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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth About Success
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on 31 August 2013
Many people believe that they can achieve anything if only they try hard enough, often Malcolm Gladwell's '10,000 hour rule' ( "the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours") is used to back up this claim. It can be very inspiring to people to think that they can be good at anything if they try hard enough, but is it actually true?

A quick look at the National Basketball Association (NBA) of America shows that being tall helps a lot in basketball. It turns out that 17% of men over 7' and between 20 and 40 in the U.S. are playing in the NBA right now. Even the 'smaller' players have extra longs arms for their height. Unless basketball players train to be taller I think it's fair to say genetics play a big part!

Donald Thomas became world high jump champion in 2007 with only eight months of training. It appears Donald has long legs for his height and a huge Achilles tendon which is very important for jumping but there are probably lots of other things we don't know about helping him as well. Since entering the professional circle Donald has not improved one centimeter contradicting the you-need-to-train-to-get-better rule!

If you think that it's purely a case of nature then you might like to know about high jumper Stefan Holm, he compensated for been smaller than average (for a high jumper ) by perfecting a sprinting approach where he hit a top speed of around nineteen miles per hour, probably faster than any other jumper in the world. To accommodate that speed, he had to start taking off from farther and farther away from the bar. He improved year by year eventually winning gold in the Olympics. Holm's standing vertical jump was around twenty-eight inches, nothing amazing for an athlete. But his blazing fast approach allowed him to slam down on his Achilles tendon (which he had strengthened using weight lifting), resulting in his Achilles acting like a rebounding spring to propel him over the bar. When scientist examined Holm, they determined that his left Achilles tendon had hardened so much from his workout regimen that a force of 1.8 tons was needed to stretch it a single centimeter, about four times the stiffness of an average man's Achilles, making it an unusually powerful launching mechanism. In a sport that seems so "you either got it, or you don't", Holm was transforming himself into the ultimate "got it".

Stefan Holm agrees with Gladwell's '10,000 hour rule' "There were jumpers who beat me when I was young. You wouldn't have said I would be Olympic champion. It's all about your ten thousand hours." So it would appear that training does make a difference but is the amount of time needed to learn correct? Studies of athletes have tended to find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status. According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.

Studies of chess players found a huge difference in the time taken to reach master level. The average time was 11,000 hours but some people became masters in just 3,000 hours while others had done 25,000 hours and still were not masters.

Even when given the same training people respond differently. Heritage Family Study, subjected 98 two-generation families to identical increasing intensity training. After five months of training, 15% showed little or no gain, and 15% improved dramatically increasing by 50% or more. The amount of improvement that any one person experienced had nothing to do with how good they were to start. In some cases the poor got relatively poorer, in others the oxygen rich got richer and all manner of variations between. Along the improvement curve, families tended to stick together. In other words, family members generally had similar aerobic benefits from training.

In a article for the new yorker Malcolm Gladwell has stated that he likes this book but feels that the author has misunderstood the 10,000 hour rule which applies to complex intellectual tasks not sports like running, 'No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent', he also wrote: "achievement is talent plus preparation". He also states among the very gifted it's the 10,000 hours that makes the difference, so this book could be seen as a criticism of the poor understanding of Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule. Maybe Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule should be more accurately named 'talent and 10,000 hours rule'?

Think it takes great will power to train hard? Some people are born loving exercise, they need exercise, for them it is not a chore, it's a necessity. Mice and sled dogs have been selectively bred to want to run.

It was assumed that major league baseball players had super fast reactions but it turns out their reaction times are no better than anybody else. What they do have is a lot of experience at watching the body motions of the pitcher and knowledge of how the ball spins that gives them clues to where the ball will go. But get a softball pitcher to throw and because baseball players are not used to the pitcher's motions nor the ball's rotations they don't do as well. It was also found that baseball players also have fantastic eye sight which lets them spot the pitcher's body motion and ball spin early on.

Being tall helps with basketball but being small has advantages in gymnastics. Having short forearms helps with weight lifting but longer arms help with water polo. There is no such thing as the perfect athletic body, what is advantageous in one sport is disadvantageous in another. You need to look around and find something you're well suited to.

Want to become the next Usain Bolt or Garry Kasparov? It will take lots of hard work, some people will improve quickly, others slowly and for some unlucky persons no amount of training will make a difference. Maybe you can compensate for lack of talent with a better way of doing things or switch to a sport you're more well suited to but ultimately both nature and nurture are needed.
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on 17 May 2017
A good read, it's almost the opposite of Matthew Syed's "Bounce" which explores the notion that motor skills are entirely the result of practice.

This book essentially goes the other way in saying that sporting ability (and skill development) is highly dependent on genes.

Realistically the answer is probably somewhere between the two and that while genes are a huge influence, so is the environment you live in.
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on 17 July 2017
Great popular science introduction for anyone interested in sports. Largely ignores the doping culture which is a weakness I think.
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on 19 October 2017
The great debate of the 10,000 hour rule, in this book David Epstein uses practical examples of nature vs nurture. Highly recommend
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on 6 October 2017
Speaking from the perspective of an exercise scientist, I found this book a fascinating and enjoyable read, all while being scientifically sound. Great book and would recommend. David does a great job marrying storytelling with science.
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on 17 June 2015
Changes the way you think about nature:nurture
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on 26 May 2014
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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on 13 August 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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on 6 June 2014
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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on 6 January 2015
Clear and unbiased, easy to understand for a non-scientist and very broad ranging in terms of topic descriptions. Would recommend to anybody with an interest in sports.
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