This article is guest blogged by Lee Ness, a UKA qualified Event Group Coach for Sprints and Hurdles, the Head Coach/Sprint Coach at City of Salisbury Athletics, and Running Club and Track and Field Team Manager for Wiltshire Athletics Association.
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David Epstein – The Sports Gene
I thought I would take a step away from my usual coaching pontifications and share a review of what I believe to be a very important book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by author David Epstein.
I was looking forward to David Epstein’s book and eagerly awaited it, having seen a number of reviews around the internet. The waiting was worse because the UK got the book later than the US, and there was no way around it even for e-books. I was also a little worried. There’d been a few posts on Facebook and Twitter among others that said the book ‘debunked’ the 10,000-hour rule and that Epstein’s book ‘proved’ that sports performance was genetic. Statements like this always raise my eyebrows.
As a coach, I genuinely hoped that wasn’t the case (the debunking of the 10,000-hour rule), but as a pseudo-scientist I was open to the possibility.
Let me first make a general comment. I really liked Epstein’s book. It is a great read, very interesting, entertaining and educating. Now, as a writer, I know how difficult a balance that is to strike, even if you’re brave enough to attempt it. Epstein clearly has his 10,000 hours in the bank as a writer (if you read the book; I must apologise for that pun).
First, I think it is worth pointing out my views on the 10,000-hour rule. As Captain Barbosa says in the Pirates of the Caribbean, they aren’t so many rules, more like guidelines. I have written about this in my own book which is due for publication in September, but I’m going to summarise my stance here. By any scientific definition, the 10,000-hour rule isn’t a rule. K Anders Ericsson (whose work Malcolm Gladwell used when he penned the term) didn’t believe it was, and I don’t really believe Gladwell or those that followed like Coyle and Syed do either. The way that science works is that someone has a hypothesis, an idea about how something works. They then test it and poke it and try to pick holes in it to see if it is true. If they’ve gone as far as they can and they haven’t broken their idea, then they will publish it to see whether anyone else can. Others will then test the hypothesis, and if they can find no exceptions to it, find that it works in all possible ways that it is supposed to, then it gets upgraded to a theory. A theory has no exceptions. If it can be broken by an exception, then it’s back to the drawing board for a new hypothesis that explains what has been discovered. A rule, in scientific terms, is the same as a law in scientific terms. It means that not only are there no exceptions and no gaps, it has also been proven that there never will be. That’s why Darwin’s theory of evolution is still only a theory, because we cannot know what we will still find that might poke a hole in it.
With all this in mind, there are no circumstances where the 10,000-hour rule can be a rule. It is just about a hypothesis, but in reality it isn’t even that. There cannot possibly be a fixed number that covers all endeavours, sporting or otherwise, to get to world class level. Not only is it an average (with all the lack of precision that entails) but there are bound to be exceptions.
And yet, I was hoping that Epstein’s book didn’t debunk this. Why? Because I saw the 10,000-hour rule for what it was. A construct to tell people that if they wanted to get to the top, they had to really graft and grind. Not just a little bit but almost beyond the imagining of most people. Roughly speaking; 10 years, 1000 hours a year, 20 hours a week. It is an enormous number, but people need to recognise it. It doesn’t matter if you get to the other end and find that you took 7 years or 13 years or whatever. When you start out, that is a long way away and the tolerance is irrelevant in the beginning. 10,000 hours is as good a hook as any to hang the deliberate practice hat on and it works for me as a coach.
So did Epstein’s book debunk it? Not really, or not in the context that I understand it anyway, although if you believe that any sedentary human can jump off his/her couch and are only 10,000 hours away from the Olympic 100m gold medal, and then prepare to be disappointed.
The book was obviously focussed on the genetic requirements it takes to become world class. Epstein showed that these requirements exist irrespective of the number of hours practice. As I got most of the way through the book, I had written this review in my head, I knew where I was going to go with it, until I read the epilogue and Epstein had beaten me to it, covering all the points I was going to make! In fairness, he gives the game away in the introduction that both nature and nurture are required, so even if you are genetically gifted with the appropriate building blocks, most people still need to work hard to get to the top.
In the body of the book though, I felt that Epstein was falling into a similar trap as his criticism of Gladwell. This mainly centred on the error in the analysis of the Ericsson study that the violinists were pre-selected. They were already at a top music school, so it wasn’t a random selection. I felt that the genetic argument followed a similar path at times, and while it is necessary to do this to be able to find the common genes that top athletes had in a particular discipline, I felt the exceptions were skirted over. For example, there is a lot of writing about the common factors for long distance runners and what their common genes are and where they are from in Africa. Around two chapters worth. But Paula Radcliffe gets a passing mention as an exception, about a paragraph, despite being the world record holder for women’s marathon. Yet, the exception for the men’s high jump that busts the 10,000-hour rule wide open supposedly, warrants a full chapter. I will come back to the high-jump example in a moment as I think it is worth explaining my stance (and possible bias on exceptions) as I may be biased here.
