Is Athleticism in the Genes?

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, October 2010.

In fifth grade, my school’s new eighth grade basketball coach (a former high school varsity coach, which was a very big deal) came to our house. He asked for my favorite player. I answered Kenny Anderson, then a freshman at Georgia Tech. He suggested, not too subtly, that I should follow Duke University’s Bobby Hurley (who was white) because I would never be quick enough to emulate Anderson (who was black).

Whether subtle or overt, responsible people (parents, coaches, teachers) told me (and my friends) over and over that I had no chance to play college or professional sports because I lacked the right genes – I did not jump high enough or run fast enough, and these abilities were genetic.

However, several recent research studies, collected nicely into David Epstein’s article “Sports Genes” in the May 17, 2010 Sports Illustrated, suggest that “something other than genetics is at work.”

When we look at the NBA, we see a high percentage of African-American players and assume a genetic advantage. However, if you look at volleyball, another sport emphasizing height and jumping ability, lanky white teenagers appear to have a genetic advantage. In football, we see a high percentage of African-American athletes and assume a genetic advantage. However, watching the best rugby players and nations, one might think that Europeans or Maoris have a genetic advantage even though the games require similar athletic qualities. When we look at marathon running, we see the dominance of East African runners and assume genetic superiority. However, Epstein’s article suggests a socioeconomic (dis)advantage.

“When [Yannis] Pitsiladis [a biologist at the University of Glasgow] compared 400 elite Kenyan athletes with a group of randomly selected Kenyans, he found that as children, the athletes were more likely to have lived at least several miles from school, and much more likely to have had to run there and back. Eighty-one percent of the elite Kenyan runners he studied had to rely on their feet to get to and from school, compared with only 22% of the control group.”

Kenyan runners dominate because they rely on their feet for survival. The same is true in Ethiopia. “Haile Gebrselassie, the world-record holder in the marathon and perhaps the greatest distance runner ever, began running to school when he was five, covering more than six miles each way. For Ethiopians like him, Gebrselassie says, ‘every day is running. Every job is running: working in the fields or just getting somewhere. Life is running.’”

Our assumption that the East African advantage is genetic often undermines the development of athletes who could compete and challenge the East African’s supremacy. “Pitsiladis’s conclusion is that whatever specific genes are necessary for endurance, they aren’t exclusive to either Ethiopians or Kenyans.”

Unfortunately, the misconception creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a young runner believes that he has a genetic disadvantage, how hard is he likely to train? If he does not train as hard as an Ethiopian runner, he is unlikely to be competitive, which reinforces the genetic advantage assumption. When his times plateau, will he persist and change his training routine or see his leveling off as a sign that he has reached his genetic peak?

When I was young, I was one of the better athletes in baseball, football and basketball. I had the advantage of a late birthdate, so I was one of the older and taller players. I picked up skills quickly and naturally, and I enjoyed the hours of practice required to master a skill.

As I moved toward junior high school and high school, I heard more about genetics and innate talent, almost as if responsible adults wanted to prepare me for an eventual inability to maintain my athletic status.

Because speed and power were deemed to be genetic abilities, not developed skills or qualities, I never dedicated myself to lifting weights or doing plyometrics like I did to shooting or hitting off a tee. Shooting and hitting were learned skills that I could improve, but speed and power were not. I controlled my ability to develop my shooting skills, but not my speed or jumping ability.

Therefore, my lack of speed and power development became a self-fulfilling prophecy: because I did not believe that I controlled my ability to improve my athleticism, I did not train my athletic skills, and therefore I did not enhance my athleticism. However, at the time, it was not my lack of effort, but my lack of genes to blame.

We see the dominance of African descendants (African-Americans, Jamaicans) and believe in their genetic advantages. In recent years, scientists identified and named the ACTN3 gene the Speed Gene, giving more credence to the belief that speed is a genetic trait, not a skill that can be developed.  However, “nearly all Kenyans, as well as 80% of Europeans, two groups not renowned for sprinting,” have at least one copy of the sprint gene variant. Unfortunately, because the sporting landscape appears unequal, science is unable to overpower myth.

While I practiced all day and ignored the speed and power work because of the misconceptions, an African-American child watched NBA games and saw a path to success. Nobody told him that he did not have the genes to succeed. While I ran laps around the field during soccer practice and shot baskets by myself, he raced in the streets, played tag and pick-up games – activities that enhanced his speed and power development.

While prominent TV personalities Charles Barkley and Len Elmore lament the fact that so many young African-American teenagers believe that professional sports provide their best path to success, nobody tells a young African-American child that he lacks the genes to play college or professional basketball.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry was a lightly recruited high school player who played at Davidson College, after every ACC programs failed to offer a scholarship. Curry’s father was a long-time NBA player, yet his alma mater, Virginia Tech, offered the younger Curry only a chance to walk-on.

Curry finished third in the 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year voting. In retrospect, people believe that Curry developed into a prolific scorer because his father was a great shooter. Somehow, Curry possesses the shooting gene.

Instead, it was not Curry’s genes, but his environment. When college after college passed over the younger Curry, rather than be discouraged, he worked harder. Curry knew that he could play in the NBA because his dad, an NBA authority, told him that he was good enough. This motivated the low Division I recruit to work harder, while many others forfeit their dream.

Pitsiladis notes that few progeny of Kenyan greats excel as runners. “How many of the top Kenyan runners have sons or daughters who are excelling at running? Almost none. Why? Because their father or mother becomes a world champion, has incredible resources, and the child never has to run to school again.” Their environment changes, and the children ignore the process that led to their parents’ greatness.

If the eight grade coach had never said anything, chances are that I never would have played college or professional basketball. The odds are steep. However, rather than dampen my motivation, under different circumstances, I may have embraced the weight room and enhanced my athleticism. With improved athleticism to complement my high basketball I.Q. and technical skill level, who knows what would have happened?

Athletic success is not determined at conception. Instead, many factors account for an athlete’s development. The more that a young athlete believes that he controls his success through his work ethic and determination, the more likely he is to persist through the plateaus, mistakes and tough days that are inevitable in the talent development process. When someone believes that his genes determine his success, he is less likely to persist and maintain the same high level of training effort and intensity once he reaches a sticking point.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

5 thoughts on “Is Athleticism in the Genes?

  • Of course, not everyone is born to be the greatest athlete, but everyone is born with more athletic potential (physically, mentally, and emotionally) than they think. Just like a flower, without the proper care, you’ll never fully blossom.

  • Your article is supported by Carol Dweck’s Fixed vs. Growth mindset model. Because of natural genetic variation, some of us are more gifted than others but just by fractions. The athlete’s belief of their strengths, weaknesses and limits, really, their story, plays a much, much stronger role in determining performance.

    When I see a great athlete, it’s an interesting exercise to trace back in their history to see where they started and what the environment was. Usually, the clues are there.

  • While upbringing and environment play a role in one’s athletic success, it is inarguable that — generally speaking — black people are quicker and can jump higher than whites. Might not be politically correct to say so out loud, but it’s objectively true.

  • Give the Olympic men’s basketball team 2 years of consistent training and they would absolutely demolish the current volleyball team in a game. Dwight Howard spiking and blocking? Those white boys wouldn’t have a chance.

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