“Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein labors to light the way forward in an arena where results are easily measureable, ultimately concluding that our genetic makeup confers sometimes unexpected advantages…Epstein performs a helpful public serviced by dispelling such fantasies and reminding us that greatness, in sports and elsewhere, is often God-given.” Michael M. Rosen
Great athletes are born, not made.
BY MICHAEL M. ROSEN • The Weekly Standard • JAN 20, 2014, VOL. 19, NO. 18 • p. 36, 37
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.
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-hourrule” 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. Continue reading