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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene on the relative roles of genes and environment—nature and nurture—in the building of a professional athlete. A version of this article appeared July 26, 2013 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Born in First Place
Practice may make perfect, but genetics
determine athletic success

by Michael Shermer

Midway through the 1985 Race Across America, the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle race in which I rode as a competitor, Diana Nyad of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” inquired what I might have done better in training in order to be able to catch the lead rider in front of me. “I should have picked better parents,” I answered, explaining that we all have certain genetic limitations that can’t be overcome through training.

Michael Shermer, during the 1985 Race Across America around the time the camera crew from ABC's Wide World of Sports pulled up to film him

Michael Shermer, during the 1985 Race Across America around the time the camera crew from ABC’s Wide World of Sports pulled up to film him

Anyone who has competed in the top levels of any sport knows what I’m talking about: I trained my heart out for years, yet there were guys who had logged far fewer hours on the road but were always faster than me—including the guy 50 miles ahead of me named Jonathan Boyer, who a few years earlier became the first American to ride in the Tour de France.

Or consider the “tale of two high jumpers” that David Epstein presents in The Sports Gene, his important book on the relative roles of genes and environment—nature and nurture—in the building of a professional athlete. Mr. Epstein spent time with a Swedish high jumper named Stefan Holm, who started jumping at age 6. By the time he won the Olympic gold medal in the 2004 Athens games, he had logged more than 20,000 hours of training. Mr. Holm told the author that, to understand how he became an Olympic champion, Mr. Epstein should read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” particularly the chapters on the “10,000-hour rule” discovered by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson—that is, the idea that, to become an expert or professional at just about anything, it takes roughly 10,000 hours, or 10 years at 20 hours a week, of “deliberate practice.” This is practice that is guided, coached or focused in a way that is beyond just mindless repetition.

But then how do you explain Mr. Epstein’s second high jumper? In the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, the training machine Stefan Holm was beaten by a Bahamas man named Donald Thomas, who had started high jumping only a few months before. Mr. Thomas had boasted to his jock buddies that he could slam-dunk a basketball. Someone challenged him to high-jump a 6-foot-6 bar, which he easily cleared, followed by one at 6-foot-8 and then 7 feet. A successful 7-foot-3 jump in competition landed him in the Commonwealth Games in Australia just two months after he had first heard about high jumping. There he finished fourth in a field of world-class jumpers. At the World Championships—after a total of eight months of high-jump coaching, which included ducking out to shoot baskets, because he found high jumping “kind of boring”—Mr. Thomas defeated not just Mr. Holm but a 6-foot-6 Russian named Yaroslav Rybakov, who had failed to win a single world championship after 18 years of competition.

Today, six years into his high-jumping career and thousands of hours of practice later, Mr. Thomas hasn’t improved his performance by even one centimeter.

What’s wrong with the 10,000-hour rule? In part, Mr. Ericsson’s research was oversimplified by Mr. Gladwell in “Outliers,” leading everyone from sports athletes to Wall Street hedge-fund managers to employ it in their explanations of success. (The supposedly triumphant example in “Outliers” was the Beatles, who Mr. Gladwell claims owed their success largely to the 10,000 hours they played in dingy nightclubs in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany—selectively ignoring the thousands of garage bands who put in their 10,000 hours and still stink.) As Mr. Epstein notes, 10,000 hours is an average. What is more revealing is the range. A 2007 study on chess players, for example, found that the average number of hours logged to make it to the level of “master” was 11,000 hours, but the range spanned from 3,000 hours for one player to 23,000 hours for another. Even more telling, several players in the study put in more than 25,000 hours of practice and study and never made it to the master level. That is the mystery that The Sports Gene explains so well.

Science shows that by nature humans vary considerably in both physical and mental abilities, and a good portion of that variation is due to our genes. In the early 20th century, the psychologist Edward Thorndike discovered that, while practice makes a difference, some people benefit from practice more than others. In the mid-20th century, David Wechsler published a book titled “The Range of Human Capacities,” in which he noted that the ratio of performance (measuring by the appropriate criteria) in a wide variety of physical and mental tasks, from best to the worst, was between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1. More recently, Georgia Tech psychologist Phillip Ackerman found that the effectiveness of practice depends on the task. As Mr. Epstein explains: “In simple tasks, practice brings people closer together, but in complex ones, it often pulls them apart.” A study on grocery checkout clerks, for example, found that the more experienced are much faster than novices, but in a group of clerks who all have 10 years of experience, the best are three times faster than the slowest. In the sports realm, a study on darts players by Mr. Ericsson found that only 28% of the variance in performance between players was accounted for after 15 years of practice. The other 72% is coming from somewhere other than practice.

