Thursday, January 28, 2016

Is There a Sports Gene?

Is Chinese weightlifting success genetic? Or is it result of their system of training? I would argue that both factors are influential along with the socio-economic environment as well.

A few years ago a book by David Epstein, a Sports Illustrated writer, caught my attention. "The Sports Gene: Inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance". To be honest, I never buy Sports Illustrated and seldom read it. If I do read it, it is usually while waiting at the dentist's office or somewhere similar. In this case however, a student asked me about an article about "sports genes", then gave me a copy. While it is in the usual Sports Illustrated style of spectacular superficiality, it was interesting. Interesting enough that I bought the book. The author makes the claim that scientists have identified the specific genes responsible for human traits such as speed, vertical jump, explosiveness,...etc. Personally, it is hard for me to believe there is a vertical jump gene, a sprint gene, a strength gene, or a gene responsible for any movement quality. It is not hard for me to imagine genes responsible for charactieristics such as muscle fiber types, tendon insertions, or body segment proportions all of which would influence movement.It seems to me that genes would dictate structural traits, not movement traits. Of course the structural characteristics have great impact on the movement characteristics, but do not fully determine the way that the individual develops these natural endowments.

The author goes on to point out that as elite athletes from various disciplines were examined, few were "genetic outliers". In other words, there are many less talented individuals who have the same genetic makeup as say, Usain Bolt. So obviously there is more to becoming a great athlete than just genetic potential. No surprise there. While "choosing the right parents" is definitely a desirable advantage, it is neither a guarantee of success, nor a sentence of failure.

Champions come in many shapes and sizes from all corners of the world. As we mentioned Usain Bolt above, it is ironic that his height and limb length, which now are viewed as reasons for his amazing performances, were originally viewed by his coaches to be a barrier to sprint success. In fact, his coaches originally thought that he could never be successful in the shorter sprints like the 100 meters because of his height. Now he is held up as an example of the future of sprinting. I guess that is why I am wary of any so called "experts" who spout their perspective as fact. The only facts that exist concerning human performance is that we really don't know what an individual might be capable of.
The famed Kenyan distance runners for example, were not able to be identified by their genes. The main predicting factor was whether or not these athletes were from an area where they had to run to school and back each day.
Yes, choose your parents wisely, but if you feel like you wish you could choose again, take heart in the fact that you have more to do with your ultimate success than your ancestors do.

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