in: Fitness, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #127: The Sports Gene With David Epstein

It’s a debate that goes back for centuries.

Are great athletes made or are they born?

In his book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, journalist David Epstein investigates that question. By looking at cutting edge research, he uncovers how much of nature and how much of nurture contributes to creating world class athletes. It’s a fascinating book that offers insight into the nature of athletic ability and gives some food for thought to parents out there signing their kids up for expensive personal coaching in the hopes their tyke will be the next Ted Williams.

Show Highlights

  • Does it really take 10,000 hours to master a new athletic skill or can some people do it in much less time?
  • The history of athletic performance research
  • The genetic sorting that occurs in high performance athletics
  • Why men have and will likely continue to outperform women in most sporting events
  • Does race play a role in athletic performance?
  • What does the research say about how to best train your child to become the best athlete he or she can be?
  • And much more!

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance book cover David Epstein.If you’re an athlete or enjoy learning about genetics, you’ll get a lot out of The Sports Gene. It’s given me some insight on how I should approach athletics with my own kids.

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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!


Brett: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. It’s a debate that goes back for a millennia. Are great athletes made or are they born? Well, I guess they explore this question in this controversial book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. His name is David Epstein. Really fascinating book and today on the podcast, we’re going to discuss what the latest research says about top athletic performers. Is is a nature versus nurture, or is it a combination of both? We talk about the differences, the genetic differences between men and women and how those differences have given men the upper hand in athletic performance like sprinting and football and things like that. Then we also discuss what this research means for parents who have kids, right? Should you invest a lot of money and time into your kid, into a sport that might might not ever make it to the top Echelons, or even like college level in that sport. Really fascinating discussion. A lot of food for thought. I think you’re really going to enjoy this, so let’s get on with the show, David Epstein, the Sports Gene.

David Epstein, welcome to the show.

David: Thanks for having me.

Brett: All right, so you’re book is The Sports Gene, and it’s about the affect or the role of genetics in athletic ability, and not just athletic ability, it carries over to other aspects as well. Before we understood the role genes play in our athletic performance, our physical abilities, what was the role of genetics before our understanding of genetics? How did we approach athletics? Was it just a practice, or if you practice a lot you get better? What was it?

David: I think from kind of the perspective of sports scientist’s things that have whipsawed, basically. There was a period, maybe starting early half the 20th Century, where there was this idea that anyone that was athletic, this sort of medium height, medium weight man, would be the best for all sports. You just had to pick him out and maybe sometimes test his reaction speed or something, and then you just put them in any sport you want. It was sort of this idea that there was a template, like very genetic and then the pendulum totally swung back in the other direction to the idea that genes have no, other than for height, because it’s easily observable by everyone, have no part to play in athletic expertise, sort of that birth of the 10,000 hour rule. This idea that what we think of as genetic talent, is really just a man of his station of thousands of hours of practice. There is no such thing, genetics. The work and practice, motivation overwhelms any irreasonable effect of genetics, so we shouldn’t even bother studying genetics involving athleticism. That’s kind of where it was, when I decided to pick it up.

Brett:  This idea, the 10,000 hour rule. I mean, I love it because I don’t think I’m a naturally gifted athlete. I love that because if I practice hard enough, I work hard enough, eventually I’ll get there. The research is showing that that’s not necessarily the case.

David: Yeah. To specify, and so far as the 10,000 hour rule, is short hand for a lot of very high quality, and quality probably more important than quantity in many cases, practice is really important, absolutely. That’s great, but a lot of the people writing about it, where using it to say, “Well, genes actually don’t matter.” That’s in fact not what’s being found at all. In fact, what’s kind of coming out of the genetic revolution exercise and sports is the same as what came out of medical genetics, and that was say, because you have a different gene involving the Acetaminophen metabolism, than I do, you might need three Tylenol to get the same effect, where I only need one. Or maybe it doesn’t work for you at all. We’re seeing the same thing in sports training, that the amount that anyone improves in response to a given training stimulus, is mediated by their genes. No one person’s 10,000 hours is another person’s 10,000 hours. In fact, all of these hours figures that people throw out, are just averages that have these tremendously desperate ranges.

