Book Review: ‘The Sports Gene’

Go Lean Commentary

Evolution AthleteSuccess is found at the intersection between talent and practice. Or so it seems…

These words are appropriate in reviewing the new book by David Epstein, The Sports Gene. He asserts that certain ethnicities have advantages for excelling in certain sports, but they must still put in the work to excel. These words are equally appropriate for assessing Caribbean life, prospects and cultures.

The forgoing news article in the Washington Times is a Review of the above-cited book; it takes a physiological, cultural and sociological look at the subject of sports and the athletes more inclined to excel at it. In fact the back cover photo features Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, and the book prominently features an anecdote about Bahamian High Jumper Donald Thomas. So this author recognizes that Caribbean people are identified with excellence in sports; maybe even defined as geniuses[a].

The world recognizes that the Caribbean has gifted athletes, but unfortunately these participants must leave their beloved homeland to maximize their talents and earn a living from them. (Even to matriculate as student-athletes)

Book Review: By Robert VerBruggen – Special to the Washington Times, August 26, 2013

Subject: ‘The Sports Gene’ by David Epstein
Why are some people more athletic than others? Why is it that many sports are dominated by players of specific ethnicities?

These are questions that occur to many of us, sports fans and non-fans alike. Unfortunately, academia and the media have stubbornly refused to deal with them in an honest manner, keeping to simple, feel-good answers.

David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” is a welcome exception. While the book’s title is unfortunate — no single gene could explain something so complex as athleticism — Mr. Epstein provides a careful and nuanced discussion of how nature, nurture and sports interact.

Mr. Epstein proves that genes exert a powerful influence on athleticism, and that ethnic physical differences can affect performance in many sports. Yet he does not shortchange the effects of practice and culture. This is a significant accomplishment.

There’s been much discussion in the popular press about the “10,000-hour rule” — the argument, formulated by journalist Malcolm Gladwell, that one masters a task not by having the right genes, but simply by practicing it for a total of 10,000 hours. This theory does not survive a close inspection by Mr. Epstein.

For starters, the drive needed to practice something for 10,000 hours might itself be genetic. For example, it’s possible to breed dogs and mice that have an insatiable desire to run, and twin studies suggest that genes contribute to the amount of physical activity that people get.

More to the point, the “rule” is based on flawed statistical reasoning. Yes, on average, a person who achieves elite status in a field does so after practicing for about 10,000 hours — but an average is not a rule for individuals to follow. Some people achieve elite status in as little as 3,000 hours, while others take more than twice the average. Every one of these studies has found an immense amount of variation.

Mr. Epstein illustrates this concept by comparing two high jumpers. Stefan Holm of Sweden has had a lifelong love of the sport, and through training, he very gradually improved his performance. Donald Thomas of the Bahamas, meanwhile, managed to clear a seven-foot bar on his first day. At the 2007 World Championships, just a year-and-a-half after his first high jump, Mr. Thomas beat Mr. Holm.

Mr. Epstein details many of the physical differences that give some athletes an advantage. Mr. Thomas benefited from unusually spring-like Achilles tendons. Basketball players are tall and have wide wingspans. Baseball players, who must look at a ball leaving a pitcher’s hand at 90 mph and instantly know whether and how to swing, have amazing vision. And so on.

None of this means that training doesn’t matter. For example, in addition to having great vision, baseball players must build an elaborate mental database of how different pitches look. They’re useless without this database. In one anecdote, Mr. Epstein tells of a professional softball pitcher who easily struck out some of Major League Baseball’s finest hitters. All the time they’d spent watching overhand fastballs had not prepared them for an underhand pitch.

What this does mean is that genetic qualities matter in sports. Which raises a question: Are some of these qualities more common in some ethnic groups than in others?

Much of academia swears that the phenomenon we refer to as “race” is merely a “social construct” with no biological significance whatsoever, but actual genetic research reveals otherwise: As humans spread out across the globe and encountered widely varying environment, each population evolved a little differently.

One difference that emerged is body structure. For example, the Kalenjin — a Kenyan ethnic group that is dramatically over represented in long-distance running accomplishments — tend to have thin lower legs, which is an advantage because weight there dramatically reduces running efficiency.

Further, in general, Africans of a given height have longer limbs than Europeans, and also have a higher center of mass. There are differences in average height among ethnic groups as well.

