The Sports Gene Book Review

With Olympic fever going around this book review comes just in time. I wish I could say I remember where I came across the title that peaked my interest in wanting to read it. I’m 99% sure someone who I admire mentioned they were currently reading it or quoted it or something and I added it to my wish list of books I want to read. And then I checked the reviews on good reads and I couldn’t find a single bad review. It was just 4 stars after 5 stars after 4 stars again. I figured I had to read it.

Normally this isn’t my typical kind of book. I’m really into self help books, books about empowerment, books about over coming adversity and then some randoms here and there. But like with anything I give it a try and if I don’t like it I don’t keep reading it.

It’s written really well and is really interesting. One of the things I found most interesting was about the type of body types that might make one athlete better at one sport than another athlete in another. Like why gymnasts are usually short, sprinters have longer legs, and swimmers have very long upper bodies. It breaks down some of the science behind why certain body types excel at certain sports.

The other thing I found equally interesting was how he debunks the 10,000 hour rule. If you haven’t heard of it before Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that to become a professional at anything you need 10,000 hours of practice. Epstein explains in this book how it’s not necessarily 10,000 hours that will make someone a pro or not. Some individuals can gain mastery in 4,000 hours while others take 20,0000. 10,000 is more or less the average. He also goes on to explain (at least in regards to athleticism) how certain individuals may respond better to training and improve vastly faster than someone else.

An interesting tid bit for those who are like why is any of this interesting? There’s a point in the book where he describes why the NFL would pick better drafts if they looked at the length of the men’s arms instead of the amount the men can bench press (shorter arms may be able to bench press more but longer arms are better on the field he argues).

The most interesting piece I found in the book was a study on Scottish Terriers. (This probably will be interesting for any psychologists or social workers out there). Dr. Ronald Melzack did a study on the dogs that were cared for, groomed, and fed but otherwise isolated from the world around them. He wanted to study how they could navigate a maze, which they did poorly at (to point that deprivation of fundamental needs affects intellect) but he also discovered that they didn’t respond to pain normally either. The dogs would bang their heads on the water pipes and when he struck up a match to see what they would do the dogs would come back repeatedly burning the tip of their noses. What he concluded was that social deprivation affected the ability the dogs could learn how to respond to pain.

This study parallels another one on children in orphanages vs children raised by mothers in prison. The children in the care of the orphanage had all their needs taken cared of but other human contact was minimal (due to lack of staff or other reasons). The children in the orphanage not only had a higher death rate than those raised in the prison but they also spoke much less and developed cognitive and psychological problems  more than the children in the prison who were allowed to be held by their mothers.

Similarly that made me think about the Kaiser ACEs study. The study if you’re not familiar with, was done by Kaiser hospital that asked patients about their life experiences and traumas and then tracked the health ailments patients suffered from. They found that patients with higher ACE scores (having experienced more traumas in childhood) also had worst health regardless of lifestyle choices. (I’m summarizing but that’s the gist).

It’s slightly painful to know how much childhood trauma can negatively affect children’s potential but I’ve grown solace in the fact that some trauma can be neutralized by the support and nurture attachment parenting provides. That’s why early intervention and getting children out of bad situations is so vital.

I’ve veered a little off topic. Back to the book. A lot of the book talks about the science of what gives some athletes an advantage over others. And how sometimes it really is about winning the genetic lottery (we knew that). But Epstein offers interviews throughout the book with olympian athletes and you see the fire and ambition to go after a dream. The hours behind hours of practice, the dedication. They may have an advantage and be genetically blessed but they would not be where they are without the hard work. This was inspiring to me not because I’m setting off to be the next Simone Biles or anything. But I was born the way I was and I have gifts that come naturally to me. They may not be that I can run a mile in less than 4 minutes but they’re gifts nonetheless. Knowing that hard work and determination will push my limits even further is kind of exciting. We all know this. But seeing the fire under the belly of these athletes reminded me that I was made the way I am for a reason.

So if you’re in need of inspiration, want something interesting to read, and/ or love sports I recommend this book. 4 stars from me. I knocked down a star because there’s some talk about race and how certain “races” may have advantages over others. He does a good job of not turning the whole book about race and a “all people of this background can do this” mentality. But I have strong opinions about race (mostly about how it’s a social construct and doesn’t really exist) and I feel like the matter could have been handled more carefully less give any more reason for people to believe in superiority of races over others. But otherwise I really liked this book. It was the kind of brain fuel I needed to get me through some very gloomy days.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read this book, have similar books to recommend, or want to see a review for a different book entirely. Let me know!

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