The Sports Gene
by David Epstein
my review. #SportsGene
This is a brilliant book, concerning the nature vs nurture debate, or more accurately the "nurture only" vs "nature + nurture" question, in the context of sports. Unlike the case of two other recent books - Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers
and Mathew Syed's Bounce
(which are also very readable), the overwhelming conclusion is that high levels of skill are usually a combination of nature and nurture.
This is neatly summarized in a chapter on `10,000 hours, give or take 10,000' - where the author looks at data from chess players from which the rule "that mastery comes from 10,000 hours of purposeful practice" was first advocated. While on an average
it took these young players 10,000 hours, some needed a little over 2000 while others needed 10 times as much. And this was from a pre-screened population.
The book is written in a spirit of enquiry (unlike Gladwell's and Syed's advocacy) and has many fascinating tales of the various aspects of nature and nurture that go into success (in sports), as well as surprising ways in which they interact.
Somewhat surprisingly, the conclusions from the role of talent (both genes and those environmental factors not in our control) is not fatalism but is both encouraging and practical. Firstly, as the chance that one has talent for some
sport, or indeed some worthwhile activity in life, is naturally much higher that having talent for a specific
sport, the obvious conclusion is to not overspecialize early, but try different things with an open mind to seek that for which you have a talent. I should add that fortunately many things like mathematics are naturally self-selecting - those without talent are unlikely to enjoy them (unless carried away by a romantic ideas of a field).
Another positive and practical conclusion of the author, which as he points out Kenyan runners fortunately believe in, is that if you have a talent it is never too late to start - unlike the view from "nurture only", where one may conclude that it is too late to catch up on the nurture that others have.