The Magazine

Practice, Practice?

Great athletes are born, not made.

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By MICHAEL M. ROSEN
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Few social scientists doubt that both nurture and nature contribute meaningfully to human achievement. But the balance among the cognoscenti has tilted in recent years toward the perfectibility of the body and mind through practice, even in athletics.

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In this thoughtful exploration of the conundrum, Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein labors to light the way forward in an arena where results are easily measurable, ultimately concluding that our genetic makeup confers sometimes-unexpected advantages. He recognizes the truism that “nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is always: it’s both.” Still, he persists in exploring “how, specifically, might nature and nurture be at work here? .  .  . How much does each contribute?” 

In search of answers, Epstein circles the globe, journeying from the Arctic Circle, where he observes a gold-medal skier, to Jamaica, where he seeks out the world’s fastest men and women, to Kenya’s hallowed Rift Valley, where he tracks champion distance runners among the Kalenjin tribe. Along the way, he carefully traverses the minefields of race, evolution, and genetic determinism to conclude that, in many cases, athletic achievement cannot just be learned.

In particular, Epstein takes a hatchet to the famed “deliberate practice” theory, pioneered in 1993 by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s research, an examination of the practice regimens of violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin, revealed that “many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.” Specifically, Ericsson found, rigorous practice for at least 10,000 hours enabled the musicians to overcome any innate differences. Malcolm Gladwell injected this theory with anabolic steroids in Outliers (2008), inflating it into the now-infamous “10,000-hour rule” in various fields and surmising that, for a young hockey player, “without ten thousand hours [of practice] under his belt, there is no way he can ever master the skills necessary to play at the top level.” In Gladwell’s telling, myriad practice hours are both necessary and sufficient for success in a wide variety of athletic and cognitive endeavors. 

But David Epstein spends most of The Sports Gene methodically unraveling the “strong” version of the 10,000-hours principle on the basis of data in fields as diverse as chess, track and field, basketball, wrestling, netball, and the skeleton, in which one study found an Australian racer metamorphosing from “Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months.” Epstein also observes that the Dutch men’s national field hockey team regularly outclasses its Belgian counterparts, despite practicing, on average, thousands fewer hours—and far fewer than 10,000 hours total.

In absolutely every single study of sports expertise there is a tremendous range of hours of practice logged by athletes who reach the same level, and very rarely do elite performers log 10,000 hours of sport-specific practice prior to reaching the top competitive plane.

In an especially illuminating chapter on “the talent of trainability,” Epstein explores several recent experiments and concludes that gene variations account for half of the average athlete’s ability to improve her performance.  Researchers have been able to identify specific “genes that help account for an individual’s drop in blood pressure and heart rate with training.” Such findings, Epstein notes, will one day pay handsome dividends in personalized medicine by empowering individuals to adopt an exercise regimen ideally suited to their traits.

Malcolm Gladwell, incidentally, fired back at this in a lengthy New Yorker blog post last year, huffing that Epstein “built himself a straw man” and offering the revised—and much more nuanced—conclusion, “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals [emphasis added].”

Epstein also offers insightful analyses of issues ranging from a person’s running economy and VO2 max (also known as aerobic capacity) to the spindly lower legs of elite Kenyan runners to relative hemoglobin levels among Andean, Nepalese, and Ethiopian athletes—meticulously explaining exactly how they’re influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, such as altitude. At times, Epstein, a skilled storyteller and expert profiler, allows his narrative to lurch from one extraordinary athlete to another without an especially coherent theme to unify his vignettes. Still, The Sports Gene adroitly marries epistemological uncertainty to promising research. 

In conclusion, he recognizes that “we are unlikely ever to receive complete answers from genetics alone, and not merely because environment and training are always critical factors.” Yet he nonetheless maintains that, in certain areas—trainability in particular—genes dominate. And in what is perhaps his most revealing observation, Epstein notes that the practice-only narrative “appeals to our hope that anything is possible with the right environment, and that children are lumps of clay with infinite athletic malleability. .  .  . It has the strongest possible self-help angle and it preserves more free will than any alternative explanation.” 

We want to believe that we, or our offspring, are a scant 10,000 hours away from greatness, that our ultimate dreams can be realized solely through hard work, and that the human mind and body are perfectible—equally so in all individuals. Epstein performs a helpful public service by dispelling such fantasies and reminding us that greatness, in sports and elsewhere, is often God-given.

Michael M. Rosen practices law in San Diego.