"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
"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)
David Epstein has passion. His work is thorough, enlightening and engaging and I really enjoyed listening to every story and fact he shared about sports and endurance. Looking forward to listening again
When I read Outliers, I thought Malcolm Gladwell oversold his “10,000 hour” thesis. That is, in critiquing our culture’s emphasis on innate talent, he immediately swung too far the other way, overemphasizing deliberate practice. He hinted (or contended?), for example, that the apparent genius of Tiger Woods or Mozart is in fact primarily a function of their incredibly early start on the competition… An intriguing thesis, for sure, but maybe only because it flies in the face of an obvious and contrary reality.
Epstein has the empirical data that shows the extent to which Gladwell oversold his thesis at least with respect to certain athletic endeavors. At the elite level of athletic performance, genetics often matters. For example, Epstein tells us that a male between the ages of 20 and 40 who is 7 feet or taller has something like a 16% chance of being a current NBA player. That undercuts Gladwell’s contrary and offhand assertion in Outliers that once a person achieves a threshold height, say 6’4”, additional height matters less and less, and practice more and more. Epstein explores the genetic link in dozens of different sports.
While I think Gladwell got it wrong that genius is practically nothing more than years upon years of smart practice, I think he got it right as a formula for being pretty darn good. While I may not have the ingredients to become the best of the best at anything, through sheer force of will and effort, I believe I can become workman-like at almost anything at all. To me, that’s empowering. As much as I didn’t like Kaufman’s “The First 20 Hours,” his core message is similarly empowering – it doesn’t take as much time as you may think to achieve a level of enjoyable competence.
(There’s a tricky counter-point towards the end of the book where Epstein suggests that even one’s appetite for practice and ability to improve through it may have a genetic component. That proposition is worth a double take – your propensity for hard work necessary to overcome your genetic shortcomings may itself be genetically driven.)
Dan McLaughlin, aka “The Dan Plan,” discussed in the Sports Gene, is perhaps the living embodiment of my thoughts on this subject. In his early thirties, he quit his job and took up golf, setting a goal of making the PGA tour after he accomplished 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. On the one hand, his goal is patently ridiculous because it naively discounts the importance of talent and age. But on the other hand, 5000+ hours in, McLaughlin’s a good golfer by amateur standards (a 4 handicap). And he’s garnered enough attention and money(?) so that he can play golf full time. He’s living proof that hard work can take you to great heights, even if it won’t take you to the peak by itself.
Putting books on the back burner.
I really think that David Epstein missed the boat when he wrote "The Sports Gene." The science in sports was interesting, but I really had a hard time relating to the materials. Instead of presenting examples of great athletes in team professional sports such as NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, Epstein focused on athletes that is not on the highlight reel. Too much information on runners from Kenya or the iditarod in Alaska. I understand that you need at least 10,000 hours of practice to be a excellent in something, but there wasn't enough example of professional athletes that we idolize.
As a past competitive athlete and current sports nutritionist myself, I found this book very captivating! Many times I was reminiscent of my personal memories as an athlete and found I was able to relate my personal experience and questions about athletic performance to the stories in this book.
It really makes all of the information we learn in classes applicable and connected. Epstein makes me appreciate the wonders of the human body even more than I did before. I felt like he didn't directly argue for or against any one side of the nature vs. nurture argument, rather he kept telling stories of all these different athletes who are so individually unique and excel in surprising ways; he lets the reader make the decision on what they want to support.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in science, the human body, sports, biology, or competition.
Definitely! I listened to this book while I was driving, walking to class, sitting around at home, and any other time I wasn't doing school work.
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."
Forensic Psychologist in Northern California
The content in this book is fascinating, so yes.
Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." Both offer opinions on success.
His attempts to read in accents (German, Australian, French, etc) and gender tones (female) are a fucking embarrassment. They remind me of a fifth grader in a drama class. The German accent sounds like something out of Dr. Strangelove.
The hypothesis regarding increased fast twitch muscle content in West African sprinters. Utterly fascinating.
Still worth it, just get a different reader OR don't attempt accents.
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