Friday, September 11, 2015

Lessons from The Sports Gene

I recently read the New York Times Bestseller, The Sports Gene, by David Epstein and wanted to share a few thoughts.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in high level sports performance.  The book is well written and filled with fascinating stories.  It delves into the medical side of genes (hence, the title) with a bit of science which may not be enjoyable for everyone.  Each of the 16 chapters addressed a different aspect of sports performance with a specific look to nature vs nurture.  From perceptual skills to visual acuity, to response to training, among many others.  But don't expect answers or recommendations as this field continues to evolve.

One theme throughout the book is assessing the science of the 10,000 hour rule as set for by Ericsson, et al.  While this is a huge topic, I took away a few thoughts.  No matter the genetic 'advantages' some may possess, practice and hard work are essential to athletic success.  An assessment of almost every high level athlete reveals an incredible commitment to their sport.  Chapter 2 is the story of an exception to this rule- Donald Thomas who became a world class high jumper with almost no practice.  His story is amazing but incredibly rare.  Most of the book reveals that athletic success at the highest level is only possible with an many, many hours of practice.  But genetic gifts such as body type, achilles tendon stiffness, vision, trainability among many others may allow those with a practice commitment even greater success.  And there clearly is no magic threshold for 10,000 hours of practice.  It was an average of many subjects in a study of musical success.  Practice in sports is key for success but there is no evidence to support the 10,000 hour 'rule' in sports.

Another take away point- especially pertinent to those of us caring for young athletes- is the concept of early sports specialization.  We, as physicians, have seen a trend of kids committing to one sport early and playing that sports year around.  We believe that such specialization has led to an increasing number of injuries as well as a different type of injuries (similar to those seen in older athletes).  Epstein makes several interesting points based around the following concept: near elite athletes invest more hours of practice compared to elite athletes until the mid- teen years.  At that point, the hours invested by the elite athlete increases.
1) Elite athletes may simply be gifted and not need that additional early practice
2) Future elite athletes may decrease their practice commitment in the midteen years in response to the realities of their sport or the affect of body changes (puberty).
3) Early specialization may actually be harmful to some athletes  (i.e., the near- elite) leading to a teenage decreased performance (the speed plateau in track athletes is one example)
4) Early specialization clearly decreases the opportunity to experiment with other sports that may actually offer a better chance of success.  Steven Nash, one example, played soccer primarily and only later switched to basketball.  

There are many, many other interesting stories and science facts throughout the book.  I recommend it highly.

Charles A. Goldfarb, MD
My Bio at Washington University

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