Even in things like chess, which requires a lot of the same perceptual expertise, that sports like football and soccer do. It takes 11,053 hours on average, to become an international master to learn all those kinds of skills, but some people make it in 3,000 hours, because they learn each chunk of information faster and some people at 2,500, still being tracked and haven’t made it. Really when we look at any of these hour figures, there’s this huge, huge range of hours it takes to get anywhere. A lot of that is based on the intricacies of people’s talent. My argument is that we really need to help people find some of those hidden talents, so that they don’t need 10,000 hours.

Brett: Yeah. You talk to explain this idea that the 10,000 hour rule, there’s discrepancies right? You can master it in a few hours, or it might take you a long time.

David: Yeah.

Brett: You give the example of these two high jumpers, which I thought was really fascinating. Could you tell the story of these two guys?

David: Yeah, sure, that I call the Tale of the Two High Jumpers. One of the high jumpers was this guy Stefen Holm, and he was this Swedish guy who became obsessed with high jumping after seeing it on television, at age five. Starts jumping in his backyard, has his father who doesn’t know anything about high jump build him a set in the backyard, and he’s good, but he’s not great. High jumping’s either something you got or you don’t, and he’s good, again, but not great. Steve obsessed with it, he’s ditching class in middle school to go jump. He just starts getting better and better, little by little. Improves actually 1 centimeter per year, for 20 straight years, until he becomes the Olympic Champion. He’s about 5’10”, clears the bar nearly 8 feet. He tied the record for the highest clearance over your own head. He has all these traits that we idealize in competitive athletes.

When I first talked to him, he said, I was asking him about a girlfriend, “I don’t have a girlfriend. High jumping’s my girlfriend, I can’t cheat on her.” Then, when I went back to him, he’s married now and has a little kid, and the kid’s name is Melwin Holm, and that’s not a typical Swedish name. His wife liked the name Melvin, and Stefen insisted that ‘win’ be somewhere in the kid’s name. That’s the kind of guy he was. Totally devoted to this, and transformed himself into an Olympic Champion. At the World Championships, I wrote about a rival of his, a guy from the Bahamas, he gets a rival named, Donald Thomas. Donald wasn’t a jumper at all, for most of his life. He’s talking trash on how good of an athlete he is at lunch one day. He was a student at a small college in Missouri called Lindenwood. The best jumper, a guy named Carlos from the track team, who held the school record at 6’8″, says, “You’re talking all that trash. You wouldn’t even clear a bar at 6’6″ in competition.” Donald’s like, “Yeah I would.” Carlos goes and sets up a bar, Donald gets his sneakers, takes 5 steps and clears 6 foot 6. They move it up to 6’8″, takes 7 steps, clears 6’8″. Moved it up to 6’10”, Donald clears 6’10”, 7 feet, clears that.

Then, at which point Carlos stops him, thinking he’s going to hurt himself, takes him to the track coach, “Coach, we got a 7 foot high jumper, here.” Coach doesn’t believe it, they convince him. He calls the next track meet, Eastern Illinois University, gets a late entry for Donald. Donald’s wearing basketball shorts, doesn’t have a uniform yet, clears 7’5″ and sets the field house record. I have pictures of him with his arms behind him, because he’s not used to the feeling of falling backwards, coming down from 7’5″. He turns pro after about 8 months of training, who does he face in the World Championship? Stefen Holm. One guy has about zero hours of training, Stefen Holm estimates his lifetime training at 20,000 hours. Those guys actually average 10,000 hours. Donald ends up winning the World Championship, there. If Donald had any semblance of form for a high jumper, he doesn’t curl his back, He looks like he’s riding an invisible death chair through the air. He’s like sitting straight up and looking around. He has the highest center of mass jump, ever, and he hadn’t known anything. Whereas, Stefen’s curled, like his heels are whispering in his ears, they almost touched.

Had Donald had any type of form, he would’ve shattered the world record. Here are these two guys, with this pretty straightforward, physiological sport, coming from complete polar opposite paths, and some of that I want to explain, had to do with their very special springs in the back of their legs, the Achilles tendon.

