by Hugh Gilmore

Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent blog, referred to “The Sports Gene” as the best sports science book around, so I thought I should check it out. The author, David Epstein, presents a survey of the entire field here in a clear and interesting fashion. Occasionally quite technical, it nevertheless should be an easy, handy read (and argument settler) for anyone who wants to know more about modern athletic physiology.

The title is just a bit misleading since there is no single “sports” gene – for any event. Epstein reports that single genes have effects so tiny as to be undetectable in small studies: “Modern scientists have begun to abandon small single-gene studies in favor of looking at how the interplay of biological endowments and rigorous training affects athleticism.”

He writes, “The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer always is: It’s both.” But how? he asks. And to what degree? Does one outweigh the other in some cases? Epstein looks for answers in unexpected places.

For example, he tells us that in the early 1940s a Dutch chess master and psychologist named Adriaan de Groot sought to know the core of chess mastery. He devised a test for a panel of chess players who represented four skill levels: A world champion, a master, a city champion and an average club player. He flashed before them, for three seconds, a chessboard with chess pieces set up in realistic game scenarios. Then he took the board away, gave them blank boards and pieces, and asked them to recreate what they’d seen.

The grandmaster could recreate the board exactly. The master performed not perfectly, but very well. Neither of the other two could recreate the board accurately. An interesting finding, but did these findings indicate a superior visual memory, or some other, acquired skill?

Three decades later, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University repeated the de Groot experiment – with a twist. They showed four levels of players a chessboard whose pieces had been set up in random situations that could never occur in an actual game. After a five-seconds look, the players were asked to recreate what they’d seen. This time the masters were no better than the others.

Apparently, randomized boards defying the rules of chess are unreadable. Players who know the rules governing the movement of pieces notice only meaningful situations on a set-up board. Masters are quicker recognizers of rule-governed patterns.

Sports scientists have noticed that successful baseball batters can watch the initial movements of a pitcher’s shoulder, torso and arm and predict what kind of pitch is coming. Similarly, a football running back can run through “holes” in the line of scrimmage just as they form. And basketball players on a three-on-two break can “see the future” forming.

In other words, there is a mental element in sports. Not a “thinking element,” but a rapid perception of where one is in space, taking into account one’s speed, and angle of approach relative to the other players. Elite athletes, according to Epstein, (paraphrasing the research of Bruce Abernethy, a Queensland sports scientist)“need less time and less visual information” to know what to do next.

Is this simply “instinct,” a genetic gift? Yes and no. All other things being equal, practice makes a big difference. Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book “Outliers,” popularized the notion of “10,000 hours” as the amount of time one needs to master an endeavor. This “rule” applies to violin playing, basketball, chess, track and field events, golf – you name it. It implies that, even without superior genes, practicing can make one a champ.

All things being equal, that is true – but only sometimes. In a large population, all things are seldom equal when you consider how many hope to be a world champion and how few succeed. Some people are born gifted with the ability to perform at a high level with comparatively little practice.

Epstein cites a four-year study of L.A. Dodgers baseball players whose visual acuity averaged 20/13. Such superior vision is found in about 18 percent of the average population. Studies from the Netherlands revealed that the youths who eventually signed professional soccer contracts had been 0.2 seconds faster than their teammates even back when they were tested at ages 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16.

In fact, it sometimes happens that a person who puts in 10,000 hours of practice loses a competition to someone who has practiced, say, only 5,000 hours (or less), but has more innate talent. Epstein’s mantra is that every case involves “both hardware and software.”

A fascinating phenomenon he reports on is that athletic body types have changed over the years. Fifty years ago a single idealized athletic physique seemed appropriate to most events. Today’s athletic bodies conform to their specialization’s needs. Michael Phelps, for example, the swimming champion, is six four, with disproportionally small legs, extra-long forearms and hands, and small hips. Ideal for cutting through water at high speeds.

Female gymnasts are usually small in stature, have little body fat, and very small hips. Track sprinters have more “fast twitch” fibers in their muscles, allowing them to win events that call for speed and explosive power. The bulk of the muscles in their calves and thighs is located high on the bone, almost a physics text design for a fast leg.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers aren’t very efficient at longer distances, however, because they don’t correlate with long-term oxygen debt over time. Distance running favors smaller, less overtly muscular bodies with more slow-twitch muscles fibers that use oxygen more efficiently.

Some of these requisite body sizes are found more often in certain “populations” than others. (Anthropologists and sports physiologists dismiss the word “race” as scientifically useless.) These findings are the subject of several chapters of the book and their results are discussed in an informed and interesting manner.

The most important thing to learn from this highly readable synthesis of the available information is that body, mind and will govern all athletic ability. But, sadly, for most American sports buffs, however, all other things being equal, talent will win nearly every time. Not an American thing to say. Too elitist. Undemocratic. This book dispels that and many other illusions.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir: “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in paperback too, through