Are great athletes born or made?


In this June 9, 1996 file photo Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan stands during a break at the end of an NBA Basketball game against the Seattle SuperSonics in Seattle. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser, File)

First aired on Q (02/09/13)

What makes an athlete great? Is it in their DNA or is it training that gives them a competitive edge? Q recently talked to Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein about his new book The Sports Gene, a look at what science tells us about athletic excellence.

Is there literally a sports gene? "There are absolutely sports genes, and there are two instances in the book where I write about single genes, rare versions of which have a huge impact on someone's athleticism," Epstein said. But he went on to say that rather than referring to specific genes, the book's title is a metaphor for "a group of traits that allows them to master a certain skill."


There's a popular notion that anyone can achieve success in any field as long as they put in 10,000 hours of training. This idea that "if only we put in enough hard work, we all can be anything" is viewed as "a positive social message." But in his book, Epstein points out that the "10,000 hour rule" is a myth. "It came from a study of 30 violinists who were so highly pre-screened they had already gained admission into a world-famous music academy," he said. Moreover, because the study averaged the group's number of practice hours, individual differences were obscured.

Epstein pointed out that training, not natural ability, is involved in certain skills. "Scientists have shown how critically important particular kinds of practice are to mastering perceptual skills like intercepting a speeding object that baseball players and hockey players use," he said. "Nobody just falls out of the sky and is able to do that. Nobody."

But innate ability can be a factor in how quickly someone can develop skills. Epstein described looking at older studies in sports science in which talent was defined "as prowess that precedes the opportunity to train." But studies in the newer field of exercise genetics shows that "a more important kind of talent in many cases is your genetic set-up that allows you to profit from training more rapidly than the next guy," Epstein explained. That "trainability" is regarded as the most important kind of talent.

Countries like China have groomed athletes for specific sports from a young age, after determining what they are likely to excel at. Epstein acknowledges this might increase a country's medal count at the Olympics, but "it's really not necessarily supported by the science and certainly not maybe good for that person's personal and athletic development." He pointed out that "for most sports, the path that elites follow is they have an early sampling period" in which they are exposed to a range of sports, and "they don't specialize until their mid or late teen years." As an example, he cited Steve Nash, who grew up wanting to be a soccer player and didn't start basketball until the age of 13.

"One of the differences between elite athletes and novice athletics is basically that they can unconsciously pick up on cues that allow them to see what's going to happen before it happens," Epstein said. "Their reflexes are no faster. That was something I was totally surprised by."

Perceptual skills are developed through practice, but genetic factors can also play a role in athletic performance. Every man who has been in an Olympic 100-metre final since 1980, no matter what their nationality, "has their ancestry in a tiny swath in the coast of West Africa." On average, they have long legs proportional to their body size, and more fast-twitch muscle fibres). 

When asked how important focus and passion are to success in sport, Epstein said that both training and genes matter. "And the higher the level you compete at, the more you need all of those ingredients, the talent, the motivation, everything like that," he said. "One of the biggest surprises to me in researching the book was the fact that scientists who study the biology of motivation know that the dopamine system, the pleasure and reward system of the brain, can be involved in a person's drive to be physically active or their drive to train."

When it comes to genetic testing, we already have the ability to test for the ACTN3 gene, which "codes for a protein only found in fast-twitch or explosive muscle fibres," Epstein said. Sprinters need at least one version of the gene, but Epstein says that the test is not that useful because only a very small percentage of people lack the gene. "The kind of genetic testing I think that is useful now is testing for things like the APOE e4 gene variant, a version of which we know predisposes people who get concussions in football or in hockey to having permanent brain damage. They're just at higher at risk than their peers are," he said. "And that's the kind of testing I'm actually frustrated we're not seeing in more use, because that might help some people make decisions about their health."

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