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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Article 50 deadline: Nick Clegg urges Remainers to "defy Brexit bullies and speak up"

The former deputy Prime Minister argued Brexiteers were trying to silence the 48 per cent. 

On Wednesday 29 March, at 12.30pm, Britain's ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, will hand deliver a letter to the European Council President, Donald Tusk. On that sheet of paper will be the words triggering Article 50. Nine months after Britain voted for Brexit, it will formally begin the process of leaving the EU.

For grieving Remainers, the delivery of the letter abruptly marks the end of the denial stage. But what happens next?

Speaking at an Open Britain event, former Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg had an answer. Responding to the concerns of a scientist in the audience, he declared:

“The most important thing of all is people like you make your voice heard. What the hysterical aggression from the Brexiteers means is they want to silence you.

"That’s why they attack everyone. The Bank of England - how dare you speak about the British economy? How dare judges make a judgement? How dare Remainers still believe they want to be part of the EU? 

"What they systematically try to do is bully and delegitimise anyone who disagrees with their narrow world view.

"It’s a ludicrous thing when 16.1m people - that’s more than have ever voted for a party in a general election - voted for a different future, when 70 per cent of youngsters have voted for a different future.

"It is astonishing these people, how they give themselves the right to say: 'You have no voice, how dare you stick to your views how dare you stick to your dreams and aspirations?'

That’s the most important thing of all. You don’t get bored, you don’t get miserable, you don’t glum, you continue to speak up. What they hope is you’ll just go home, the most important thing is people continue to speak up."

He urged those affected by Brexit to lobby their MPs, and force them to raise the issue in Parliament. 

After Article 50 is triggered, the UK positioning is over, and the EU negotiators will set out their response. As well as the official negotiating team, MEPs and leaders of EU27 countries are likely to give their views - and with elections scheduled in France and Germany, some will be responding to the pressures of domestic politics first. 

For those Remainers who feel politically homeless, there are several groups that have sprung up to campaign against a hard Brexit:

Open Britain is in many ways the successor to the Remain campaign, with a cross-party group of MPs and a focus on retaining access to the single market and holding the government to account. 

Another Europe is Possible was the alternative, left-wing Remain campaign. It continues to organise protests and events.

March for Europe is a cross-Europe Facebook community which also organises events.

The People's Challenge was a crowd-funded campaign which, alongside the more famous Gina Miller, successfully challenged the government in court and forced it to give Parliament a vote on triggering Article 50.

The3million is a pressure group set up to represent EU citizens in the UK.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.