Brett: Okay. What I thought was interesting too, was you make the point that we’re just starting to scratch the surface of sports genetics, but it seems like there’s been sort of a natural sorting amongst the various sports, when it comes to genetics. For example, swimmers, because their arms are getting longer every year, runners, they have a sort of type of fast-twitch muscle fiber. You’re seeing that more than often. How did that happen? Is it just that people who had that capability, they excelled in that sport, they just stuck in that sport? How did that natural sorting happen?

David: Yeah, that’s some of it. That natural sorting that I writing about that scientists that discovered it call it Big Bang of Body Types. It’s like the body types of athletes that are successful have much, much more difference than what they used to be, and it’s called the Big Band, because if you plot on a graph the changes, it looks like the expanding universe with all the galaxies flying away from one another. The way it kind of started, some of the changes are not even that visible, like you said with the muscle fiber. Some of them are very visible, like elite female gymnasts have shrunk from 5’3″ to 4’9″, on average over the last 30 years.

Brett: Wow.

David: It makes it easier for them to spin. Those kinds of things are very visible. I mean, the most noticeable one in the NBA, a little more than 1 in 10 men in the NBA are over 7 feet tall, but that’s incredibly rare in the general population. If you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40, who is at least 7 feet tall, there’s a 17% chance he’s a current NBA player. That’s how rare that is.

Honestly, for most of elite’s national sports history, the only places competing were places like Great Britain and places that Great Britain had colonized, in a serious way. The second half of the 20th century, sports really opened up to the world. What happened in the NBA, is kind of a microcosm of what happened everywhere. 1983, the NBA strikes an agreement with the players, making them partners in the league, where they get shares of ticket sales, television revenue, all that kind of stuff, and the sport goes global. Suddenly, anyone who can play in the NBA wants to because the financial rewards and fame are so great, and the team starts going internationally and all that kind of stuff. Overnight, that was actually the proportion of men in the NBA went from 5% to 11% in one season, when they started doing that. All these other unique body traits started emerging. My arms are the same length as my height, whereas the average NBA player is 6’6 1/2″ with seven foot long arms.

This sort of natural self selection started happening in sports, where the body types it took more people that filtered out at lower levels, because they didn’t have the advantages of the specialized body technique. It kept getting more and more specialized. Then, once it got to a certain level in a lot of sports, then people started actually looking for that stuff. Once we realized we could measure those things, like water polo players, for example, they’re forearm bone is getting longer in relation to their overall arm than it used to be, because it makes for more forceful throwing with. The exact opposite is true for rowers, who pull stuff towards them, Once people started to realize that these trends were taking place, just by kind of doing physiology on their athletes, then they started proactively looking for it. In some cases, it’s been incredibly successful, like Great Britain, who hosted the last Olympics, actually they have a woman who just set a world record in rowing, who hadn’t rowed three years before she won the gold medal in the Olympics, and the took her physiological measures. They used to come into play by accident, and now they know specifically. They said, “Here, this is where you belong.”

Brett: Interesting. Even though they’re specifically looking for certain physiologies and certain genetics, are they still squeamish about talking about it openly? Like, “Yeah, we’re looking for someone with good genes, because we have this history with your genetics, and things like that”, where people don’t like to talk about sort of, genetic determinism.

David: Yeah, and to be honest, the genetics has become kind of a bad reputation. A rule of thumb I would say, is that genetics influence essentially everything, but determine very few things. There are no results, there are no nothing without both genes and environment. I don’t think people should think about genes in a deterministic way. The problem is, like most of the news they get, like this week there’s a gene for this, and this week there’s a gene for promiscuity or for liking chocolate. The fact is, 90% of that stuff is actually false positives because in some cases the scientists, and in most cases, the journalists don’t know how to evaluate the mass of those studies. Most of it is just crap. I think there’s a reason to be squeamish. I think when you spend some time with NFL or NBA, general manager for example, they’re a little less squeamish about saying count exist, even if they don’t want to get into genes.

