Finding Genes That Fit
The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
By David Epstein
Penguin Publishing, 304 pp $17.00
I took a gasping breath, violent water splashing onto my face while looking to see where everyone else was. I tried to spot a swimmer near me, but their feet seemed to be miles ahead of me. My arms felt like rocks that simply couldn’t stroke any faster. My legs seemed to be connected to another body, not complying with what I was trying to do, making my freestyle awkward and slow. I sheepishly finished the distance race. I didn’t bother to look at the scoreboard, knowing I had gotten last by a huge margin. Grabbing my towel from the end of the swimming lane, I pushed my way through the other swimmers who seemed to tower over me and my pudgy self. It was the spring of 2007 at the University of Minnesota at the Midwest Regional Championships. I found my dad when walking back from the pool.
“What was that?” he interrogated me. My face was red now, his 6’ 4” frame keeping me from moving.
“I’m just slow now,” I spat back.
This was not the answer he wanted to hear from a former 8 and under state champion. Now three years later it was as if I had just learned how to swim. It wasn’t just this meet that my performance had been lacking. Practices had become a struggle. Normally leading the lane I was now struggling to keep up, being passed by swimmers, who before I could handily beat. Convinced swimming was not my thing anymore. I told my mom I was going to quit.
Standing behind the blocks I now towered over my competition at nearly 6 feet tall. It was the fall of 2014 the day of the Iowa state qualifying meet and I felt calm and ready for the 50 freestyle, a sprint race. Reflecting on the hours of practice in the pool and the weight room I knew I could win it.
I took a breath, I couldn’t see anyone. The water was calm around me I tried to spot a swimmer near me before realizing I was ahead. I felt strong in the water. My arms and legs were on the same page making the race seemingly easy. I finished the race, knowing I had done what I had set out to do.
Nearly eight years after I decided I was going to quit swimming, I am now looking forward to swimming at the collegiate level. What can be attributed to this dramatic change of success in the sport? The controversial debate of athletic nature versus nurture comes to mind. Do athletes develop into their abilities with practice and training or are some athletes born predisposed with the proper genes needed to become a pro. For me the nature was that I developed the height and body type from genes that benefit me in the sport of swimming. The nurture being that I worked hard and as they say, it paid off. Many question if there are actual “sports genes” making certain individuals more athletic. There seems to be some truth to this argument. For example scientists who study the genes of athletes (exercise geneticist) have discovered that top national track sprinters to have almost identical genes. David Epstein a former runner at Columbia University questioned the nurture portion of the argument. He and his similar built training partner could run “stride for stride with one another” in practice and Epstein would consistently be in the shadow of his partner at the track meets. The century long debate if some athletes are born predisposed to be champions or if hard work really can take you to the top, comes to a head in David Epstein’s highly regarded book, The Sports Gene.
The proof that hard work pays off became clear when nearly 40 years ago two American scientists published a striking paper that would take the entire world by surprise. Herbert Simon and William Chase published the debated idea that there are “no instant experts” in terms of being a professional chess player. They continued “We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours” this idea in its application to chess began the start of new psychology research in to a new application into athletics.
Many scientists including Swedish psychologist K. Anders Erikson were enthralled with the idea. Erikson believed it could be applied to music and looked to the Music Academy of West Berlin which draws the world’s best violinists. The professors at the school recommended ten of the schools best violinists (those with promise for international success), ten students who were good, and then ten lesser students (those who they expected would become music teachers) to the psychologists for the study. Interviews were then conducted to examine the differences between the thirty music students. The differences that were found between the groups of violinists was that, the top group or the elite violinist spent on average 24.3 hours each week practicing while the lowest group of violinists spent on average 9.3 hours practicing each week.
The psychologist then asked the violin students to estimate the amount of time they had spent practicing since they first began playing. The Psychologists discovered the top group of students had accumulated an average of 7,410 hours by the age of 18, the middle group 5,301 hours compared to the low group who had practiced an average of 3,420 hours. An obvious correlation between practice and success was identified in this study. This left many individuals wondering can one become a professional at anything with enough practice?
Malcolm Gladwell was one of these individuals. In his book Outliers, Gladwell argues for the 10,000 hour rule (10,000 hours is roughly equivalent to ten years). The idea that anyone can become a professional with enough practice, Gladwell points to the success of Bill Gates and The Beatles. But, the success that hard work brings doesn’t stop there, flowing into one more category, sports. David Epstein applies Gladwell’s logic in his book The Sports Gene where he describes one man with the goal of going from an office job to the pros.
When Dan Mclaughlin turned thirty he decided to do something crazy, he decided he was going to become a professional golfer. Though many may scoff at this idea Mclaughlin wanted to prove Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. With the help of a PGA-Certified golf instructor, Mclaughlin has centered his life on the goal of becoming a professional golfer. Mclaughlin is on track to hit 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in 2016, and hopes to make the PGA tour. This will be the first application of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule before the individual has already become pro. The studies that are available today are looking back at individuals that have already become elite at their craft, and compare the amount and magnitude of practicing to support Gladwell’s rule, such as the violinist at the West Berlin Music School. It will be interesting to see when Mclaughlin’s 10,000 hours are up if he is on the PGA tour or far from it.
