SI writer David Epstein has written a wonderful book, subtitled “Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” that combines two of my favorite subjects – (1) sports and (2) nature vs. nurture. Although his conclusion that both nature and nurture play significant roles may seem evasive, his insights and analysis of the roles that each plays is so persuasive that the reader feels enlightened.
Several of the topics in The Sports Gene have been discussed in the immensely popular book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, but Epstein’s treatment of them is better reasoned. For example, Gladwell argued that being tall was an advantage for NBA players only to a point, perhaps 6’6”, while Epstein credibly showed that the NBA will find a place for almost any 7 footer who can walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time.
Both Gladwell and Epstein spend a lot of words on the so-called “10,000 hour rule.” The rule is based on a 1993 scientific paper titled, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Apparently, 10,000 hours of practice is often correlated with reaching the top of a skill. Please note the term, “deliberate.” Mindlessly hitting golf balls will not create a professional.
Epstein started his book with a discussion of a subject that I found fascinating – i.e., reaction time. In the context of a baseball hitter, most people think that the greatest batters must have superlative reaction times, but studies have shown that they do not. Most people, in fact, have similar reaction times – 150 milliseconds to blink your eye when a light is shined in your face. What great batters are able to do is figure out what the ball is going to do based on experience in knowing the pitcher and in observing the pitcher’s motion and the rotation of the ball. That is where the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice comes in. This also explains why a major leaguer can’t hit a pitch coming from an underhanded girl even though he has slightly more time and a bigger ball to contend with her pitch.
The second most fascinating subject in the book is called “The Talent of Trainability.” According to numerous studies, some people respond to running training with great improvement, others with moderate improvement, and still others will see almost no improvement. This is obviously genetically based. I loved this story, not only because it focused on my favorite track athlete of all time, Kansas miler Jim Ryan, but also because it explained why I was never able to break 40 minutes in a 10k, even though my trainer suggested that I trained more than hard enough to achieve that goal.
Another fascinating discussion concerns the role of height in basketball, and even more so the wingspan. That is one of the many reasons for African-American success – i.e., they tend to have longer arms and legs. As one wag suggested, it’s not that white men can’t jump, it’s that they can’t reach.
The list of interesting subjects goes on – e.g., why Kenyans can run long distances, why Jamaicans can run so fast, why some young athletes fall over dead. For anyone interested in the latest science on nature vs. nuture, this is the place to find it.