In some countries, like when I was in Australia, which has what I think might be the premier support science institute in the world, the Australian Institute of Sport, one of their head physiologist’s was telling me that in their grant proposals for research, because they actually fund a lot of sport performance research out there, and we don’t really do that so much, they stop using the word genetics. Instead they would substitute molecular biology and protein synthesis, which is the exact same thing, but they stopped using the word genetics because people were viewing it as deterministic, and you should pitch in the hole someone completely and all this kind of thing.

I think the best approach, since we’re learning about this, is counts of trainability and add the genetic component. The best way that we could use it, instead of limiting people’s options, and say, “Well, you have to do this sport”, say, “You know, you can do whatever you want, but if you’re not getting the experience you want over there, just so you know, you’d be really responsive to training over here.” That’s in some cases already being used for sort of exercise for health. I think we do have to be vigilant about not being deterministic, when it’s not appropriate.

Brett: You have a section, that I thought was really fascinating, the genetic differences between male and female athletes and how that creates different results. What are the genetic differences and how do those genetic differences result in different athletic performances?

David: The single biggest one, so we all start life on the path to being female. That’s like the default fetus path, but 6 weeks in, there’s a gene on the Y Chromosome, called SRY. It’s actually easy to remember, it’s Sex Determining Region Y Gene on the Y Chromosome. It basically starts a development of these cells that lead to testosterone. Once the testosterone starts gushing, it starts arranging tings in a male pattern way. Even in the womb, men will have a longer forearm for example, like for throwing, or whatever, you’re not men when you’re in the womb, obviously, males, than females. That gets really accentuated until puberty, so a lot of women actually, their athleticism declines through puberty, so their vertical jump height will go down, their sprint speed, not everyone, not the ones that go to the top, but a lot of them.

Fat get deposited, widened hips, things like that, the hips and the angle to the knee is why women tear their ACL at such an epidemic rate. Meanwhile, men are packing in more muscle fibers, even if they’re not working out. Even if you don’t work out during puberty, you’re going to get more muscle fibers. The testosterone causes the creation of red blood cells, which are extremely important for endurance, more density of bones, they can support more muscle, longer limbs in relation to the body, greater height, obviously, certain bone structures, like the structure of the jaw and the forehead become less susceptible to the kind of punch that would knock you out, for example. This whole host of traits that are useful for athleticism are accentuated in men, and in some cases diminished in women. In fact, if you look at things that are easy to measure like world track records for kids, at 9 years old, girls and boys are identical. There’s no reason for them to be competing differently. They’re indistinguishable, but at 14, they’re like a universe apart. The record for a quarter mile, so one lap around outdoor track, for 9 year old boys and girl is identical, and by 14 it’s like 5 seconds different or something like that. In a race, that’s under a minute.

Brett: Wow. What amazing in the past, I would say half century, women have made great strides in athletics. We’ve gone over all this for the silly pseudo science for them. We’ve been engaged in activities their uterus would fall out, or goofy stuff like that.

David: It wasn’t that long ago that stuff was…

Brett: The ski jump, that was the thing. Women couldn’t do the ski jump because some-

David: Right, and that’s one of the activities where they’re actually closest to men in, too.

Brett: Interesting.

David: For speed jump.

Brett: Well with that, while they’re getting closer and closer to the performance of male lead athletes, male athletes are still surpassing. Will there ever be a moment when the lead woman athlete will be able to surpass an elite male athlete, or are the genetics just that makes it almost impossible?

David: I mean, you never know if there’s a one-off, but as a rule, there’s not going to be that time in the sports that we currently have. In fact, the idea that females athletes are catching up, is actually not true. There was a period where they were catching up, then it was largely due to the fact that they had not had opportunities to train and compete very much, or for the sport to go global. When women started their array of progress, was really kind of startling, and if you extrapolated that, it looked like they beat men in the 100 meter, in the future, but now they’ve actually stagnated, and in fact, men are opening the gap a little bit. Again, I usually turn to easily measurable sports, because it’s easier to make a concrete example.

