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

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder