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am 13. August 2013
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, August 20, 2013.
What does it take to become an elite athlete? The intuitive answer for most of us is that it probably takes some lucky genes on the one hand, and a whole heck of a lot of hard work on the other. Specifically, that we may need to be blessed with a particular body type to excel at a particular sport or discipline (after all, elite marathon runners tend to look far different from elite NFL running backs, who in turn tend to look far different from elite swimmers), but that beyond this it is practice and diligence that paves the way to success. When we look at the science, though--as sports writer David Epstein does in his new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance--we find that the story is much more complicated than this. In general terms we find that nature and nurture interact at every step of the way in the development of an elite athlete, and that biology plays far more of a role (and in far more ways) than we may have expected.
To begin with, when it comes to physiology, we find that biology does indeed have a large role to play in influencing our height and skeletal structure (as we would expect), but that biology also influences physiology in many other ways that are important when it comes to elite sports. For example, we find that people naturally vary widely in all of the following ways: the size of our heart and lungs, and the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin that pumps through our veins; the specific type of muscle fibers that are most prevalent in our bodies (and the specific number of each); as well as our visual acuity--and again, all of these factors play a significant role in determining just how athletic we will be (and in what sports we will excel).
Second, when it comes to training, we find that hard work is not all there is to it. For biology not only shapes our physiology, but also how our physiology responds to training (including how much muscle mass and aerobic capacity we are able to build through exercise). The fact is that we naturally vary widely in just how much we respond to exercise (to the point where some of us improve dramatically through exercise, whereas others of us respond hardly at all). And we also respond differently to different training regimens (to the point where a training regime that works for one person may in fact harm another).
And while we may wish to take credit for just how hard we train, here too biology is found to play a role. For it turns out that we differ widely in just how naturally disposed we are to push ourselves. And over and above this, biology also influences how much we experience pain, such that even among those who experience the same desire to push themselves (both in training and in competition), one may find it much easier to handle the pain involved than the other--which, of course, can have a big impact on results.
And speaking of pain, our biology even influences how easily we injure and how well we recover from our injuries--which, once again, has a significant impact on performance.
As an added bonus, Epstein not only covers which biological factors have an impact on sports performance, but the evolutionary story of these biological factors (including why different populations that have adapted to different environments have come to acquire traits that make them well-disposed to different sports and disciplines [for example, why many elite marathoners have origins in East Africa, many elite sprinters have origins in West Africa, and many elite swimmers and weight-lifters have origins in Europe]).
In short, then, biology plays much more of a role in elite athletic performance that we may have realized. Not that the point of the book is to say that athletic performance is all in our genes. Just the contrary, as mentioned above the book makes the point that genes always interact with the environment to produce athletic outcomes. Genes are essential in shaping the athlete, but just as essential is the athlete's upbringing and culture, and that they do in fact get the training that is needed to make the most of their natural talents.
This book is a triumph. I can't imagine it would be possible to cover the topic better than the author has. The science involved is thoroughly researched; the anecdotes are perfectly chosen and add both context and interest (many of them are downright inspirational); and it is all presented in a very clear and thoroughly enjoyable way. Well done Mr. Epstein. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, August 20; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.