If you look at running for example, from the 100 meters, to the ultra marathon, if you average the top ten best men and top ten best women, in any given year, the difference is going to be 11%. That’s basically what it is, what it always is. It doesn’t really close. It just kind of sticks there. In fact, men are a little bit inching away, and I think part of that’s because of this mega-doping era, that kind of set women’s records kind of out of sight, so unfortunately a lot of them are just stuck. Those drugs are much more efficacious in women, than they are in men. Some of those records are stuck in the past, but there are sports like in, the longest in swimming women come within 6% of men. Ski jump is one, where lightness is prize, and women do really well. I think if we tailored more sports to use fine motor skills, that’s something where women tend to out-perform men, but we just have not really arranged sports around those. I think maybe we need some more sports. I think we’ll see more high level women, maybe people have some more sports that cater to things that women are better at.

In terms of the elite performances, the gap’s actually not closing at all.

Brett: Interesting. Another kind of controversial aspect of genetics and sports is race. Jamaica’s known for their sprinters, and there’s a theory out there, the warrior slave theory. How did the Jamaican’s historical genetic past affect their ability to produce such world class sprinters today?

David: I got into track when I was young, as I grew up running with Jamaican guys and they always chose to go there, and didn’t realize until I went there, that there’s this theory on the island that this autonomous region, where a group called the Maroons lived. They were these kind of warrior slaves, who fought their way away from their masters and secluded themselves in this very treacherous area of the island. Just by being fierce, they won their freedom a hundred years before official emancipation, and a lot of the great sprinters are from that region, like Usain Bolt’s right over the hill, a woman who won a couple world championships in the 100 meters is also right form that region. The people from that region kind of claim them, and say, “They are part of our lineage, we were the strongest and fiercest, and all these people are from our genetic stock.”

I went there with a geneticist, and he collected data, and so far the data does not look quite that’s the case. The Maroons look very, very mixed, like other Jamaicans are. So far, I think the evidence is against that story, even though it’s a really nice story. There’s some evidence for more broadly people from that region.

Since 1980, every man who’s been in the Olympic 100 meter final.. we boycotted the Olympics in 1989, whether they’re from Portugal, England, Canada, Jamaica, America, they all have some ancestry from this one tiny area, on the coast of West Africa. That area happens to be the highest Malaria danger zone in the world. There’s evidence in the book that I talk about a possible trade off for protection from Malaria causes a shift to a more explosive physiology or more fast twitch muscle fibers, and people from that area, of course, that’s where we ranched people from their homes, and brought them to the united states are from that area. The people from that area, they basically disappear in their national competition above the half mile. They’re disadvantaged for endurance sports, but just on average, just shifts the curve a little bit, but that makes a big deal for people at the end of the curve. You’re probably going to find more of them who are advantaged for explosive sports.

Again, it’s not to say that European people, or white people in America can’t have that physiology, it’s just less common, when you’re only looking for the few best people in the world, that being less common can matter a lot.

Brett: You talk about Iditarod Dogs. You have a chapter about these Iditarod Dogs and this guy who breed-

David: Man, you really read this thing thoroughly.

Brett: Yeah, I know it was a great book. There’s this dog named Zorro, who wasn’t a really fast dog, but he was a hard working dog. This breeder just bred dogs for hard working. I thought that was really interesting, because I’m not a natural athlete, but I always kind of had this chip on my should, like if I work hard enough, I got the determination, I got heart. I can make it up for that. I like that idea because it was in my control, my effort was in my control and my determination was in my control. Now there’s research saying that genetic influences, or might influence our determination, too, or our grit.

David: That’s right. Then, again this is where we should remember that genetics influences just about everything, but doesn’t determine almost anything. I knew, for example, when I was going into researching the book, that training we do impacts our dopamine system. The system involved in pleasure and reward for whatever sex, food, drugs, whatever, in the brain. I didn’t know that there’s a large body of work that shows the reverse is true too, like the way that our dopamine system is set up, actually has a lot to do with what we’re going to feel pleasure doing, if that’s a certain kind of physical activity or whatever. Then, in these dogs what happened was speeds of Iditarod Dogs plateaued after not that long of breeding. I wrote about this guy, Lance Matthew, he’d been like a drug addict who was really down and out, but his father helped invent the Iditarod and wanted one, and he wanted to do it, so he got himself together and started getting dogs. He couldn’t afford the ones that were breed to be the fastest, and they were plateauing anyway. He just went for these ones that would never stop going. He had to chain them to get them to stop, and when he tried to stop the sled, he could hardly do it, unless he dug spikes into the snow and things like that.

