The Sports Gene

The Sports Gene by David Epstein provides an interesting counterbalance to the recent pendulum swing in sport to the nurture (i.e., practice) explanation for expertise. Popularizing (with the inherent changes and oversimplifications) Ericsson’s research on expertise, books such as The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Outliers, and Bounce have spread the idea of expertise being accessible to anyone via deliberate practice. While I am a huge fan of Ericsson’s research and use it both in my sport psychology consulting and my own life, assuming that expertise is a result of nurture alone seems to overlook many obvious inborn advantages (as an aside, Ericsson did acknowledge that the demands of particular sports lent to genetic advantages, for example, height in basketball).

Enter The Sports Gene, which delivers the latest research on genetic linkages to aspects of performance in a user friendly, engaging, and fascinating manner. One of the findings I was particularly intrigued by was that near elite athletes actually practiced more than elite athletes prior to age 15. However, by age 18 the elite athletes had accumulated more practice than the near elites. The explanation for this seemingly counter intuitive pattern was that elites sampled various sports in their childhood and early teen years before specializing in their later teens. In contrast, the near elite athletes specialized earlier, thus accumulating more hours in the sport, but did not go on to achieve the success of the elites (factors such as overuse injuries and burnout were large contributors).

This is an extremely important finding, as one of the consequences of the popularization of Ericsson’s research has been for parents, coaches, and sport administrators to encourage early specialization in kids, with the belief that the sooner the kids accrued 10,000 hours of practice the sooner they would achieve expertise. It is now apparent that this approach is, in fact, counter productive to becoming an elite athlete.

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2 thoughts on “The Sports Gene

  1. Interesting article Mark! I noticed the age cut-off is approx 15 years old. Is this to say that students should begin specializing in the early high school years? ________________________________

    • Hey Kevin. I wouldn’t say they should begin specializing in high school. The study is about athletes who went on to become elite (national level) athletes. So #1, if they are not at (or aspiring to) that level, it doesn’t matter whether they specialize or not. #2, In a variety of studies, the key factor in persistence is enjoyment. Thus, whether they are trying to become elite or playing sport for health or social reasons, the thing that will keep them playing is having fun. Ultimately, what I would take from this study is that if they want to specialize at age 15, then go for it. If they don’t want to, no big deal. Just keep playing whatever sport(s) and/or activities are fun for them. Finally, I know this isn’t what you were asking, but the other big thing for athletes younger than 15 is to resist pressure to specialize. There are a few sports (e.g., gymnastics) where it is necessary to specialize at a young age, but for the most part letting athletes sample different sports/activities leads to the most well-rounded athletes (and more importantly, people).

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