Though I’m not an elite athlete, Gladwell’s concepts do support the change I have seen over my career in competitive swimming. Thinking back to after the meet in 2007, I realized I needed to change some of my practice habits if I didn’t want to feel like I did after that meet again. An important concept to understand of Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule is that the time spent practicing has to be “meaningful practice”. Meaning you’re engaged in what you are doing, and can reflect on what works and what doesn’t. Mclaughlin describes his meaningful practice as reflecting on his performance with the use of video. Changing the way I practiced and the way I approached failures, I attribute to being extremely influential on my success. Though I haven’t reached 10,000 hours or ten years since I made this switch to meaningful practice, I will hit 10,000 hours when I am a junior in college. But, I don’t believe that changing how I practice was the only reason for this success. My genes and a growth spurt I experienced in later in middle school were also a big factor.
If you would have seen Dennis Rodman now a former NBA player when he was in high school you would never have believed the 5’9” senior would ever outshine his two basketball star sisters. Rodman a basketball player throughout high school usually warmed the bench. He seemed to always be in the shadow of his two more athletic All-American sisters. After graduation Rodman’s genes kicked in and he grew to a lanky 6’8”. Encouraged to try basketball again Rodman tried out for a community college team where he shined until transferring to Oklahoma State. Rodman was eventually drafted for the NBA where he has had much success. In fact in 2011 Rodman was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Genes are obviously an important part of the success story of Dennis Rodman. In a sport like basketball where height is so clearly an advantage, one can assume if Rodman had stayed at 5’9” he would not have become a pro basketball player.
That’s not to say that any 6’8” person is going to become a professional basketball player, but that chance of them going pro is much higher than that of say of a 5’9” person. In David Epsteins book The Sports Gene he breaks down this concept “For a man between six feet and 6’2”, the chance of him currently being in the NBA is five in a million…For a man between 6’10” and seven feet tall, it rises to thirty-two thousand in a million, or 3.2 percent.” For some people good genetics gives them the advantage they need to succeed in athletics.
Part of these advantageous genes are fast twitch muscles or the muscles that super stars like track athletes Usain Bolt and Jesse Owens have in extreme amounts. Fast twitch muscles have the ability to contract at least twice as fast as slow twitch muscles. Fast twitch muscles give an obvious advantage to athletes competing in sprinting events that require fast reaction time. A sprinters calf muscles are composed of 75 percent fast twitch muscles compared to middle distance runners, such as Colombia runner David Epstein, who are about 50 percent fast twitch and 50 percent slow twitch. The long distance runners those who often run the Olympic Marathon calves are composed of nearly 80 percent slow twitch muscles. Some professionals question if an athlete can develop this kind of composition by extensive training in a certain distance.
Athletes according to David Epstein are born naturally predisposed to this and then tend to gravitate to the race their bodies build fits best. Take for example the Danish kayaker studied under physiologist Jesper Andersen at the Institute of Sports Medicine Copenhagen. Andersen found that 90 percent of the muscle in Danish kayaker being studies was slow twitch. The kayaker was always slow to start in his competitions, but could always eventually catch up with the rest of the field. This discovery by Anderson led to a suggestion of a switch of distance, to a longer race. This athlete is now one of the top kayakers in the entire world. Predisposed to have a higher concentration of one kind of muscle some athletes use this genetic advantage on their competition. But, if the genes are not expressed does it matter that the individual even possesses these genes?
To some extent genes are at the mercy of the environment they are in. Genetics can predispose certain individuals to certain desired traits such as being an outlandishly tall basketball player. But, the environments these individuals are in do play a small role in the actual expression of the genes. The environment doesn’t play as big of a role compared to the actual genes but a role none the less in the outcome of the individual. In studies of identical twins the heritability of height to be about 80%. This means that a pair of twins who were placed in different environments such as one that is living in a country experiencing a famine while the other twin is living comfortably in another country will develop differently regardless of what their genetic recipe says. In terms of sport, this idea means that athletes from developed countries do better than those in underdeveloped countries. Epstein expands on this “In World Wars I and II, European children were exposed to brief periods of famine during which their growth ground to a halt.” Can you imagine if athletes like Dennis Rodman had experienced something similar to this and hadn’t experienced the growth spurt that changed the course of his life? Those who experience famine always catch up. Epstein explains how the twin in the famine will catch up to the other when their bodies have the resources to expend on growth. This can potentially provide the advantageous genes to athletes.
A single sports gene doesn’t exist. Although scientists continue to find genes that can be beneficial to athletes in a vast array of sports there is not a certain combination of genetic letters to become an elite athlete. But, there are genes that can predispose some athletes to be taller, or possesses a higher concentration of fast twitch muscles. Champions are not made from only their genetic recipe. Without hours of dedicated practice and training individuals would not be able to achieve the things they did. It takes time to develop into a pro at anything whether it is in athletics or music, success doesn’t come in a snap of fingers but rather hours of dedicated work.
Getting out of the pool on that cool November day 2014, I was glad my mom didn’t let me quit swimming. Thinking about my own experience, the change of how I approached practice, and my change in height supports David Epstein’s thoughts on nature vs nurture in athletes. Though David Epstein doesn’t provide the exact genetic makeup for becoming an elite athlete in his book The Sports Gene, he does shed some light on how when the proper genes and hard work come together the athlete is really unstoppable.