There are too many people that mistakenly believe that the ‘Exception proves the rule.’ This is an incorrect interpretation and doesn’t fall in line with how I described the hypothesis/theory/rule above. An exception only proves a rule if the exception is proven not to apply and, therefore, confirms that the rule is still correct (or certainly has not been refuted). You might need to read a more thorough explanation of this misinterpretation online if you don’t understand what I’ve written. I don’t want to divert too far from the review of the book. The problem is that, for me, it is the exceptions where the truly interesting factors lie. World class athletes are exceptional anyway. So exceptions to the general rule need to be explored, as, scientifically, they are very important. Paula Radcliffe is an exception, so is Christophe Lemaitre, maybe even Alan Wells. Wherever there are exceptions, there can be no genetic rules of who is and isn’t predestined to be a certain athlete.
This is where I was planning to go into more detail on why genetics is in its infancy, why we don’t know enough yet, etc. But Epstein beat me to it in his epilogue so I will leave you to read the book yourself and decide. He does a far better job of it than I could.
But now back to the high jumper. During the book, Epstein explains why the 10,000-hour rule is actually a disadvantage for some sports. Athletes that develop more general athleticism perform better than those that specialise early. Actually, many sports recognise that already. British Athletics is trying to move to multi-eventing up to a certain age to push this principle. And yet, in the high-jump example, the crossover between a high jump and basketball is not exposed as a factor. I think many sports, if you look objectively, have good crossover and when someone is very good at one sport they can transfer to another very quickly. This is even proven in the skeleton bobsleigh example, but this is used as an example of why skeleton bob is based on natural talent only. How many skeleton bob competitors would have been throwing themselves down the Cresta Run at 10 years old and for 10,000 hours? So very few of the competitors would be 10-year experts. The fact that the talent search produced a world class skeleton team is unsurprising. Again, countries have been doing that for ages. Disney even made a film about it, but that is all about cross-over of disciplines, not natural or genetic talent.
My final problem and actually my main problem with the book is not what Epstein has written, it is about how it is interpreted. I have already seen repeats of the ‘you cannot make a slow kid fast’ and ‘if you want to be good, pick your parents wisely’ sound bites. Too many people will take the 100m examples, and if you aren’t the right colour from the right part of Africa in your genetic make-up then you’re never going to be fast, so there’s no point training you to be a sprinter. This is just lazy. If a kid comes to me, that is slow and wants to be a sprinter, I won’t turn them away. I can always make them faster, and that speed may lead to something else. There’s more to being a sprinter than the 100m. The 400m Hurdles is a different race altogether, for example, but it is still a sprint. Getting faster through wanting to be a sprinter may lead someone to run 800m or even to be a shot putter. Whatever, the simple answer is we just don’t know. There are exceptions. Usain Bolt himself was an exception at one point. Christophe Lemaitre still is. Iwan Thomas didn’t do badly for a Celt. I was at the English Schools championships just over a week ago and the winners of the Intermediate Boys 100m and 200m, Oliver Bromby and Ryan Gorman respectively, both in the top 4 of the UK for both disciplines, do not fit the profile of a sprinter as defined by Epstein. Both are relatively short, white sprinters of slight build. Someone needs to tell them they shouldn’t be running blisteringly fast because they don’t fit the model.
I worry about how people are reading the book and interpreting what it says, but that isn’t Epsteins fault. In the same way, people will almost wilfully misinterpret the 10,000-hour rule; there will be others that will do the same for The Sports Gene.
Let me end on a high. If you are interested in sport, you should read David Epsteins book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was very well written and my criticisms are as much my own bias as they are the focus of the book. I feel I have learned a lot, and it has added to my body of knowledge as a coach. I would never have done the research that Epstein did, and I am grateful to him for summarising all the work so far for people like me. There were many times I wanted to read a passage out loud to my wife. It is interesting and entertaining. Huskies, thoroughbred racehorses, mice, cross country skiers and high jumpers are not to be found in many sportsbooks and certainly not all in one-sport book, but they are all highly illuminating. What I learned more than anything is how incredibly complex this subject is and how we are at the very foot of the mountain and as long as people like Epstein make the subject accessible, I will watch with interest as we sprint up that slope.
Buy the book, just don’t suddenly start writing off people because they don’t fit the profile. Read the Epilogue twice!
About the Author
My name is Lee Ness. I am a UKA qualified Event Group Coach for Sprints and Hurdles, the Head Coach/Sprint Coach at City of Salisbury Athletics and Running Club and Track and Field Team Manager for Wiltshire Athletics Association. I’ve been coaching track and filed for around 7 years. I coach all the sprints, from 60m to 400m plus the long and sprint hurdles. In my sprint group I have 36 sprinters and 10 hurdlers of various ages, starting from 13. In my group I have three athletes in the UK top 10 rankings for their event.
I write about sports performance in general and have written a book called The Sports Motivation Masterplan which will be released on September 1, 2014 by December House. The book is a support guide for athletes and parents, helping them with the role of mentor through their journey from young aspiring athlete, to elite performer.