3 Performance Myths Busted by The Sports Gene

100-word Book Review

Who hasn’t heard the argument nature vs. nurture when it comes to performance? This book shows you that great athletes can be born or created. Epstein does a great job breaking down the science and applying it towards athletes. From the periphery the book may look esoteric, but it has plenty of practical application. Overall, it’s an easy read that was hard for me to put down.

 

1. Same place different path

Epstein explains the concept of exercise high-responders vs. those with natural abilities, but often don’t respond greatly to exercise. The best example comes from the comparison of two world class high jumpers. One of the high-jumpers worked his way up the ranks after years and years of work. He was a high-responder to training, as he climbed the ranks and eventually became a world champion. In stark contrast, this world champion is one day defeated by an individual who had only been training for 8 months and originally found out about his ability after high-jumping 6’10 on his first day of trying. This is absolutely stunning - as the two paths of these athletes couldn’t have been more different.

Applied to lifting, you can have individuals who may have low muscle mass or strength at baseline but a great response to training or you can have individuals who have high muscle mass or strength at baseline, but don’t improve greatly with training.

Of course you would assume the elite of the elite will be both high at baseline and respond greatly to training.

This is also why you should hesitate to simply follow the training programs of the elites. The Sports Gene showed us that two people can do the exact same training and have a vastly different responses. This gives evidence to personalized training programs and making appropriate adjustments along the way. 

 

2. The 10,000 Hour (Rule) Myth

The 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell seems not to apply to athletics. There are plenty of examples of Olympians with much fewer than 10,000 hours and amateurs with much greater practice time. Don’t get me wrong, practice is indeed important, but the idea that anyone can reach athletic greatness with practice or that some individuals will not reach mastery earlier is assuming that we all start from the same place, which is ridiculous. 

On a short tangent Epstein speaks about the oversimplification which is the 10,000 hour rule. Apparently, this concept was brought about by retroactively looking at high-level violinists and averaging their practice hours.  

There are a few problems here.  

  • The researchers took the average (besides case studies all research does.) So some students reached that level with less than 10,000 hours and some took much longer. This does not lend itself to be a "rule."
  • They looked retroactively. In nutrition, this is the equivalent of looking at those with heart disease and then asking them what their diet was like and coming to the conclusion that bacon is associated with heart disease. When we look retroactively we miss a big piece of the puzzle - which is that many people have done the exact same things and not had the same outcome. Plenty of people eat bacon and don't get heart disease. Plenty of people practice 10,000 hours and don't reach mastery. 
  • Skills of a violinists cannot be generalized across the board. This certainly comes into play more with skill sports, but with not technical sports like football and sprinting the idea that just doing more is the answer to being the best is misguided.  

Sadly in 2015 some people still argue over nature vs. nurture when it comes to performance. Of course, it’s never nature or nurture, it’s always a combination of both. A great example comes from Kenyan runners who many believe are “born great.”

Kenyans do have great running economy, such as less distal weight (thin calves and ankles.)

It’s no mystery that they dominate endurance running. Take this mind blowing stat: only 17 American men have ever ran the marathon faster than 2:10, yet 32 Kenyans (not even Kenyans, a small tribe called Kalenjin) did that in one month.

But also consider the culture in Kenya - they grow up dreaming of being a distance runner just like young boys dream of being LeBron or Tom Brady in America.

Running is a low-economy sport, especially considering majority of them don’t wear $100+ shoes.

Their living conditions - most young boys walk or run to school every single day. You want to talk about specificity?

Lastly, coming from an impoverished country, they all see being a great runner as a way to money and fame.

Nearly all sport dominance is a combination of the perfect genetics and environment.  

 

3. There is no sports gene 

While certain genes are discussed, such as different forms of the ACTN3 gene that predisposes individuals to explosive or endurance physiology, the idea that we can run a genetic test on children and find future Olympians is far fetched. As Epstein presents, you’ll be closer in predicting the fastest adult by watching 10-year-olds race than you will from a genetic or muscle fiber type test.

While it’s true that genetic testing can rule out individuals from certain athletic events, it doesn’t narrow the field as much as one may think. For example, if an individual doesn’t have the right form of ACTN3 gene they simply don’t have the hardware necessary to make the 100-meter Olympic final, but doing this test doesn’t even rule out 25 percent of the population. This still leaves us with 5+ billion people who could possibly be the fastest in the world, not exactly the trump card sports gene most are looking for.

Take Home Message:

Hopefully this doesn’t come as a shock, but we aren’t all created equal. We all start at different points in the race. Some may have a head start, while others are trying to run a race with a broken leg. The best way to become successful, is to pick the right race.

This comes by combining both nature and nurture.

If you’re 6’3, have a naturally stiff achilles tendon and have predominantly type 2 muscle fibers you aren’t best suited for long distance running. Can you do it? Of course, but the odds are stacked against you from the beginning. This individual is likely better suited for basketball or football. Ignoring his nature is ignorant. No, we shouldn’t force ourselves into a sport or activity we don’t enjoy, but lets not forget we tend to enjoy what we’re good at.

Let’s apply this to the barbell sports. Odds are if you enjoy strength training you would be open to the idea of choosing any of the following: powerlifting, bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting & CrossFit.

Why each of us choose one of those four or a mixture of them is multifaceted, but we can and should factor in our natural ability. Even though these four sports have a lot in common with what makes the best of the best, some traits are unique to each.

If you're naturally explosive and fast, but don't have a great motor, you're likely better suited for Olympic lifting over CrossFit. 

If you're naturally brute strong, but not too athletic and have limitations in your mobility, then powerlifting may be the answer of Olympic lifting. 

If you've always found yourself "pretty good" at a variety of things, but never elite at any of them, then CrossFit may be the best for you. 

I want to make it clear that you can become better at what you're naturally not good at. This goes back to those individuals who have a high training response. So it's not as simple as trying a powerlifting routine for 2 weeks and claiming yourself as a non-responder. It may take several months to find out. The best protocol is to be open to a variety of activities early in life, try all the ones you want to and then start to find a niche. 

There are endless examples I could give, but it all comes back to finding a balance between your natural ability and what you enjoy. That's the lesson I learned from The Sports Gene. 

Huge thanks to David Epstein for writing this amazing book as it changed my outlook on human performance.