We all know that even on our best day we are different from super athletes like Serena Williams, Michael Phelps, and Michael Jordan, but is that difference the result of nature or nurture? To answer the question, veteran Sports Illustrated journalist David Epstein queried scientists, athletes, and sports professionals and received, not surprisingly, a wide range of answers; some experts ascribing athletic ability to genetic endowments; others, to the 10,000 practice hours mantra that mentors regularly drill into their charges. The ultimate resolution to this puzzle remains, of course, unlikely, but that doesn't lessen the appeal of this honest, informed exploration. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.
Are Tiger Woods, Jim Ryun, Serena Williams, and Michael Jordan natural athletes whose success in their own sports would have occurred whether they developed their gifts or not? Are some individuals genetically disposed to some sports, while others lack the genetic predisposition to succeed at the same sports? Sports Illustrated senior writer Epstein probes these questions in a disjointed study. Drawing on interviews with athletes and scientists, he points out that “a nation succeeds in a sport not only by having many people who practice prodigiously at sport-specific skills, but also by getting the best all-around athletes into the right sports in the first place.” Epstein observes that some scientists and athletes confirm that the so-called 10,000 hours of practice produces quality athletes, while others assert that the number of hours spent in practice matters little if a team has not already selected superior athletes in the first place. Epstein comes closest to scoring a home run in his provocative and thoughtful focus on the relationships between gender and race and genetic determination—why do male and female athletes compete separately, and are there genetic reasons to do so? and why do the best sprinters always come from Jamaica and so many long-distance Olympian runners hail from Kenya? While he helpfully leads readers into the dugout of modern genetics and sports science, his overall conclusions challenge few assumptions. In the end, he concedes that “any case for sports expertise that leans entirely either on nature or nurture is a straw-man argument.” Agent: Scott Waxman, Waxman Leavell Literary. (Sept.)
“I can’t remember a book that has fascinated, educated—and provoked—me as much as The Sports Gene. Epstein has changed forever the way we measure elite athletes and their achievements.”—Malcom Gladwell
“Clear, vivid, and thought-provoking writing that cuts through science anxiety for rank-and-file sports fans.”
—Bonnie Ford, Senior Writer, ESPN
“Many researchers and writers are reluctant to tackle genetic issues because they fear the quicksand of racial and ethnic stereotyping. To his credit, Epstein does not flinch.”
—The Washington Post
“Epstein’s rigour in seeking answers and insights is as impressive as the air miles he must have accumulated . . . his book is dazzling and illuminating.”
“Few will put down this deliciously contrarian exploration of great athletic feats.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“The narrative follows Mr. Epstein’s search for the roots of elite sport performance as he encounters characters and stories so engrossing that readers may not realize they’re receiving an advanced course in genetics, physiology, and sports medicine.”
—Christie Aschwanden, The New York Times
“An important book . . . The Sports Gene is bound to put the cat among the pigeons in the blank-slate crowd who think that we can all be equal as long as we equalize environmental inputs such as practice.”
—Michael Shermer, The Wall Street Journal
“This is the book I’ve been waiting for since the early 1960s. I can’t imagine that anyone interested in sports—particularly the fascinating question, ‘How do the best athletes become the best?’—will be any less enthralled than I.”
—Amby Burfoot, (1968 Boston Marathon Champion), Runner's World
“A must-read for athletes, parents, coaches, and anyone who wants to know what it takes to be great.”
—George Dohrmann, author of Play Their Hearts Out
Epstein (senior writer, Sports Illustrated) presents a fascinating account of the latest discoveries in sports science. His conclusions are uncertain, however. He spends the bulk of the book focusing on genetic and anatomical differences in humans, and how these differences seem to help in making individuals, and groups of individuals, particularly skilled at certain sports. The evidence he presents thus leans heavily in favor of nature being the primary factor in the formation of athletes. Yet, he opens and closes his book by stating that nature and nurture are inseparable when it comes to the question of athletic performance. That is, training your body to do an activity is as important as having the raw ability to do that activity. From this, readers may understandably conclude that Epstein is suggesting one thing while stating another. Nonetheless, he should be commended for the clear and unbiased manner in which he presents his information, not in itself an easy task, especially when tackling controversial issues such as gender and race differences in athletic performance.
Verdict Fuzzy conclusions aside, this book is essential reading for sports fans interested in the science of sports, and for readers (not scholars) interested in the science of human differences.Derek Sanderson, Mount Saint Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
What makes a great athlete? Being born with talent was the traditional answer, but like so many traditions, it is under attack. In his first book, Sports Illustrated senior writer Epstein makes no secret of his debt to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (2008), in which the author famously argued that success owes less to inherited ability (i.e., genes) than to intense practice and circumstance (i.e., luck). While agreeing with many critics that Gladwell oversimplifies, Epstein admits that he is on to something and proceeds to apply Gladwell's approach (many scientific studies and entertaining anecdotes; lucid, accessible prose) to athletic prowess. Genes definitely contribute to great performance. Jumpers benefit if born with a longer, stiffer Achilles tendon. Baseball players have superior visual acuity, and major leaguers see better than minor leaguers. Practice definitely helps, but, ironically, the ability to benefit from training is partly inherited, as is the will to train obsessively. However, even the most dedicated athlete is out of luck without genes that produce the right body type. Africans have longer legs and slimmer hips, allowing them to run faster. Caucasians are stockier, with thicker, stronger upper bodies. Of the 81 men who have run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, 80 are black, but sub-Saharan Africans have never won an Olympic weight-lifting medal. Epstein turns up no single sports gene. Hundreds exist, and researchers are nowhere near understanding their interactions. They seem more essential (but still not sufficient) for physical than intellectual achievement. Readers may feel overwhelmed at Epstein's avalanche of genetic and physiological studies, but few will put down this deliciously contrarian exploration of great athletic feats.