Mr. Epstein’s apt analogy for the interaction of genes and environment is computer hardware and software: “The hardware is useless without the software, just as the reverse is true. Sport skill acquisition doesn’t happen without both specific genes and a specific environment, and often the genes and the environment must coincide at a specific time.” The best study on this is called the Heritage Family Study, which subjected 98 two-generation families to stationary bicycle-training regimens to increase fitness, as measured by aerobic capacity, or VO2 max—the amount of oxygen a person’s body can use. All the families received the same training of three workouts per week of increasing intensity, and DNA was taken from all 481 participants. The results were startling: The range in VO2 max improvement spanned from 0% to 100%, depending on the family heritage. About 15% of participants showed little to no improvement, while another 15% increased their VO2max by 50% or more. According to the study’s principle investigator, Claude Bouchard, “the range of response to training was six to nine times larger between pairs of brothers than within pairs.”

In other words, genes matter. How much? “Statistical analysis showed that about half of each person’s ability to improve their aerobic capacity with training was determined exclusively by their parents,” Mr. Epstein explains. “The amount that any person improved in the study had nothing to do with how aerobically fit he or she was relative to others to begin with.” Rather, it had to do with genetic inheritance. The DNA analysis turned up 21 gene variants related to aerobic improvement, and the participants in the Heritage study who had at least 19 of the 21 genes improved their VO2 max three times more than subjects with fewer than 10 of the gene variants. Maybe this explains why I couldn’t catch Jonathan Boyer in the Race Across America.

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. But the science says that it just ain’t so. Not even 10,000 hours of wishful thinking will change nature. END



  1. Oozoid says:

    Nice. How about a follow-up on how our genes might influence our natures and personalities?

    • Rho_cass says:

      Read The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. It directly tackles those questions.

    • Rob says:

      More directly, Judith Rich Harris’s work (which Pinker endorses) The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike both tackle personality. She finds roughly the same thing that the above study does, that about 50% of the variance in personality traits is genetic, and the other 50% is something else. That other 50% is probably not parenting style (unless the parents do something extreme like tie the kid up in a basement or something). She hypothesizes that most of the other 50% is probably peer-influence. In any case, both of her books are worth reading.

  2. innaiah narisetti says:

    Very useful for youth

  3. Bob Pease says:

    The problem with “Blank Slateism” is the inappropriate use
    by social gurus who want to give the underclass in America some reason to
    believe that they can “Make it” in SPORTS if nothing else.

    Similarities exist in Music and Creative use of language

    As a goofy aside, it is interesting that
    SPORT and SPQRT (Societas PopulusQue Romanum , Tom) are very close


    • Bob Pease says:

      “Blame yer Mom, Tom” is on of a million Ways to Leave Your Lover

    • RCCA says:

      Senātus Populusque Rōmānus

      • Bob Pease says:

        THANK YOU!!

        Erat Romanus dictator
        Qui hated uxoris mater.
        Cum leo her edit,
        a holler he dedit
        “Vale Ma, until later”.

    • James says:

      There was a humorous ad (PSA) years ago , showing a black man who was totally inept at various sports. I believe the moral was ‘it isn’t about race’.

  4. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    This is interesting, it hints at something I heard a long time ago: the nature vs nurture dichotomy is flawed. Environment can cause genes to be expressed earlier or later or differently and genes influence how we react to environmental factors.

    Also, as one who took five years of piano lessons, and whose father studied at Julliard, I can attest that neither nature nor nurture guarantees anything. Chance plays a huge role.

  5. Roy Niles says:

    After 10,000 hours, finally, a good article.

  6. ausfrombos says:

    This is about the most obvious thing ever to any sports fan and it is embarrassing that anyone might need a book to know this. Tiger Woods, Lebron James, and Wayne Gretzky dominated the entire world in their sports at the age of 20. They were born with amazing gifts. Josh Hamilton came out of drug rehab and doing nothing with baseball to be one of the best players in baseball.

    Most of Malcolm Gladwell’s books are well written stories about some interesting events or people, but with completely worthless theories that any 10 year old could pick apart. Daniel Kahneman, along with other actual scientists, killed the book Blink as well.

  7. Frode Grøtheim says:

    Very nicely written and some great empirical data mentioned. That talent matters a great deal in sports I think people generally accept. At least for physical sports, like say sprinting. Opinions would probably be more divided in sports that are very technically demanding, like say soccer. I think the evidence for the importance of talent have been harder to find in those cases, although you get the feeling that practice is not enough to make a Messi or Ronaldo… (Would love if someone did know some good work done on such sports though.) I very much like the research done on this from chess. It’s easy to measure skill level, and although it’s a mental skill, the data absolutely show the influence of talent is massive. You also see it in school performance, where IQ (let’s call it “talent”) is a decent predictor of performance.

    I do think Gladwell get’s a bit too much stick though. Talent alone is obviously not enough, and it is often true you must have something like 10000 hours of deliberate practice to reach expert level in a domain (mental and technical skills, not high jumping). Some might think Gladwell is saying that in itself is enough, but I am not so sure he does. And anyone with half a brain would know that’s not true. Gladwell has said one of his biggest influences is The Nurture Assumption. We know how about half the variation in personality is explained by genes and half environment. But we also know that parents explains very little, somewhere between zero and ten percent. Gladwell is exploring that unexplained environmental part. What in our environment shapes us, if it’s not our parents? That’s the great mystery he has dedicated his career to pursuing. I think he knows the coin has two sides, it’s just that he prefers writing about one of them.

    • Frode Grøtheim says:

      This NYT article mentioned some great research done:

      “compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.”

      Gladwell wrote “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120, having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.” He made an empirical case for it, but better research shows that it’s false. Confronted with the evidence I think he would admit he was wrong, actually. In the end what matters is empirical data. I would argue some are a bit too fast to claim talent doesn’t matter just because in certain domains there is no evidence directly showing it. It has been shown in many other domains, and just like in this case, once you get better research, you will often see it’s importance.

  8. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Other than 10,000 hours and the sports gene, did you consider the “sports drug” as the reason why you couldn’t catch Jonathan Boyer? After all, nobody could Lance in seven Tour de France.

    The evidence for sports gene is obvious. How else do you explain the dominance of Africans in track and field events? They have more practice? Their muscle tissues seem more dense and they have greater aerobic capacity.

    I know this 54-year old woman who easily beat my 32-year old brother in a 42 km marathon. He regularly competes in marathons and triathlons. It makes me wonder. I don’t think it’s 10,000 hours because she started running only at 50. It doesn’t look like genetics. Her body is short (maybe 5′ 3″) and not muscular. Steroids? There’s hope for me :-)

  9. Michael B. says:

    How weird are these attempts to ‘debunk’ the 10,000 hour rule. It never stated it takes 10,000 hours to become the absolute best ever at something. It’s about becoming ‘expert’ at something. Very knowledgeable or adept at a skill.

    Genes do matter. They have always mattered. They have not been argued against from what I’ve read.

  10. James says:

    It may not as relevant today, but I felt non whites became better at sports partly because they were denied acess to things that whites took for granted, and thus ‘entertained’ themselves with sports, especially basketball which was easy to get going. Whites becames lazy, because of their cars and such. A sport such as boxing was a way of making money.

  11. Ken Chapman says:

    That guy 50 miles ahead probably inherited more slow twitch muscle fibers than you.

    Slow Twitch (Type I) – The slow muscles are more efficient at using oxygen to generate more fuel (known as ATP) for continuous, extended muscle contractions over a long time. They fire more slowly than fast twitch fibers and can go for a long time before they fatigue. Therefore, slow twitch fibers are great at helping athletes bicycle for hours.

    Muscle fiber type may influence what sports we are naturally good at or whether we are fast or strong. Olympic athletes tend to fall into sports that match their genetic makeup. Olympic sprinters have been shown to possess about 80 percent fast twitch fibers, while those who excel in marathons tend to have 80 percent slow twitch fibers.

    Also, you might want to look up brown adipose tissue which is also inherited in different proportions and the role it plays in athletic performance.

  12. Jeff McGuire says:

    The answer to the nature-nurture arguments is very often nature, but I don’t see it’s less nurture because of that. It’s not an either/or thing: we have natures and we have a lot of nurturing to do, it’s not one or the other.
    As impressive as some of the ‘nature’ studies and experiments are, still there are some large bodies of knowledge that prove the importance of nurturing as well. The premise upon which all of psychology and psychiatry is founded is the idea that abuse hurts and damages people, – statistically, not every person, every time – impairing our normal functioning. Mountains are the studies and evidence for this factual case of the importance of the nurture side of things.
    I don’t know what we plan to do with this information showing how much of what we can excel in, or fail in, is hardwired, our natures from birth. Are we planning to marry and breed in a more scientific manner? Mandatory sterilization of the inferior?
    What our function is, what we can do, is nurture, and there is room for improvement. We could work on our nurturing. Any improvement we can make in our nurturing of our young has the potential to bring everyone’s lives up a level. Anything we learn about the hardwired part of ourselves is good to know, but I’m suspicious it may not be a good sort of knowledge to actually use. In terms of the law, and actual nurturing of children, it is the nurturing aspect of life that should concern us.

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