He started breeding for those kinds of dogs who just wanted to always go, and then he won the Iditarod four times in a row. Then, everybody started talking that strategy, and now it’s the strategy. You’re not going to the fastest dog. In fact, there’s been some genetic analysis, and you can breed in certain dog breeds to make your dogs have a greater desire, or more motivation. Some of what’s happening to their dopamine system, is very similar to things we see in humans.

One thing I regret in the book is one of the scientist’s saying, “There is such a thing as couch potato genes.” While that’s kind of true, occasionally people have asked me, they say, “Oh, so there really is a reason I don’t have to get up and exercise.” First of all, where’s that going to get you? Do you really want justification for not being healthy or not being athletic? No. It means, anyone who has ever been in a training group, like I was a Division One runner, and you know there’re people you train with, there are guys you train with, some of whom have to be managed to train more, a lot of them, and some of whom have to be managed to train less, because they’ll overdo it. I think most people who have been in a training group, know it intuitively, we just never think about where that comes from. For the people who don’t have that Zorro-like motivation to get up and move, I think those people just have to work on manipulating their environment a little more. Whether that’s with a training group, or finding activities they like, or whatever it is. It’s not a reason to give up.

Also, since coming out of that research, when I was looking at some of the research on mice, who have a high drive to be active, and then you can give them Ritalin, they stop moving around. It’s a little bit scary, because you think about hyperactivity in kids, and it’s basically a drive to move around, and you can give them a medication and then they won’t move around as much. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing, in all cases right? You want them to pay attention, but we also want them to move around.

Brett: Yeah. You even kind of made the case we might be contributing to the obesity epidemic amongst young people, because we’re giving this drug, so they sit still.

David: It’s exactly what you see in these mice, when they’re bred to basically be crackheads for physical activity. You can breed them really easily to be just faracious runners, and then if you take them away, they get depressed, if you don’t allow them to do their exercise. Then, you can give them these drugs and they’re cool with not exercising anymore.

Brett: What are the ethical issues that come up with all this new athletic gene research? Are sports organizations starting to use genetic testing to figure out whether they should sign a player or whether they should tell said player, “Well, thanks, we’ll pay you a little bit, but you can’t play.” What going on there?

David: Sports teams are always using genetic information, they’re just not looking in genes, right? Whether they’re measuring people’s physiology, which is better because that’s a combination of genes and your environment. There are some kind of more actually looking at genes starting. I know that Kazakhstan’s Olympic committee decided they were going to start screening kids for certain genes, but I’ve seen some aspects of their program, and it’s basically nonsense.

What they’re going to do it they’re going to look at these genes that matter, but have really small effect. You’d be better off using a stop watch or bench press or something like that. The way where it is working is for things that are related to injury and illness. There are genes that are related to the strength of collagen, which is ‘the body’s glue’ and so, people that have certain versions are more likely to tear tendons and ligaments, so people being identified in that way, maybe they could do what some of these exercise geneticists are now calling ‘prehabilitation’, like strengthening to reduce the chance of those injuries. There’s a gene we know that influenced the ability to recover from brain trauma, so pretty relevant to things like boxing, MMA, and of course football. The most important thing is getting hit in the head for brain damage, but some people are most susceptible and take longer to recover, and so on, so forth. The very first brain that researchers at VU, made a lot of headlines for dissecting brains of NFL players, the first one they ever did, had 2 versions of this gene. Only 2% of the population have it, so there’s not as likely to get over brain injury. There have been questions. In New York, in 2002, actually, the medical commission that licenses boxers, thought about requiring it, and then decide that they couldn’t. It was too ethically fraught, basically.

