Structured around the dismantling of the profitable notion pushed by self-help seers such as Malcolm Gladwell that 10,000 hours of monomaniacal practice is the secret of success, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance is one of the best books on human biodiversity in recent years.
Beyond undermining Gladwellian blank-slatism, Epstein extols the sheer pleasure of noticing humanity’s variety for its own sake. On his book’s penultimate page, he writes:
…sports will continue to provide a splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that’s human biological diversity. Amid the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, make sure to look for the extremes of the human physique.…It is breathtaking to think that, in the truest genetic sense, we are all a large family, and that the paths of our ancestors have left us wonderfully distinct.
You might think that any sports fan with a television would testify that success in sports depends upon a mélange of genetics, willpower, coaching, character, and opportunity, a mixture that differs from sport to sport and even from competitor to competitor. Much of the fun of watching sports is seeing who will triumph: the gifted goofs or the diligent grinds.
Yet Gladwellian nurturist extremism is the respectable ideology.
Gladwell is annoyed by this new skepticism directed at his massive 2008 bestseller Outliers. In response to Epstein’s criticism, Gladwell explained at The New Yorker:
In other words, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was how long and how intently they worked.
No doubt. But what separated the best from the rest within a group of hard-working people was also how talented they were.
Seriously, is it so hard to consider nature and nurture simultaneously? Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald was right to observe
…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
Because it’s impossible to think comprehensively about sports achievement while flinching from the obvious racial and sexual differences, Epstein bravely goes there. Amusingly, he cites numerous sports scientists who demanded anonymity from him before they’ll dare touch the topic.
Epstein, a former college runner, even offers a couple of novel theories of why people of West African descent make the best sprinters. He points out that several of the top Jamaican sprinters, including Usain Bolt (a classic gifted goof), are from Trelawny Parish, historically the home to Jamaica’s largest free community of escaped slaves, the Maroons. Perhaps their ancestors were just tougher, and that’s why they ran away and stayed free for hundreds of years?
Epstein also speculates that the high fraction of fast-twitch muscle fibers in West Africans might have evolved as a defense against malaria. This is not a prima facie ridiculous idea, since falciparum malaria is arguably the worst disease on Earth and produces the most Darwinian pressure to evolve defenses. (The sickle cell genetic mutation, which deals out protection from malaria to those who inherit one copy and death to those who inherit two copies, is proof of how far nature will go to slow down malaria.)
My longtime readers will find Epstein’s framework and many of his examples (such as his chapters on Kenya’s Kalenjin distance runners) familiar. But I learned much from The Sports Gene.
For example, the average man has an arm span equal to his height (as in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man). Yet every NBA player except shooting specialist J. J. Redick has a wingspan greater than his already considerable height. This is especially true of African Americans.
BYU economist Joseph Price provided Epstein with some intriguing data on NBA players:
…the average white American NBA player was 6’7.5” with a wingspan of 6’10.” The average African-American NBA player was 6’5.5” with 6’11” wingspan; shorter but longer.
Epstein adds that the average African American in the NBA can jump 29.6” versus 27.3” for whites. Combined with the extra inch of reach, that helps explain the preponderance of blacks in a game where the single most important metric is how high in the air you can get your hand. One scientist told Epstein, “So maybe it’s not so much that white men can’t jump. White men just can’t reach high.”
Baseball hitters are generally large men, but in contrast to lanky NBA players, they tend to have physiques less likely to stand out in crowds. What’s the ballplayers’ physical secret?
Eyesight. The ability to see the rapidly rotating red seams of the baseball as it leaves the pitcher’s fingertips is crucial to hitting. The Los Angeles Dodgers employed a team ophthalmologist who had to construct his own ultra-hard eye charts to test hitters’ vision because the team was, literally, off the commercial charts. “Half the guys on the Dodgers’ major league roster were 20/10 uncorrected.”
Finally, if you are a Tiger Father dreaming of your progeny surpassing your sporting achievements, when should you insist your child specialize in one sport?
Not too young. A study of 243 Danish athletes in sports that are measured in “centimeters, grams, or seconds” (such as swimming, weightlifting, or track and field) found that burnout is a sizable threat. The most successful don’t start specializing until after age 15. Until their late teens, contra the 10,000 Hour Rule, they have fewer cumulative hours of practice than the future also-rans.
In other words, let your kid play normal schoolyard sports such as soccer or basketball for a long time before picking a specialty. The more obscure sports tend to be boring for children, so don’t make play an ordeal.
Obviously, this Danish finding, like almost all of Epstein’s book, is commonsensical. This lack of counterintuitive Gladwellian advice will no doubt limit the author’s success on the public-speaking circuit. But it may prevent a few unhappy childhoods.
One sport that Epstein doesn’t tackle in depth is golf. A true believer in Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule is a 33-year-old Portland photographer named Dan McLaughlin, who had never played a round of golf in his life before quitting his job in 2010 to put in 10,000 hours of direct golf practice in hopes of becoming a touring pro.
He’s now 4,437 hours into his odyssey, most of it spent diligently on the practice tee rather than playing. He first played 18 holes in 2011 and by August 2012, McLaughlin was down to a handicap of only 6.5, which is better than the vast majority of recreational golfers. Unfortunately, diminishing marginal returns have set in, and he’s only pared 0.6 strokes off his handicap over the last twelve months.
Waiting until age 30 to start golfing may have thwarted this admirably self-disciplined man’s dreams. Numerous outstanding athletes from team sports have retired to the golf course, but only 49er quarterback John Brodie has ever won on the pro senior tour. (Strikingly, washed-up football players have had far more success as actors than as golfers.)
Because it’s hard to start golf late, East Asian Tiger Parents have been thrusting their infants onto the practice tee. They’ve fetishized golf since the half-Asian Tiger Woods became famous as a teen in the 1990s. So far, East Asians have rapidly taken over ladies’ professional golf, because golf hasn’t been fashionable with Western women, at least not since the Fairway Flappers of The Great Gatsby era. But Asians haven’t yet stood out on the men’s tour.
Among Asian-American golfers, the two most celebrated Tiger Cubs of the last decade, Michelle Wie and Anthony Kim, may have been damaged by their pressurized upbringings. Nine years ago, Wie might have been the best 14-year-old golfer in the world, male or female. But then, apparently, estrogen kicked in. This year, she made only two top tens on the LPGA tour.
Following an intense Korean-American childhood hitting countless golf balls at the driving range down the block from me, Kim was sixth on the 2008 PGA money list at age 22. But now, battling physical and emotional problems, he hasn’t been seen on tour since June 2012.
Back in 1850, the French economist Frédéric Bastiat wrote That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen. That’s a useful title to bear in mind. When Kim was on TV winning golf tournaments, he was living proof of the 10,000 Hour Rule. But out of sight is out of mind.
Some remember him, though. When other Korean parents ask Kim’s parents how to raise a golf star, they now reply, “Don’t try.”
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