What got you interested in the subject that led to you writing The Sports Gene?

I grew up just outside of Chicago in an area that had the sort of a major Jamaican diaspora and we won pretty much everything in athletics mainly because of these Jamaican runners. And when I was 16 I flicked open an atlas and saw that this was an island of 2.5 million people, so I wondered what was going on over there. And then at college I did longer distance running and was running against Kenyan runners and started to realize they were all from the same city and again,  I started wondering what the heck was going on. So I started learning about their tribe. And the same thoughts hit me – how and why. And finally, I was training with five guys where we were living together, eating together, training together, we were best friends, training partners, doing everything together, yet we were getting more different, not more the same, in our race results and so when I got a chance to explore what genetic science could and couldn’t tell us about sports prowess, I did!

And what answers did you get?

That there are a lot of factors involved, including the fact that plenty of people are predisposed to sprinting or long distance running, for example. And also that once a sport is culturally embedded in a country or an area, with resources devoted to it, it has much more chance of success – if everyone wants to become, say, a sprinter in Jamaica, or a football or baseball player in the States, or a long distance runner in Kenya, not many who are talented will slip through the net.

Take sprinting. Every man who has competed in the final of the Olympic 100 meters since 1980 (when many countries boycotted), whether he be Dutch, Jamaican, Portuguese, Canadian American, or English, can trace their ancestors back to a very small area in West Africa, and what they have in common is long legs proportional to their body size, which is evolution finding a way of getting rid of heat – the same reason a radiator has long coils to increase surface area compared to volume – and people from this area on average have a slightly higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres, used for explosive sprinting, possibly because living in an area where malaria has been prevalent has meant a shift in biology which makes them less able to use oxygen for energy production, meaning potentially causing a corresponding shift to non-oxygen dependent energy pathways, like those used in sprinting. And of course you then need to bring money into the equation. Take Kenya. Or specifically  the minority Kalenjin tribe, which produces all the great runners. The Kalenjin have extremely low latitude ancestry in a hot and dry climate so, on average, extremely long, narrow legs, the perfect physiology for distance running. But then also consider that the average per capita income is 800 or 900 dollars and in the rural areas where the runners come from way less than that, and if they win one race they have a six-figure pay-day. That’s proportionally bigger than an NBA player getting signed and contracted. But make Kenya like, say Sweden, and that incentive is gone. So overall, I guess it’s a mixture of genetic and cultural.

Talent identification at an early age is big in football.  How useful is it and what are the keys?

Talent spotting at a really young age – say 8 or 9 – will never be a guarantee of future success, in fact it’s hugely inefficient, but in relatively wealthy sports, teams just want the one Lionel Messi or Peyton Manning so are prepared to take that risk. The pay-off in finding one world-class player makes the gamble worthwhile for them. But 8 or 9 is not a good age to start looking at players because it’s pretty clear now that at that age, the kids that coaches are selecting are those who are ahead in their physical maturation. Period. In every sport. In the Netherlands, there’s a sports scientist who helps track the top kids, and look how well they’ve done with a relatively small population. One thing she has found is that the kids who go on to turn pro are always, starting from age 12, about a quarter of a second faster on shuttle runs than the kids who don’t make it. And there’s a study been done in tennis which shows that kids who get picked at 12 almost always end up getting caught up and quitting in their teens, so in fact you would be better off just blindly picking the kids who are a little worse – not bad, but not strictly the best – when they are younger than the kids who are the best.

So if you were a coach, what would you do?

I would completely individualise the training even in team sports. It obviously varies from club to club and sport to sport but my sense is that too many guys in team sports are doing the same training. We know intuitively that we respond differently when we’re in different training groups, with different partners. Some people require a heck of a lot more management to get them to train the way they should, and other people who you have to manage in order to get them to stop training. I have a friend who was in the special forces, and when he got to a certain level of training, every guy had a one-on-one coach. Every guy, so their training was tailored to them. Obviously that requires a lot of resources, but I hope people take sort of a trial-and-error approach to their training. For example, I know that I was a better cross-country runner on 30 miles a week of targeted training in college than I was on 80 or 85 miles a week in high school.

And players who don’t fit into these training patterns – the mavericks – how do you treat them?

I certainly don’t think for every person the singular focus on training is really what works. Look at a guy like Usain Bolt. He was an absolute teenage phenomenon – the times he ran as a kid are probably more impressive than the ones he runs now. He won the junior championship as a 15-year-old and that’s an under 19 competition – that’s a boy competing against men. And then he started training a lot more and he got injured all the time and you didn’t hear from him, so he got a new coach who understood that he wouldn’t turn up to training sometimes, and he’d totally disappear during the indoor season and then show up when it counted. I think that really shows he has figured out his mentality and his physiology and that he knows he shouldn’t be training as much as the next guy. In fact, too much training would alter the explosive physiology he depends on. So it’s different for everyone.

And how about training the mental side of the game?

I do think this could be looked at more. There’s a research team in the University of Chicago who specialise in figuring out how to help people not choke under pressure and it’s about practice, like when you learn to drive a car and eventually it becomes automatic and you don’t have to think about it any more. First, when you’re learning it, it’s with the prefrontal cortex, the very human part of your brain, and as you learn it, it moves back to the more primitive part so you can do it without thinking and that’s the mark of an expert, when you can do something without thinking. And when players choke it’s because that skill that you worked so hard to automate is being dragged back up to the prefrontal cortex, the human part of your brain. The team has found strategies in which you occupy the prefrontal cortex, like singing in your head or counting backwards, to help cope with this.

Do you think it’s a good idea for former players to become managers or coaches?

Well, every case is different and there’s no reason why players should not become good managers but there’s a particular danger, especially when they go straight from being an athlete to being a coach because they’ve automated all these skills, and to tell others how to go about doing them is therefore very difficult. Take Michael Jordan, who probably goes down as the worst coach of all time! He drafts this guy Kwame Brown, the first pick of the whole NBA draft, and starts trying to groom him and telling him you just need to do it like this. Unfortunately, just because you’re a bird doesn’t mean you’re an ornithologist! So if an athlete is going to become a coach they need to learn how to be a coach and not just say, well I was a great player.

And what is the future for coach education?

There’s a whole lot of research being done but still a ton of wisdom to be incorporated into coaching. Take a guy like Paddy Upton, a sports psychologist for cricket teams. He tried the novel method, of moving away from being the screaming disciplinarian and train players like you would train a puppy, ignoring the bad stuff they do and rewarding the good stuff. Even when they do some really bad things he just ignores it – totally counterintuitive for Americans in terms of our image of what a great coach is but he’s had great results with it.

And I was over at the Australian Institute of Sport and saw a great Q&A with legendary rugby league coach Wayne Bennett, who has repeatedly taken unfancied teams and made them competitive, and he was talking about how elite players know when they screw up on the skills side, so his whole approach is to try and turn them into a family, so that they look out for each other and take on that responsibility. I do think there is a danger with coach overload – one-upmanship about having more coaches and specialists than the next guy or the next team – that teams lose a sense of intimacy or responsibility to the head coach.

Coach Pete Carroll of the Seahawks is keen to give his coaches some form of autonomy and in a game that is so heavily choreographed, giving the players agency over their learning has to be a good thing. If you look at young kids training to play sports, it is the ones who exhibit self-regulatory behaviour who are far more likely to succeed, the annoying ones who go up to the coach and ask: “Why am I doing this, this is too easy? How is this helping me?”

We need our coaches to look beyond the everyday as well. Take left-handedness. One in 11 men and about one in 20 women are left-handed and in some sports that’s key. It’s about a “negative frequency dependent advantage.”. In sports that are predicated on the participants being able to anticipate body movements – baseball, fencing, cricket, boxing to name but a few – anything out of the ordinary or with atypical body movements is a real advantage. Left-handedness, left-footedness, these things should be considered by coaches.

Another area away from the norm to look at is home advantage. The effect it has will of course vary depending on the sport but there’s research done in Chicago that suggests that in baseball a lot of the home advantage is down to unconscious bias on the part of referees. There are so many factors – the crowd, the familiarity with home surroundings, not having to change routines, but Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz have taken a lot of statistical evidence and it seems that umpires are far more likely to get key decisions wrong in favour of the home team. What those guys are saying is don’t ignore the data and look at diverse views.

In summary, I think curiosity, and considering all the different angles, and obviously using the science effectively, is the way forward for coaches. Use what’s known and take an interest in what isn’t yet known.

Nurture vs. Nature

Epstein approaches his subject with scientific rigour and the sceptic’s eye for received wisdom. To the probable dismay of parents of would-be footballers all over the country, he debunks the idea that expertise in any field can be attained simply by 10,000 hours of practice, the theory put forward by Anders Ericsson, who was studying a group of violinists, and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, as well as by Matthew Syed in Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.

Epstein points out that the theory is most often tested on people already identified as talented, and then applied retrospectively. He tries to redress the balance by focusing on sports science to look for alternative theories, looking at what he calls the hardware (what nature provides) and software (nurture) in a variety of cases and sports to see what conclusions can be drawn, arguing ultimately that one without the other is useless.

In many cases the case for nature is irrefutable – if you are male, between 20 and 40, 7ft and live in the USA, you have a 1 in 6 chance of being an NBA player right now; if you are between 6ft and 6ft 2, that chance reduces to 1 in 200,000. In other cases, there are compelling arguments for both nature and nurture – for example how every finalist in the men’s 100m since 1980 can trace his origins back to a small area in West Africa, but also that there are very few countries where a 6ft 4 15-year-old athlete would opt for track and field as a career choice. And then there are cases such as Stefan Holm the 5ft 11in Swedish high jumper who practised somewhere in the region of 20,000 hours to win Olympic gold.

The Sport Performance Summit

2 March 2019

More information