Several years ago, the Chicago Bulls actually tested, when they got Eddy Curry, they thought he might have this genetic heart condition that could cause him to drop dead on the court, and so they screened him for it, decided they thought he had it. He wouldn’t submit to the genetic test, they said, “Okay, if you have a gene for this, we’ll give you (I think it was 400 thousand dollars a year for the next 40 years) but we won’t let you play anymore.” He refused to take the test and they traded him based on him not willing to take a genetic test. That was kind of an interesting precedent there, but would not be allowed again today because of legislation to protect genetic information from your employer that’s been introduced.

Brett: Interesting. What about for just not high performing athletes, but parents who have kids, right? As I was reading this, and I have a 4-year-old, and he’s about to be that age where we’re going to start playing sports. What do you tell your kid who’s like, I want to be a professional football player? You know your genetic history, and you’re like, “I don’t know if that’s in the picture for you.” I live in suburban Tulsa, it’s sort of affluent. Parents will send their kids to football camps, costs lots of money, and their kids aren’t probably going to play D1 Football, they might not even start on the high school football team here. What do parents do with this idea that genetics is not deterministic, but it plays a role?

David: For sure.

Brett: Is there anything we could to to help our kids still enjoy athletics, but still keep their expectations real, or should we not even attempt to keep their expectations real and let them dream?

David: Like you said, “Genetics certainly plays a role”, some very ballpark analytics that the children of pro athletes were bout 55 times more likely to get NCAA scholarship in some sport, even if it wasn’t the same sport their parent played. There’s presumably something being passed down, in terms of athleticism. Honestly, I added an afterward to the book, about specialization youth sports, because it’s completely backfiring, actually. It turns out that the best way to develop elite athletes, not the exclusive way, but the best way is like the Roger Federer path or the Steve Nash path, where you play a whole bunch of different sports. Steve Nash didn’t even own a basketball until he was 13, Federer’s parents forced him to keep playing badminton, soccer, basketball, before he could focus in on tennis. That’s actually the norm, so I think the piece of advice I’d give parents, because I don’t want them to discourage kids dreams, I just want them to let their kids have their dreams, right? Obviously we know there are a lot of parents who think they’re well intentioned, but are really playing out their dream.

Give the kids to what’s called a sampling period, because the lead athletes have that, so if they’re going to be a lead, it’s more likely if they have that and it’s also a lot more likely they’ll find a sport that fits their talents and one that they like. Basically, I would say allow them to develop the dream and give them that sampling period, because the pro athletes have it. The problem now, is that there are people who run a lot of leagues and travel teams and camps and AAU and everything, who’s economic interests are in conflict, with giving kids the sampling period that produced a lead athlete. In fact, this Canadian research in John Coteau, has this really interesting research showing that the odds of becoming a pro athlete on any sport, based on the size of your hometown has all gone down on to really small home town sizes because the kids in the big town have to specialize too early, just to make a middle school team. With these good intentions, it really back fired. I’m a big component this sampling period.

Brett: That’s great. I live right next to a suburb called Jinx, Oklahoma, because it’s one of the top football teams. They start the kids on the high school football program when like they’re in kindergarten. There’s a draft period, the kids get drafted, and it’s pretty nuts.

David: If it made better athletes, ultimately, I’d kind of be for it, but I think the evidence on golf is out, nobody’s done a good job studying it, but for most sports, the ambassadors to the sport did some fascinating research, that they show that kids who play three different anticipatory sports, those are the sports where you have to react faster than your biology can, so you have to learn visual ques, like in football, or in soccer, or in basketball, volleyball, attacking sports. Basically, they will then pick up any subsequent sport like that, much more quickly than people who have only played one.

Brett: Interesting. Well, Dave Epstein, where can people learn more about your work?

David: Well, definitely the book, the Sports Gene, website,, but I haven’t been updating it lately, and I’m always shooting my mouth off on Twitter, so that’s one way.

Brett: Awesome. Well, David Epstein, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

David: Thank you, the pleasure is mine.

Brett: All right guys, today way David Epstein. He is the author of the book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, and you could find that on and bookstores everywhere.

Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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