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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

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...
Published 13 months ago by A. D. Thibeault

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3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Very good, but a little heavy going at times
Published 2 months ago by bob the pigman


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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, 13 Aug 2013
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

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 than elite NFL running backs, who in turn tend to look far different than 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 genetics not only has a large role to play in influencing our height and skeletal structure (as we would expect), but that genes also influence 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 genetics 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 well for one person may in fact harm another).

And while we may wish to take credit for just how hard we train, here too genetics 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, genes also influence 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 genes even influence 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 behind 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 is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nature and Nurture - obvious? Fascinating fresh view., 26 May 2014
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M. Hillmann "miles" (leicester, england) - See all my reviews
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The 10,000 hour rule, which emphasises the importance of practice and training in achieving world class sporting success, was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell and Mathew Sayid in “Bounce”. In this meticulously researched book written in a compulsive story telling style, Epstein argues that the studies undertaken by K. Anders Ericsson – the so-called father of the 10,000 hour rule – do not address the existence of genetically based talent because their work begins with subjects of high achievement in music or sports. When most of humanity has already been screened out of a study before it begins, the study has nothing to say about the existence or non existence of innate talent.
Trelawny is a tiny parish in north west Jamaica. Sprinters and jumpers from Trelawny won 8 medals at the Beijing Olympics – more than entire countries won the in the entire Olympics. 32 marathon runners from the Kalenjin tribe in Kenya ran a sub 2hours10 minute marathon in one month in October 2011. Only 17 Americans in history have run sub 2.10. This is convincing evidence of the existence of the sports gene. Epstein looks, in some detail, at the genetic exceptions that these Jamaican and Kalenjin populations exhibit – the ACTN3 “sprint gene” prevalent among Jamaican people and the genetic make up of Kalenjin that gives them a particular linear build with narrow hips, and long , thin limbs.

But Epstein does not ignore the cultural and environmental factors. For example, the immense popularity of athletics and its passport to fame and fortune among impoverished west Indians, or kids running long distances to school at altitude in Kenya, and again the route out of poverty that athletic success can provide.

The book is full of fascinating investigations of specific sporting success including breeding huskies to win the Iditerod sledge race across Alaska. It also raises some serious concerns. Gene doping is already used in medicine to cure muscle-wasting diseases, such as myostatin inhibitors prescribed for muscular dystrophy. Myostatin-based treatments, amending the genetic expression of strength attributes, would be undetectable in a way that steroid doping is not. The gene doping era may already be here and we do not know it.

A compulsive, authoritative book that would appeal to more than just the sports junky.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting if depressing, 22 Feb 2014
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Tanda (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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Interesting book though the conclusion that genes count for a great deal in a vast range of sports is a bit depressing. One criticism is that is a little repetitive and reads more like a compilation of journal articles.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's nature, not nurture, 30 Dec 2013
This review is from: The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete (Hardcover)
David Epstein's useful corrective to the so-called 10,000 hour rule illustrates how little nurture has to do with sports success compared to nature. It's what's in the genes that counts most, and amazingly, this runs contrary to the still popular idea that we are a 'blank slate' As Pinker and other science writers have shown us, this is utter bunk. Yet it is taboo to say it too loud out of fear of racism or sexism. The more we learn, the more stupid it appears to be.

While Epstein walks on eggshells throughout, anxious not to offend, it is pretty clear that there are huge differences between men and women, and clear genetic reasons why African athletes have been so successful at running. If you stand back and think about it, it's all pretty obvious - 'Doh!' as Homer would say. Here are a few of the conclusions he reaches.

Men are always going to be stronger and faster than women. It's just biology, not 'sexism'.

A natural, tall black high jumper with no training beats the best trained white jumper in history with almost no training. 10,000 hours can beat many, but not all. Too much training can make things worse.

Jamaican sprinters have genetic advantages (more fast twitch muscles)that help them run faster, which evolved over many thousands of years.

Kenyan distance runners have a genetic advantage (more slow twitch muscles) which evolved over many thousands of years, partly in sync with environment.

There is lots more where this came from. Nature, with the right nurture, wins.

Epstein is a good researcher (a science degree from Columbia) and is clearly sports mad (a former college runner). He writes for Sports Illustrated, and makes everything clear and readable. Best of all, Epstein's agenda seems to be to drag the truth into the light, sometimes against the zeitgeist which creates an unrealistic expectation based upon nurture.

This is not a 5 star book, mostly because it is pretty obvious - but it deserves all 4 stars for taking on the debate and putting it's case so clearly.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic !, 11 July 2014
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Really insightfully written great read !
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3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars, 4 July 2014
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Very good, but a little heavy going at times
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, and full of quotable trivia, 6 Jun 2014
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If you've watched David's TED talk (as I had), then you probably have a fair idea of what this book will be about - suffice it to say, I was not disappointed, the book was very interesting and a nice insight into the many unusual ways that natural/genetic talents influence sport today.

As a fan of cycling, one must concede that performance enhancing drugs have altered the landscape of competition, and it is hard to know how far this has distorted the fields and results - although this question isn't ignored (particularly with respect to female competitors) it would be an improvement to the book if somehow it could have peered back behind that curtain, although I appreciate that this is a big task given the obvious secrecy involved!
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4.0 out of 5 stars David Epstein gets to the heart of the great nature versus nurture debate, 25 Jan 2014
This book addresses with nuances and subtlety the debate between culture and nature. It emphasises the complexity of the subject. When one chapter would develop the argument of the "10,000 hours", the next would allude to "naturals" who excel at a sport without any previous training.
It is well written with multiple examples; an easy and enjoyable read.

My take-aways would be:
- Know oneself:
It is clear that certain body types are more suitable to certain sports. The optimist message is that there is such a diversity of sports that one should find the sport that fits its own body type. For example, long forehands are an advantage for some ball sports, while short forehands are an advantage for weight-lifting.
There is no one-size-fits-all training programme. It looks like athletes react differently to training volume. There is a very interesting paragraph on training response with the example of two athletes: one "natural" and one who would outwork the other. Some long-distance athletes are gifted with high trainability; others are gifted with high baseline aerobic fitness.

Environment is key: it will direct a gifted athlete into the right sport, it will gives motivation, it will make it natural to train. The book gives the example of The Jamaican sprint factory. "Jamaica has thousands and thousands sprinting, and you get the best coming through." It also talks about Eero Mantyranta, the Finnish cross-country ski champion. He was certainly gifted with a specific gene mutation but he also skied from his youngest age and ski was his way to get a job and escape a previously miserable life.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great Read, 20 Jan 2014
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This review is from: The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete (Hardcover)
Well written, makes some interesting points and keeps you engaged. The Sports Gene is well worth a read whether you are a sports fan or not!
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4.0 out of 5 stars excellent, 13 Jan 2014
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A very good read for the sports person. A very good insight into the mechanics of sport and recreation. OK
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The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete
The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete by David Epstein (Hardcover - 29 Aug 2013)
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