I just finished a fascinating book called “The Sport’s Gene” by David Epstein and immediately switched the Kindle back to page 1 and started reading again.
It’s that fucking good.
In a nutshell, it looks at the age-old debate of nature vs nurture in the context of sporting performance. Epstein takes particular aim at the recently popularised, “it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become a champion” rhetoric that has seemingly subsumed common sense and transformed from a cultural mantra to the established status quo among sports journalists, wannabe- coaches and media soundbytes.
“Practice 10,000 hours and you’ll build the skill set of a champion” It’s safe. It’s politically correct. But worst of all, it’s downright misleading and flat out wrong.
The author and journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, who popularised this “magic number” as he puts it, distorted and misrepresented the original studies proposed by Anders Ericcson creating the belief that anyone could achieve greatness given the right amount of dedication to a craft for this “scientifically determined” average amount of time.
Epstein’s “Sports Gene” not only skillfully discredits this claim, but shows how it’s a complex interplay between genes AND practice, environment, luck and a WHOLE slew of other factors that enter the mysterious mix that separates the champions from the also-rans.
I’ll review the book later this week in more detail, but as I read it the first time, I couldn’t help but think of Ronnie Coleman as a prime candidate of how nature AND nurture must come together to produce a dominant sporting elite athlete.
Genetically, we know that Big Ron was a phenom and had all the gifts necessary to inevitably enter the pro ranks. A company specialising in fitness genetics testing profiled Coleman’s DNA at the 2013 Mr Olympia.
Coleman had all the makings of the beast he was destined to become. He started hitting the iron at 14 and at 15 joined the highschool powerlifting team. At 5’9 he lifted in the 181lb class and could bench 300 and squat/deadlift 450lb.
The genetic testing determined that Coleman has high levels of ACTN3 – a gene “most associated with an individual’s ability to develop strength and power” particularly prevalent in Olympic level sprinters.
Ronnie possesses a variant in this gene making the muscles more resistant to damage (11 times greater muscular endurance compared to low volume responders) and upregulating the anabolic signalling pathways as a result of resistance training, including increasing testosterone. The gene variation also assists in better muscle recovery and supercompensation enabling for far greater volume and training frequency to be employed.
“For people with his gene variants, we recommend the highest volume and the most frequent training sessions. So in fact, Mr. Coleman was probably such a successful bodybuilder
at least partly because he learned how to train in a way that was optimal for his genetics.” the gene testing company was quoted as saying.
Coleman’s famously high carb intake can be attributed to variant in his genetics for insulin functioning. He has ideal variants in 3 out of the 4 genes tested for this putting him in the highest 5-10% of subjects tested for insulin function. He was also tested for the highest “thermogenic” variant for UC2 (uncoupling proteins) enabling trainees to burn off excess energy as heat instead of using it to make ATP.
Basically, in Ron’s case, it’s easy as fuck to put on slabs of muscle, gain strength, recover from brutal training, AND he finds it hard to gain appreciable levels of body fat. Add to the mix he started training during the onset of puberty which are VERY formative years for prospective pro bodybuilders as many historical examples attest to.
Despite his genetic gifts, for years, Ron languished at the bottom of the pro heap and was never considered a legitimate competitive threat by his peers.
Enter Chad Nichols and his bag of tricks. Under Nichols’ guidance, he transformed Ron Who? into Ron the G.O.A.T and the most “winningest Mr Olympia ever.”
Nature and Nurture – Environment, the right people, luck and circumstance.
It’s a complex and often fortuitous combination ranging from being born with the right parents, at the right time, at the right place and everything else in between.
Added to that, it’s also a fascinating lens under which to investigate the nuanced formula used to create any one individual champion, whatever the arena.