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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He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era