The Sports Gene by David Epstein: A reversal on thinking about talent and genes

Where once to be called talented or a "natural" was the highest praise, today sportsmen have to pretend success has nothing to do with innate ability - is it time to think again?

The Sports Gene: What Makes
the Perfect Athlete
David Epstein
Yellow Jersey, 352pp, £16.99
 
Sport has done a swift U-turn on the idea of talent. To be called talented or a “natural” was once the highest praise. It tapped into the ideal of gentlemanly effortlessness. Many athletes went along with the lazy labels attached to them, and “naturals” – despite the casual image they presented to the world – worked a lot harder at their craft than they let on.
 
That situation has now reversed. Today’s sportsmen have to pretend that their success can be explained entirely by hard work and has nothing to do with innate ability. During the BBC’s coverage of the London Olympics, the athletics pundits accidentally stumbled into a conversation about genes and talent. Realising that they were veering too close to the truth, they quickly retreated to safety, talking about “hard yards” and “tireless effort”, presumably to avoid accusing a champion of being blessed with good genes and thus robbing him or her of the ultimate modern accolade: victory earned purely through exertion and suffering.
 
“Talent” has become a dirty word. How that happened tells us a great deal about the ways in which our preferred myths have changed. A plethora of self-help books has tried to eliminate the idea of talent altogether, replacing it with the speculative theory that greatness follows simply from 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. Talent, in this analysis, is an old wives’ tale designed to keep you in your place, a cruel hoax that crushes dreams and thwarts ambition.
 
The war on talent uses this language of humane optimism, promising to decode and commodify a blueprint that can turn everyone and anyone into Lionel Messi or, if you prefer, Richard Wagner. The idea conveniently dovetails with the “tiger mother” school of parenting (founded by the Chinese- American law professor Amy Chua), in which children are merely clay models that can be contorted into their parents’ preferred shape.
 
The chief beneficiaries of the war on talent will be not tomorrow’s athletes but tomorrow’s psychotherapists, who can look forward to a generation of future clients struggling to understand how, by some cruel quirk of mischance, they did not become Roger Federer, despite putting in the full 10,000 hours. So full credit to David Epstein, a Sports Illustrated journalist with a serious and deep knowledge of genetics and sports science, for his terrific and unblinking new book, The Sports Gene, a timely corrective to the talentdenial industry.
 
Some athletes are clearly naturally gifted. In 2006, Donald Thomas, a basketball player from the Bahamas, was boasting about his slam-dunking prowess to fellow university students on the track team. They challenged him to jump six feet and six inches at the high jump. Without a semblance of technique, Thomas cleared seven feet. The previously unamused athletes rushed Thomas over to the athletics office. In 2007, after only eight months of training and despite finding high jump “kind of boring”, Thomas was crowned world champion. If he’d possessed even a rudimentary grasp of technique, he would have shattered the world record. Ten thousand hours? There wasn’t time. No, the key was Thomas’s remarkable Achilles tendons, ten and a quarter inches long and unusually stiff – a little like a kangaroo’s.
 
There are also definable types of genetically inherited talents. Epstein was a middledistance runner at college and trained with a close friend and rival. His friend began as by far the better athlete but Epstein gradually surpassed him. Initially Epstein congratulated himself on his own guts, presuming that he had pushed himself harder in training. Then, as he started to watch more closely, he realised that they were doing exactly the same things, suffering the same pain. The difference was not determination but how their bodies responded to training. His friend had a higher “baseline” of aerobic fitness (if they were both forbidden from exercising, his friend would emerge naturally fitter), whereas Epstein had greater “trainability”: his body improved more when it was pushed. The greatest sportsmen, Epstein argues, have both a high baseline and high trainability.
 
That is what I witnessed at first hand as a professional sportsman. Success depends on a mysterious compound (not a mixture, as the elements interact to create an end product that is unrecognisable from its constituent parts) of several factors. First, there is baseline talent and trainability; second, those gifts need to be exposed to coaching, opportunity and competitive culture; and third, they must be marshalled and sustained by the personality of the athlete.
 
Epstein’s book made me revisit my ideas about talent and genes. In my book Luck, I predicted a paradoxical renaissance for pure talent. Professionalism, with its homogenisation of training principles, could one day lead to a situation in which it is almost impossible to gain an advantage through practice (an advantage that was clearly possible in the early decades of professional sport, when some teams were slow to embrace proper commitment). However, when everyone trains optimally, just as when no one trains at all, sport will be dominated by the most naturally talented.
 
Epstein makes a strong case for a more interesting future. Given that everyone has a different phenotype, everyone has a dif - ferent optimal training regime – there can be no final and perfectly transferrable optimal practice routine. So coaches and physiologists should abandon their tendency to believethat they know what’s best for everyone and instead encourage divergence, irreverence, tinkering and trial and error. Groupthink, as ever, has it all wrong.
 
Ed Smith writes the Left Field column in the New Statesman
Hoop dream: how far are a basketball player's abilities really stretched by training? Photograph: Samuel Hicks.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism