The Sports Gene

A look at the nature vs. nuture debate through the lens of David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene.

By on August 23, 2013 | 16 comments

AJWs TaproomI just finished reading David Epstein’s The Sports Gene and found it both informative and compelling. At first glance, this tidy little book written by one of Sports Illustrated’s up-and-coming writers is a thoughtful alternative to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and a post-modern, scientific examination of the age-old nature/nurture debate.

Much of the argument Epstein makes suggests that talent and hard work are both necessary in the pursuit of athletic success and that predicting success is as complex now, even with technological advances, as it’s ever been. Indeed, Epstein deliberately points out that the scientific data suggest that one cannot easily use present outcomes as an appropriate measuring stick for future success nor can one extrapolate results based on circumstances, genetic or otherwise.

With respect to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” made popular in Gladwell’s Outliers and discussed here in a previous column, Epstein is not convinced that it holds water. While he acknowledges the fact that deliberate practice, discipline, and focus are essential to success in a wide range of sports, he also cites numerous examples, most notably the infamous lackadaisical training regimen of Jamaican sprinting star Usain Bolt, where the “10,000 Hour Rule” falls short. It’s a compelling position he takes and one that tends to lean toward nature over nurture.

That is, until, what I consider to be the best chapter in the book, “The Talent of Trainability.” In that section, Epstein cites examples as disparate as Jim Ryun, a bunch of undertrained Europeans on stationary bikes, and his own Columbia University track team to lay the groundwork for an argument that genetics play a part not only in the product of our labors but also in our ability to actively and successfully engage in the process. Inasmuch as there are important indicators like Vo2Max and blood volume that can be measured in a lab, there are other, softer metrics, that can be equally, if not more, important. The Talent of Trainability, Epstein suggests, has as much to do with motivation, grit, persistence, response to setbacks, and willingness to take risks as it does to those genetic gifts we envy in the .1% of the population blessed with the abilities of the Bolts, Jornets, and Carpenters.

And that, my friends, is more than enough to get me and my paltry 62 Vo2Max out the door tomorrow to get after it. :)

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Twin Lakes Brewing - Greenville Pale AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Twin Lakes Brewing in Greenville, Delaware. Their Greenville Pale Ale is a classic American Pale Ale in the Sierra Nevada tradition that is made locally on their 242-acre farm in rural Delaware using sustainable methods and all organic ingredients. Available only in Pennsylvania and Delaware, this is a beer worth seeking out if you’re in the area.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What’s your take on the nature vs. nuture debate in trail running and ultrarunning?
  • On the nature side, how important is the Talent of Trainability?
  • If you’ve read Epstein’s book, what did you think?
Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.