What role does genetics play in the success of athletes competing at the highest levels? Well, it’s complicated.
David Epstein's book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance just came out in hardcover from Current and is available on Kindle soon.
My own research interests include the non-deliberative dynamics of human interaction (currently in the context of affect theory as it relates to non-critical modes of interpretation in theatrical contexts—nerd alert). The excerpt from The Sports Gene published at SI.com fascinated me for its familiar human dynamics in a less-familiar context. Epstein’s questions arise from documented—and sometimes delightfully obscure—cases in sports past and present: Why can’t MLB superstars hit Jennie Finch? (They’re not even close.) How much do reaction times have to do with athletic talent? (Almost zero.) Are Jamaican sprinters (see Bolt, Usain), Kenyan distance runners, and NBA 7-footers genetic freaks with innate advantages? Well, it’s complicated.
The better we understand human genetics, the more difficult it gets to pinpoint genes for speed, height, eyesight, and the trademark attributes typically advantageous to athletes. Furthermore, thenurture component of athletic talent is as much a part of Epstein’s research if not the book’s marketing. How much part does training play? How much part does environment play? Epstein is persuasive that genes can make a defining difference, but we can’t just breed superheroes. The book is absolutely worth reading for this balanced consideration alone, and not just as it applies to sports. Here are a further few reflective take-aways:
1. Epstein’s perspective is the naturalist one. It’s a good perspective to keep hearing and it’s pushing the bounds of science in important ways. Epstein has no expressed construct of the soul. What is in the soul and not in the genes that could affect success in athletics, or arts or politics for that matter? Souls are unique like bodies are unique; is anyone who isn’t a motivational speaker writing on the ‘heart’ that makes the champion? As genetic science and training science get more sophisticated, I suspect naturalist answers will get more and more complicated, with a diminishing return of insight.
2. There is a rush to diagnose and understand people through laboratories. This has validity and is often prudent, but as with #1, how much can we really know about ourselves just by screening and tests? The ancients would have mixed responses. Epstein delightfully complicates cases like Jamaican sprinters and Kenyan distance runners. The proof may be in the pudding, but we still aren’t sure just what the pudding is made of.
3. The most practical take-away has to do with formation of habits and discipline in practice:
a. Epstein includes studies of chess players and musicians to elaborate on traits of masters across specialties, and the evidence seems telling: Those who diversify their interests early in life generally have an advantage as they specialize and dedicate themselves to one thing later on. Children who play lots of sports or try to learn lots of things are better-positioned for general and particular success. Outside elite contexts, the cult of the diverse amateur is alive and well. And those who are pigeon-holed into specializing at young ages frequently hit the dreaded plateaus that limit their progress to the elite levels. (Bolt’s early preferences for cricket and soccer, and Steve Nash’s first loves for hockey and soccer are not unusual backgrounds for athletes who excel at something still different.)
b. Complimentarily, those who dedicate themselves before adulthood to extensive private practice have a major edge in learning both the physical and mental skills that transfer to excellence. The best athletes (and artists, writers, scientists, etc.) learn young that there’s no substitute for self-driven practice, and that advantage is one that can’t be put back later in life. As I think of my own new students that I will meet in a matter of days, it’s a practical reality that, at 18, they are nearly hard-wired as who they are, and learning and change from this point forward will be difficult—and perhaps inevitably limited. But if ever there is a time to form habits of dedicating every day’s best four hours to private development and study, it’s now. And if not now, perhaps never.
Coming full circle, it turns out that Albert Pujols can’t hit Jennie Finch’s 65mph pitches because his skill set is so precisely trained to recognize baseball pitches and respond in milliseconds that he can’t think and then react fast enough to execute adjustments to an underhand softball. Nobody could. Athletes develop extensive skill sets that functionaffectively, or outside their cognizant engagement. The clumps of information they can process are situational, and borderline instinctive, but these kinds of collective skills are largely developed more than genetic. Graham Ward points to the same human dynamic, these “spheres that are prior to our will to act,” as a context for the soul’s embodiment where sanctification also comes into play. Such transformation is the work of long and deliberate focus. The impact of such affections penetrates human emotions and physiologies in ways that are, like genetics, increasingly complex under scrutiny, but nevertheless worthy of further consideration, and athletics is a rewarding context for such study. Epstein’s book is a delightful read in its own right, but also provocative of greater questions about what it means to be human, perhaps more than even he himself realizes.
Fr Micah Snell is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews' Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. He teaches at the Houston Baptist University Honors College where he is also Director of Writing. You too can join the very exclusive cadre of his Twitter followers: @Patered.
 Our thanks to Brittany Wienke and the folks at the Penguin Group for an advance electronic copy.