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

Len McCluskey. Photo: Getty
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Unite leadership race: What Len McCluskey's victory means

His margin is smaller than expected, but you only need to win by one. 

Come at the king, best not miss. And they did miss, albeit by a smaller margin than many expected. Len McCluskey has defeated Gerard Coyne, his Corbynsceptic rival, by 59,067 votes to 53,544 to remain as Unite's general secretary. Ian Allinson, running to McCluskey’s left, did surprisingly well with 17,143 votes.

A couple of things to note. The turnout was low – just 12.2 per cent – brought down by, among other things, the need to cast a postal vote and the view of the McCluskey camp that the smaller the turnout, the more important the payroll vote would be. But more significant is that Unite has shed about half a million members, confirming that it is anachronistic to refer to it as “Britain’s largest trade union”. That is, for the moment, Unison, a public sector union. (Unison actually had a lightly larger general fund membership by the close of 2015 but this decisively confirms that trend.)

The shift attests to the bigger – and neglected – story about the labour movement: that it is getting smaller, older, and more concentrated in the public sector. That’s a far bigger problem for the Labour party and the labour movement than who leads Unite or the Labour party.

That aside, the small margin is a shock – as I wrote last month, Unite is quite well-run these days, so you’d make McCluskey the favourite even before factoring in the ability of the incumbent to make life easier for himself. Most in the trade union movement expected McCluskey to win and win well for precisely that reason. As one senior official from another union put it: “Jaguar workers are earning more because of Len. That’s what it’s about, really.”

So the small margin means that Coyne may be found a role at the TUC and gently eased out the door rather than removed hastily. (Though the TUc would be highly unlikely to accept that arrangement.)Ian Allison, however, will be less lucky. One McCluskey loyalist said that the leftist would be “hunted with dogs” – not only was Allison expected not to do well, allies of McCluskey believed that he had agreed to tone down his campaign. Instead Allison's success contributed to the close-run result. (Unite uses first past the post to decide its internal contests.)

What does it mean for the struggle for control within Labour? Well, as far as the finely-balanced national executive committee is concerned, Unite’s nominees are elected at annual conference so any changes would be a way off, in any case.

The result does however increase the chances that Jeremy Corbyn will be able to stay on after a defeat. Removing Corbyn would mean handing control back to Tom Watson, with whom McCluskey's relations are now at an all time low. “I think there’s a feeling of: you came for me, you bastard, now I’m coming for you,” a trade union official says. That means that the chances that Corbyn will be able to weather a defeat on 8 June – provided Labour retain close to what one figure dubbed the “magic number” of 200 seats – have now considerably increased.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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