I’ve been reading an amazing book over the past few month’s called The Sports Gene by David Epstein. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you read it. For any sports fan, exercise science buff, or research geek. A few of the chapters have sparked an interesting debate that I often have with myself…
When it comes to athletics and performance, and more specifically success in athletics and performance, we all want to know what constitutes the perfect athlete. What characteristics or traits are needed if we could genetically modify and design the perfect athlete. Why are some athletes more successful than others? Why do some athletic specimens struggle to translate their abilities onto the field? Or, why do some of the most unathletic individuals experience long, illustrious careers? Why is someone like Steph Curry (hardly what one thinks of when they think ‘athletic’) winning the NBA MVP award and dominating on a nightly basis, while specimens like Vernon Gholston (one of the biggest athletic “freaks” of all time at the NFL Combine – he could squat 405lbs twenty times, and bench press 225lbs for 37 repetitions), only started 5 games in three NFL seasons and is widely regarded as one of the biggest draft busts of all time? At Redline Conditioning we see all types of athletes walk through our facility. Everything ranging from the lanky 16-year old pitcher who hasn’t grown into his body, to the 5’8″ hockey player built like an immovable tank. Parents often ask us what we think their child has to do to improve, or what they need to do to make it to the next level. And the truth is, that answer varies greatly and can sometimes be hard to see in the weight room. Their son or daughter might have intangible skills that aren’t necessarily seen when they work with us. Allow me to explain…
Nature vs. Nurture
It’s one of the oldest debates known to man. God-given versus man-made. Hard work versus talent. Only the strong survive versus protect and guide. Which one actually wins?
Take for example running. We’ve all seen the Jamaican dominance in the 100m and 200m sprints over the course of the last few Olympic Games, but why is this? Do they possess stellar training staff who know exactly how to get the most out of their athletes? Maybe. Or does environment and genetics play a bigger contributing factor? Perhaps. Let’s first look at environment.
There are two ecogeographic rules that can be used to partially explain this phenomenon of supreme dominance in these sports: 1) Allen’s rule: states that men and women with recent ancestry from low latitudes and warm climates generally have proportionally long limbs, while 2) Bergmann’s rule: states that humans with recent low latitude ancestry will also tend to be more narrow with slimmer pelvic bones. Both long legs and narrow hips are advantageous for running and jumping.
Then, there is the genetic side of the equation, which thanks to recent research, has shed even more light into the sprinting dominance seen by the Jamaicans. In 1975, data collected from nearly 30,000 people in 10 different states found that African Americans have lower hemoglobin levels (oxygen carrying protein found in red blood cells) at every stage of life than White Americans, even when socioeconomic status and diet are matched. Furthermore, it’s been proven through various studies that low hemoglobin in African American’s and Afro-Carribean’s has led to a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers (advantageous for short-duration sporting events that rely on power and speed). The back story of why this variation occurred is very cool: rampant malaria along the west coast of Africa during ancestry forced the proliferation of genes that protected against it, and those genes, which reduce an individual’s ability to make energy aerobically, led to a shift to more fast-twitch muscle fibers. Furthermore, the gene variant that causes sickle-cell trait (which causes red blood cells to curl and impede blood flow in the absence of oxygen during vigorous exercise) is also found predominantly in people with recent sub-Saharan ancestry in west or Central Africa (fortunately, this doesn’t have any repercussions during short distance events, only long distance that requires increased blood flow for extended periods of time). It is because of these reasons that they are at a genetic disadvantage for long distance sports, and a genetical advantage for short-duration sports. In one research study, it was concluded that “lower hemoglobin levels raise the possibility that African Americans employ more of some alternative energy pathway to compensate for a relative lack of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin”, which has also been discovered and subsequently supported in other studies since. There appears to be a genetic reason why every single finalist in the men’s Olympic 100m since 1980 has recent ancestry in sub-Sahara West Africa, regardless of the fact that their current homelands span across the globe. Clearly, genetics play a massive role in success in sports and what constitutes the perfect athlete. But is genetics the end-all-be-all? What about the trainability, or the ability to nurture an individual?
There are some rules and theories that have been proposed that may help to determine whether success can be had, ranging from anything to mastering the saxophone, to making the Olympic swimming trials. And while genetics certainly play a big role, it seems there are some other factors that need to be considered as well. Thanks to best selling books like Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, those of us who aren’t as genetically gifted still have hope for success in athletics. In support of recent research, an argument can now be made that rather than having an innate genetic predisposition toward greatness, the limiting factor in expertise and achievement might actually be perseverance, tenacity and the willingness to put in countless hours practicing a skill.
