The Sports Gene: Inside The Science Of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

Hardcover | August 1, 2013

byDavid Epstein

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Now a New York Times Bestseller! With a new chapter added to the paperback. 

In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?

We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they?

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?
The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research.

In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence.

Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components.

This subject necessarily involves digging deep into sensitive topics like race and gender. Epstein explores controversial questions such as:
  • Are black athletes genetically predetermined to dominate both sprinting and distance running, and are their abilities influenced by Africa’s geography?
  • Are there genetic reasons to separate male and female athletes in competition?
  • Should we test the genes of young children to determine if they are destined for stardom?
  • Can genetic testing determine who is at risk of injury, brain damage, or even death on the field?
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.

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From the Publisher

Now a New York Times Bestseller! With a new chapter added to the paperback. In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them fro...

David Epstein has a master’s degree in environmental science and is an award-winning senior writer for Sports Illustrated, where he covers sports science, medicine, and Olympic sports. His investigative pieces are among Sports Illustrated's most high-profile stories. An avid runner himself, he earned All-East honors on Columbia Univers...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:352 pages, 9.25 × 6.4 × 1.1 inPublished:August 1, 2013Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1591845114

ISBN - 13:9781591845119

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Best Books of 2013


Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating Look into Sports and Genes! Fascinating look into the nature versus nurture argument in the production of elite athletes. Yes, passion for a sport, conducive local environment plus the 10,000 hours of practice rule help in athletic excellence but genetics and body-types are key to becoming an elite athlete. Enjoyable quick read. This book could easily have been expanded to include more insights into soccer and F1 racers fitness and genetic uniqueness.
Date published: 2015-08-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A look at nature and nurture applied to sports Contrary to the title, there isn't one gene that makes you great at all sports, but there are genes that can make you better at specific sports. So really, this is a book that goes over the genetics of successful people in every sport, from sprinting to dog sledding. With that said, it isn't a book that says only genes matter, it also looks in how the way Kenyans grow up and the opportunity of distance running plays into their success at that sport. Overall it seems to be a balanced picture at what makes successful athletes. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Date published: 2015-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating! An excellent response to the 10,000 hr rule from the outliers. An interesting read for anyone interested in what it takes to be at the top of their sport. Great research , well written.
Date published: 2014-11-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating, even for casual athletes If you're even a casual athlete or weekend warrior, you'll be fascinated by this study of how different athletes of varying backgrounds and echelons of performance respond to different types of training. There's a lot more to Kenyan running success than altitude, for example, but altitude training does help, and it helps some Kenyan runners far more than others. The book surfaces big questions like, what's professional sport supposed to do with people whose natural physiology trips blood-doping tests? Human beings are really, really complex organisms, and sport pushes our limits in really interesting ways. I still think about this book when I'm out for a run.
Date published: 2014-11-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Sports Gene Insightful. I'll never look at training the same way again.
Date published: 2014-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Sports Gene. Will Written and well Researched. Learned a lot of insight into not only Athletes but groups of people. Highly Recommend this Book!
Date published: 2014-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must read for coaches Incredibly well researched book, and thoroughly enjoyable to read. It had me rethinking much of what I had previously thought concerning what it takes to be a good athlete
Date published: 2014-07-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Really fascinating read I really enjoyed this book. Doing it all fascinating... Love the genetics aspect, but also the research that it backs it up.
Date published: 2014-02-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Analyst This book opened my mind to the complicated interplay genetics have in sports. It challenges stereotyping and generalizing, and ultimately the bias we bring into our understanding of people and their abilities. The book is nuanced, which is a fair way to assess the topic.
Date published: 2014-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sports Gene Great book. Highly interesting and thought provoking. A must read for anyone interested in the Science of Sport
Date published: 2013-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Brief Summary and Review *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. And speaking of pain, our biology even influences how easily we injure and how well we recover from our injuries--which, once again, has a significant impact on performance. As an added bonus, Epstein not only covers which biological factors have an impact on sports performance, but the evolutionary story of these biological factors (including why different populations that have adapted to different environments have come to acquire traits that make them well-disposed to different sports and disciplines [for example, why many elite marathoners have origins in East Africa, many elite sprinters have origins in West Africa, and many elite swimmers and weight-lifters have origins in Europe]). In short, then, biology plays much more of a role in elite athletic performance that we may have realized. Not that the point of the book is to say that athletic performance is all in our genes. Just the contrary, as mentioned above the book makes the point that genes always interact with the environment to produce athletic outcomes. Genes are essential in shaping the athlete, but just as essential is the athlete's upbringing and culture, and that they do in fact get the training that is needed to make the most of their natural talents. 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; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.
Date published: 2013-08-13

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Editorial Reviews

“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 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