The Sports Gene

Are elite athletes born that way or made that way through training? Or does that question present a false dichotomy? In The Sports Gene, David Epstein attempts to answer these questions in a very entertaining and readable way.

I thought one of the most interesting facts presented in this book is that there hasn’t been a white cornerback in the NFL (the position that demands the crème de la crème of speedy athletes) in over a decade. This is not to say that a white person cannot be speedy enough to be a corner in the NFL, because they certainly can. However, when it comes to natural sprinting prowess, the distribution of athletes with European heritage looks different than the distribution of athletes with West African heritage for reasons that can be attributed to genetics and evolution.

Epstein never explicitly puts it this way, but I hypothesize that the right tail of the distribution for those with West African heritage is fatter than the right tail for those with European heritage. For some reason, though, it has become controversial to even scientifically hypothesize about genetic differences in different ethnic groups because most people immediately assume (incorrectly I might add) that natural athletic prowess must come at the expense of natural intellectual abilities.

Another interesting fact I gleaned from this book is the following: “the CDC’s data suggest that of American men ages twenty to forty who stand seven feet tall, a startling 17 percent of them are in the NBA right now. Find six honest seven-footers, and one will be in the NBA.”  However, it turns out that height alone isn’t necessarily the best predictor of success in basketball, although not being at least well over 6 ft. is a severe disadvantage that can only be overcome with something like a superhuman ability to jump (think Muggsy Bogues). The wingspan ratio to height is actually very important in basketball and certain Moneyball-esque managers/coaches are already on to this idea.

Another interesting idea from this book — one that most athletes already understand anecdotally — is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” training plan for athletes. We all respond to different training stressors in different ways based on genetic factors.

No matter what your initial answers to those two questions I initially posed are, this book is an excellent read if you’re at all interested in athletics or genetics. There will surely be something in this book that will both surprise and delight you. Read it and then get busy training!

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