I recently became an Audible.com Gold member and as my first audiobook via the service I decided to choose The Sports Gene by David Epstein. It took me a bit longer than expected to listen to the 10 hours and 22 minutes of audio (about a week), but after listening I think that audiobooks are a great way for busy people to enjoy the wonderful world of literature. Once I finished the book I took another week (or 2) to let the information and ideas presented by Mr. Epstein stew in my head and by week’s end, I decided that this should be the 1st book I review here on Fitness on a Budget.
The Sports Gene attempts to answer a question right from the beginning that I have always found interesting; how much of any given talent is innate or genetic and how much is learned? In other words, the age old question of nature Vs. nurture. Chapter one introduces us to Olympic softball pitcher Jennie Finch and her ability to beat some of the best hitters in major league baseball, this chapter is a glimpse of what is to come, plenty of evidence on both sides of the argument intertwined with interesting stories. It introduces nurture and the roll of practice but also suggests that genetics play a role.
David explores the skills of the best athletes in the world from Dennis Rodman to top distance runners. What becomes clear as the examples and chapters roll by is that the top athletes in a given sport share specific physical characteristics. For example top basketball players have disproportionately large wingspans when compared to the general population, and in contrast elite swimmers have short legs and long torsos. Some body types are better suited for one sport than they are for another. Beyond anatomical differences there are also physiological ones, from muscle type distribution to the ability to metabolize oxygen efficiently.
As the author explores story after story the role of training and that of genetics becomes more intertwined. It’s one thing to have the genetics to do well, but to do well skills have to be developed. Nobody gets off the couch to win gold in the 500M at the Olympics but some have the ability to reach that level of ability and others do not.
Not only does the book talk about inherited traits but also the geographical origins of these traits. This exploration in my opinion is what makes this book unlike others in the space. It takes an unapologetic look at genes possessed by descendants from different parts of the world and explores race without being afraid of backlash. It explores genetic diversity and the presence of training support in different parts of the world for various sports which is rare even in the scientific community. The conclusion that both training and genetics play a role isn’t one of opinion but instead one of scientific fact arrived at through no shortage of research. Some people respond more so to training than others, some have better body types than others for a given sport and some have more desire to train. No one factor rules over them all.
The Sports Gene is well researched and well presented. It makes the point that genetics do matter without suggesting that ONLY genetics matter. The only issues I had with the book was a minor one, Mr. Epstein’s attempts to imitate other people’s voices were poor at best (that’s about the smallest issue I can recall ever having with a book). Still it’s much more endearing to have the author reading their own book than to have someone else do it.
The Sports Gene is highly recommended for anyone wanting a more informed and easily accessible look at the relationship between genetics and training in sport performance.
The Sports Gene
Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
Written by David Epstein
Narrated by David Epstein
Available from Audible through Amazon: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance