I had to lol at how on-point his voice impressions were. Well done through and through. An apt and timely answer to the likes of "Outliers" and "Bounce."


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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