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The Sports Gene

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Here are five takeaways from David Epstein's The Sports Gene.

A few weeks ago I finished reading David Epstein's The Sports Gene. The book came highly recommend and I was not disappointed. The author, David Epstein, was searching for whether or not a Sports Gene existed in any form. More specifically he was looking at, "How specifically, might nature and nurture be at work" in the world's most elite athletes.

There were a number of topics introduced by Epstein that were highly intriguing. He approaches a number of topics and their roles in this balance. Among the topics he discusses are the roles of; gender, ethnicity, history, culture, sport-specific training, innate ability, physical features, and the role of evolution in human beings. Epstein's presentation of his research is something that can be enjoyed by any fan of sporting events. As a coach, there were a number of things that I highlighted as I read. Here are five coaching takeaways that I got from The Sports Gene.

Takeaway #1: Culture Matters

One of the most fascinating chapters in The Sports Gene focuses on the remarkable success of Jamaican sprinters on the world stage. A good chunk of the chapter is spent on the genetics of the Jamaican people. However, Epstein also highlights an incredible culture that has been built, from a young age, around achieving success on the track.

This made me think about how that kind of culture must be built in the most successful programs around us. Within those programs, there exists a basketball culture that is present from a young age. They are indoctrinated into the sport from an early age, and in the long run, the best ones will stick around. If you can get the best athletes to stick around in your sport, and then get them to undergo (and survive) rigorous training - champions can emerge.

Takeaway #2: Learned Perception

One of my favorite studies in the book was one that was done with Volleyball players. The concept was to show a sample group of non-volleyball players and a sample of volleyball players a number of pictures.

They would show them a number of snapshots of volleyball pictures at a rapid speed. Then upon the presentation of the picture ask them if the ball was present or not. In the end, the volleyball players recognized whether the ball was present or not at a much higher rate. They were able to do this through the recognition of body positioning, or as Epstein explained it, "the chunking of sport-specific information".

In Basketball terms this made me think about how we are teaching our own players the game. Are we presenting them with recognizable situations enough so that they are better able to predict what is about to happen based on simple clues? A good question to ask would be, "are we doing enough to improve their perception of the game?"

Takeaway #3: Practice Matters

This most certainly was an argument for the environment camp. Epstein discussed the concept of "deliberate practice" - he concluded that sports-specific skills are only gained in one way. The now commonly known "10,000 Hours Rule" was discussed at length. What Epstein presented was that "10,000 Hours" is an average, and differences in ability make shorten or lengthen the time needed for mastery. One agreed point however was that sport-specific "deliberate practice" is a necessary part of high achievement.

In basketball terms there are a ton of scenarios in which players must make split-second decisions; judging the body positioning of a defender, deciding whether or pass or shoot, anticipating an offensive rebound direction, etc. These are skills (or decisions) that we are not born with, they must be developed through play. So putting ourselves in these situations repeatedly, reflecting on mistakes, and then correcting those errors is the only way to move from "amateur to expert". This must be done with deliberate practice.

Takeaway #4: Training Limitations

The HERITAGE study was one of the most interesting studies presented in the book. Taking a number of families and conducting a physical fitness study, they wanted to know whether or not a number of aerobic fitness data points would be improved with a consistent workout regiment.

What they found was that 15% improved "minimally" but 15% also improved "dramatically", by up to about 50%. All the study members were given the exact same training regiment, yet there were such varied results in the improvement of the group. One of the conclusions was that people responded much differently to rigorous training. What the researchers found was that families "stuck together", meaning family members had similar levels of improvement. Those levels of improvement of course varied greatly from family to family. Without getting too bogged down in the details of the results - the conclusion was that one's genetics had a large role in determining how one responds to training.

This made me think about the concept of conditioning and how there might be players who simply do not respond to the number of "suicides" or sprints that a coach might order. Perhaps if a month into the season we have players who continually finish near the back of the pack in these exercises- it may not be that they are chronically, "out of shape" but that there might be a deeper explanation to it. I also thought of the way in which coaches tend to approach the weight room. Although weight room logistics are usually an issue for most programs perhaps a "one size fits all" regiment is not optimal for maximum improvement.

Takeaway #5: The Connection between Deliberate Practice & Intrinsic Motivation

We have mentioned the term deliberate practice before, but I felt as though its inclusion a second time was worth it. According to Epstein, it is, "the kind of effortful exercise that strains(s) the capacity of the trainee". Often times this will have to be something that is introduced to the athlete by another, perhaps it is by a coach or even another higher level athlete. This needs to be training that pushes the athlete to their current limitations in order to see results. Epstein echoes that "deliberate practice" must involve an athlete's reflection on their performance as an element of their training.

Epstein's inclusion that it is, "the kind of practice that is often done in solitude" also stuck out to me. There seems to be an inescapable presence of intrinsic motivation that is present in nearly all elite athletes. They do not simply accept the training, but they crave it. When there are not coaches present - they create their own version of "deliberate training". It would seem to be impossible to become elite at your specific craft without that type of motivation is present in your psyche.

Concluding Thoughts

I would highly recommend The Sports Gene to not only coaches but for anyone who might be curious about the origin of elite athletic achievement. These are only a few of the discussion points that Epstein embarks upon, and there are quite a few more that pique the curious mind.

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