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

Getty
Show Hide image

Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.