10-year rule (or 10,000 hour rule)
This theory states that deliberate practice that is not intrinsically motivating, requires high levels of effort and attention, and does not lead to immediate social or financial rewards is necessary in order to attain ‘expert’ status. It has been proven successful in things such as music, mathematics, chess, swimming, distance running and tennis. Those who are at the top of their respective fields all tend to have put in at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This is not to say that everyone who puts in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will be a world champion, but it does support the notion that our cognitive and physical abilities are highly adaptable and changeable with deliberate practice. Recent research in the field of neuroscience and plasticity further supports this hypothesis. Of course, it would help if an athlete had genetic potential and a strong desire to outwork the competition.
Nature and nurture are clearly very important when it comes to determining just how much success an athlete will have. But the skills that are inherited must be relevant in order for sport success.
Sport Specific Skills
In order to really determine what constitutes the perfect athlete, we must first examine the sport-specific skills. For example, in basketball having a long wing-span is advantageous. So much so, that only one current player in the NBA has a wing-span that is shorter than his height. But, would a long wingspan be advantageous in sports like high jump or cycling? Absolutely not. Furthermore, what actually constitutes an “athletic individual”? Is athleticism defined only by the individual with the highest vertical jump, the fastest 40-yard dash time, the strongest squat in the gym, the best highlight reel dunks, or the kid that all of the coaches are in awe of? Or does it take into account reaction time, perception, the innate ability to see things develop before they happen, high IQ, or hand-eye coordination? Think of some of the greatest ‘athletes’ of all time. Wayne Gretzky, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Peyton Manning. Not exactly what you would consider graceful, powerful, explosive, athletic. Yet, they found ways to not only play the game, but succeed with legendary status. They relied on skills such as deception, agility, patience, having the innate ability to see things develop before they happened, and as scouts often discuss they had the ‘ability to slow the game down to their pace’. On the contrary, look at players such as Michael Jordan, Bobby Orr, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders. Power, speed, grace, explosiveness, athleticism. Some of the greatest players of all-time in their respective sports, with completely opposing skill sets. (Note: you can be assured that while the latter of the names suggested may have been more ‘physically gifted’, both groups put in their time with deliberate practice to achieve their level of expertise). Think about this: put all of the aforementioned athletes into a 100m race in their prime (having no knowledge of their sport of choice). My bet is it would finish something like Jackson, Sanders, Jordan, Stockton, Orr, Bird, Gretzky, Manning. From a laymen spectator view, they would probably decide that Sanders, Jackson and Jordan looked the most athletic, simply because they dominated the race. While giving arguably the greatest hockey player and greatest quarterback of all time two big thumbs down. While this may be an exaggeration, the point is simple: athleticism and success comes in all shapes and sizes, with a wide array of ‘ideal’ traits. This makes the challenge that much harder, as designing one perfect athlete is damn-near impossible depending on the characteristics needed.
So, now the question needs to be asked what defines an athlete. Is an athlete someone who is physically gifted and athletic, or is an athlete someone who plays the game and succeeds? If we were to design the perfect athlete, would we want the specimen who is able to translate their ability and play at the highest level. Or would we want the agile, deceptive, high-IQ player who can also dominate the game, albeit in a different manner? Do we want the best player who can carry the team and disregard the others, or do you build the 7th man off the bench who provides the spark every championship team needs (or do they not matter since they come off the bench)? The truth is, there isn’t one definition of the perfect athlete. We don’t decide if the athlete will turn out to be the MVP or the bench warmer. What looks like an exceptional talent to us might get trapped in the wrong system, wrong team, lack mental toughness, emotional stability etc. Conversely, what looks like a goofy, awkward kid in the weight room might possess other intangible skills that make him a future 1st-round pick. Just making the professional leagues in any capacity should deserve a round of applause. And while there are certain ‘ideal’ traits that make an athlete perfect for that sport, or perfect for that team’s needs, there is no such thing as the perfect athlete. Stephen Curry and Lebron James will always be complete polar opposites. One relies on his quickness, fast release, and deception, while the other relies on sheer size, power and explosiveness. Both have won NBA MVP awards and are the best players in their respective sports. Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Explosive goal scorer vs. smooth, subtle play-maker. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Endless energy and power vs. calm, controlled magician. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Distance and strength vs. uncanny touch and feel. All have achieved more accolades and earned more money than what ever could have been imagined when they were early teenagers.
The best we can do is set your child up for success when it comes to handling the rigours of the sport. Getting a fast kid stronger, or a strong kid more explosive, strengthening areas of concern, improving conditioning and movement patterns, reducing potential risk of injuries. All of these things will certainly help their chances of standing out on the field or ice, but it certainly isn’t the end-all-be-all. Genetics play a role to a certain extent, but again, so does hard work and perfect practice. In the eyes of the right coach, general manager, or situation, a high-IQ for their sport may be viewed as more important than their Wingate Test score. Some wide receivers excel based on their speed, jumping prowess and hand size, while others succeed based off of deception and foot speed. Building the perfect athlete isn’t as simple as a math problem with only one solution. Embrace the skills and traits that you have, and work your ass off for the ones your still require. If they never come to fruition, either continue to work at it or take solace in the fact you did all you possibly could.
As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat.