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The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

4.2 17
by David Epstein

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The New York Times bestseller – with a new afterword about early specialization in youth sports.

The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through


The New York Times bestseller – with a new afterword about early specialization in youth sports.

The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training?

In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success and the so-called 10,000-hour rule, David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving it. Through on-the-ground reporting from below the equator and above the Arctic Circle, revealing conversations with leading scientists and Olympic champions, and interviews with athletes who have rare genetic mutations or physical traits, Epstein forces us to rethink the very nature of athleticism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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.”

The Guardian

“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 AschwandenThe 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

Publishers Weekly
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.)
Library Journal
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.

Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.30(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Malcom Gladwell

The New York Times

“Deliciously contrarian.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“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

Meet the Author

David Epstein is an award-winning investigative reporter at ProPublica, and was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He earned All-East honors on Columbia University’s varsity track squad, and has a master’s degree in environmental science.

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The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unless you have no interest in body performance then you should read this book. Parents of children in gym class, golfers, bowlers, gun shooters, dog owners, yes dog owners everyone should read it. I could not put it down. I read it in 2 days in spite of shoveling 7 inches of snow and all day football watching. I then bought a copy for my son in law. Fascinating truths/discoveries between the covers. I will give you one spoiler from the book: I learned from the long distance runner genetic studies that the reason I cannot and never could run any length is because I have too large of calf muscles. Lots of good stuff.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rather than shying away from complexity, this book embraces it. It seems there is nothing in the 10 years that the human genome has been sequenced that you can't find in this book, but all related to sports. I'm not a huge sports fan, but interested in science books. My wife bought this for me, and I thought I might be bored by the sports tales, but I absolutely couldn't put it down. They adventures of the scientists are as compelling as the pro athletes, and the material is so new and accessible, you can't help but walk away feeling smarter. I highly recommend this, even for non-sports fans.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is an amazing combination of accessibility and complexity on a fascinating topic that will sustain many great debates and conversations with friends. Even if you are not on for sports/science topics, the writing style makes the subject matter sing and engenders interest. Kudos.
klezmerbuf More than 1 year ago
The Sports Gene has transformed my thinking, not just of elite sport, but of the fullness and complexity of human striving. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great and very interesting book for anyone interested in sports, human development or geneaology. I loved the stories and learned a lot from reading the book. It seems very well researched and the author approaches the subject from many different angles.
popscipopulizer More than 1 year ago
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, August 20, 2013. What does it take to become an elite athlete? The intuitive answer for most of us is that it probably takes some lucky genes on the one hand, and a whole heck of a lot of hard work on the other. Specifically, that we may need to be blessed with a particular body type to excel at a particular sport or discipline, (after all, elite marathon runners tend to look far different from elite NFL running backs, who in turn tend to look far different from elite swimmers), but that beyond this it is practice and diligence that paves the way to success. When we look at the science, though--as sports writer David Epstein does in his new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance--we find that the story is much more complicated than this. In general terms we find that nature and nurture interact at every step of the way in the development of an elite athlete, and that biology plays far more of a role (and in far more ways) than we may have expected. To begin with, when it comes to physiology, we find that biology does indeed have a large role to play in influencing our height and skeletal structure (as we would expect), but that biology also influences physiology in many other ways that are important when it comes to elite sports. For example, we find that people naturally vary widely in all of the following ways: the size of our heart and lungs, and the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin that pumps through our veins; the specific type of muscle fibers that are most prevalent in our bodies (and the specific number of each); as well as our visual acuity--and again, all of these factors play a significant role in determining just how athletic we will be (and in what sports we will excel). Second, when it comes to training, we find that hard work is not all there is to it. For biology not only shapes our physiology, but also how our physiology responds to training (including how much muscle mass and aerobic capacity we are able to build through exercise). The fact is that we naturally vary widely in just how much we respond to exercise (to the point where some of us improve dramatically through exercise, whereas others of us respond hardly at all). And we also respond differently to different training regimens (to the point where a training regime that works for one person may in fact harm another). And while we may wish to take credit for just how hard we train, here too biology is found to play a role. For it turns out that we differ widely in just how naturally disposed we are to push ourselves. And over and above this, biology also influences how much we experience pain, such that even among those who experience the same desire to push themselves (both in training and in competition), one may find it much easier to handle the pain involved than the other--which, of course, can have a big impact on results. This book is a triumph. I can't imagine it would be possible to cover the topic better than the author has. The science involved is thoroughly researched; the anecdotes are perfectly chosen and add both context and interest (many of them are downright inspirational); and it is all presented in a very clear and thoroughly enjoyable way. Well done Mr. Epstein. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, August 20.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance is an intriguing book for anyone interested in the performance of the human body. This book is not just for athletes. Yes, the stories in this book deal with professional athletes, but their experiences can be related to the average person. Not everyone can relate specifically to the hardship of becoming a professional athlete, but people can relate, in some degree, to the hardship and difficulty of overcoming obstacles. This book makes the bold claim that there is such thing as a sports gene. Many different examples are given about athletes from the past, and some athletes mentioned are fairly recent. This helps give a better perspective on professional athletes today. This book gets very specific on the science behind their claims. This may turn people away, but I believe the author does a great job of keeping the reader attentive as to not get lost behind all of the science mentioned. This is a wonderful book on the high performance of our bodies.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Critical for anyone trying to understand the game of athletics.
KellyLivingston More than 1 year ago
The Great Debate When a new story of an athlete who seemed to do the impossible comes up, the big question to ask is nature versus nurture. Did that athlete train harder and better than everyone else, or were they just lucky enough to have inherited some gene that made them excel above others? In David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene, he explores some of the possible answers. The book is composed of sixteen chapters chalked full of fascinating case studies. One idea brought up in a few chapters was the 10,000 hours rule. Which according to one scientist is the time needed to become an expert in something. Epstein also talks a lot about fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers as they pertain to many sports. Within each chapter there is usually a story or two of athletes that are examples of whatever gene is being focused on. Epstein wrote the book in a way that combines stories with statistics. At times all of the data was overwhelming but for the most part it was spread out in a way that was easy to read. Throughout the chapters when there was a stat that needed explanation there would be a short paragraph about it at the bottom of the page. At the end of the book there is a section dedicated to citations which I found very useful. I found this book to be very insightful. Each chapter was different, yet they all connected somehow. The title of the chapters immediately catch your eye and make you want to read it. I read it in little sections so I wasn’t lost in all of the statistics. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because I related to it so much being an athlete. Many of the sports they referenced I have either competed in or know someone who has which made it personable. The book mainly looked at the best of the best which was especially interesting with the olympics coming up this year. Some of the concepts like the muscle fibers I found to be a bit repetitive but other than that there wasn’t anything I disliked about the book. For those interested in genealogy or athletics at all I would definitely recommend this book. I think everyone can gain something from reading this book. Even if you’re not into athletics but you have a dog you should read it since there's a fascinating chapter on dogs. I would give it a ⅘ stars overall.
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