As with Mr. Epstein’s arguments regarding individual athletic achievement, his arguments about racial differences don’t imply that environment and culture are irrelevant. As Mr. Epstein notes, sometimes an ethnic group can dominate simply because they care about the sport more than their competitors — see the (now fading) pre-eminence of Japanese sumo wrestlers, or the stellar German record in dressage. The Kalenjin, in addition to their physical advantages, are raised in an environment where constant running is the norm.

That is what makes “The Sports Gene” such a worthy read: While the book’s purpose is to push back against the widespread denial that genes matter, Mr. Epstein avoids taking too strident a stance in the opposite direction. Human reality, he explains, isn’t the result of nature or nurture. It’s the result of both.

Washington Times Online –Book Review – Retrieved 04-09-2014 –

Horseback ridingThis subject matter aligns with the publication Go Lean … Caribbean, which serves as a roadmap for the introduction and implementation of the Caribbean Union Trade Federation (CU). The Go Lean roadmap only has one interest in this subject of sports, fostering the economic opportunities that can be forged from it[b].

This Go Lean roadmap first assesses that the Caribbean is in crisis; among the issues: athletes with any ability must seek refuge and opportunities in foreign lands. So this roadmap provides solutions to optimize the region’s economic, security and governing engines. The roadmap provides the facilitation to grow a professional, collegiate and amateur sports eco-system. Many times, the missing ingredients for organized sports are the facilities: stadia, arenas and playing fields. A study of this void, is bigger than just sports, it is “life and death”. But the roadmap posits that sports, even though it is just “extra-curricular”, does bring benefits. In fact, Go Lean quotes the Bible scripture at 1 Timothy 4:8 “For bodily exercise is profitable for a little …”[c]

The source book by David Epstein asserts that the rule that anyone can excel at any sport endeavor with 10,000 hours of practice and nurturing is a fallacy. Consider sports like Sumo wrestling and jockeying a horse; there’s no doubt that nature or physiology plays a role for success in these activities, despite the amount of practice. (There’s no way, a jockey will beat a Sumo Wrestler or vice-versa). But most importantly, the source book empathetically establishes that genes alone will never yield the sought-after result, there is the need for skilled training, coaching with best-practices and an internal drive. In so many ways, this parallels the current effort to reboot the Caribbean economic engines: nature (birth-right) is critical, but training, experience, coaching and the technocratic application of best-practices are also needed to forge change. The most important ingredient though is the internal drive; first and foremost, this is identified in the roadmap as “community ethos”.

The Go Lean roadmap recognizes many different kinds of athletics, team sports and individual events. The unique “genius” qualifier is highlighted at the outset of the Go Lean book, in the Declaration of Interdependence (Page 13 – 14), as follows:

xxi. Whereas the preparation of our labor force can foster opportunities and dictate economic progress for current and future generations, the Federation must ensure that educational and job training opportunities are fully optimized for all residents of all member-states, with no partiality towards any gender or ethnic group. The Federation must recognize and facilitate excellence in many different fields of endeavor, including sciences, languages, arts, music and sports. This responsibility should be executed without incurring the risks of further human flight, as has been the past history.

xxxi. Whereas sports have been a source of great pride for the Caribbean region, the economic returns from these ventures have not been evenly distributed as in other societies. The Federation must therefore facilitate the eco-systems and vertical industries of sports as a business, recreation, national pastime and even sports tourism – modeling the Olympics.

Similar to the publication by David Epstein, Go Lean … Caribbean highlights lessons that are learned from flawed ideologies, as in the case that education (abroad) elevates a society. (The Caribbean experience is that of a brain drain). While Epstein’s book prescribed strategies, tactics and implementation to optimize sport performance, Go Lean performs the same exercise for Caribbean economic empowerment.

Now is the time for the Caribbean region to lean-in for the changes described in the book Go Lean … Caribbean. Success is to be found at the intersection between opportunity and preparation.

The benefits of this roadmap are too alluring to ignore: emergence of an $800 Billion economy, 2.2. million new jobs, new industries, services and opportunities for the sports-playing youth of the Caribbean and even an invitation to the Diaspora (and their legacies) to repatriate from North American and European countries so as to preserve Caribbean culture in the Caribbean[d].

Download the book Go Lean … Caribbean – now!


Appendix – ‘Go Lean’ Book References

a. 10 Ways to Foster Genius – Page 27
b. Separations of Powers – Sports & Culture – Page 81
c. 10 Ways to Improve Sports – Page 229
d. 10 Ways to Preserve Caribbean Heritage – Page 218

Share this post:
, , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *