From Outliers to Overtraining: An Interview with the author of 'The Sports Gene', David Epstein Part 1

A discussion with Sports Illustrated's David Epstein, his new book 'The Sports Gene', and everything from Malcolm Gladwell, to the COMT gene, to explaining the rash of injuries in MMA.

In the world of sports journalism, you will hardly find an individual more respected than David Epstein. Not only does he cover sports like a modern day Sam Spade, but he does so in the obscure arena of sports science.

And better yet, he's helping create the public discussions about the role of science in sports in a way that is never disingenuous, or simplistic. He understands all too well the complexity of science and the need for nuance in how we debate subjects that challenge our notions of how biology and environment influence behavior.

Though I'm late to the party with regard to interviewing him, it's nonetheless always a pleasure speaking to the expert on all things science, sports, and Martin McDonagh. His down to earth persona betrays the provocative ideas percolating in his head, documented in his recent book, The Sports Gene. I reviewed the book upon its release, and needless to say, wasn't disappointed when David was able to expand on the research within.

David Castillo: I want to jump right into a question you've been asked a lot, which I think has garnered interest with its "oh shit, Morpheus is fighting Neo" quality to it all. In this case, with respect to your dialogue with Malcolm Gladwell. Your book takes aim at his interpretation of the Anders Ericsson "10,000 hour rule", directly and indirectly, and I'm just curious if you have anything to say about his defense of his thesis in The New Yorker.

David Epstein: First of all, I appreciated that Gladwell took to it in a civil and thoughtful way because I wanted to promote a discussion about this stuff. I appreciate his tone and the way he engaged me. We actually ended up on the radio the other day, and I like that he was interested in discussing ideas as opposed to flogging me.

That said, I think his defense amounted to the suggestion that what he called a ‘rule' or a magic number is neither a rule nor a magic number. It was his interview on the radio in which he said that 'clearly the rule shouldn't apply to sports', or something to that effect. But this rule has been extrapolated to violin where it came from, so I was little confused by that. The main argument about his piece is that complex cognitive tasks are what he was talking about. Two things about that. One, sports psychologists consider many of the tasks in sports to be one of the most cognitively complex things that people can do. Not only because they require a lot of rapid decision making but because there's somebody else trying to prevent you from making that decision.

I remember Joe Baker, one of the world's experts in the study of skill acquisition and sports expertise. In fact, right when he read that he started tweeting about how he couldn't believe he's (Gladwell) calling sports skill not a cognitively complex task. So there was that issue with classification I had a problem with.

And the other issue was that he highlights tasks that take longer to learn, like playing chess. It takes everyone more time to learn a task the more complex it gets. No arguing with that. But the individual differences go up, not down.

So I would say that he's simply moving the goalposts with respect to hours. But that doesn't change the fact that there's actually more evidence of attainability for those more difficult tasks.

I remember forwarding some of his work to a number of psychologists because he has a line in there where he says something to the effect of 'the more psychologists look they more they find that cognitively complex tasks link practice in overwhelming talent'. And each one of those psychologists said that's actually the opposite of what we're finding. The more cognitively complex the task, the greater the individual difference in the time it takes to learn it, and greater the number of people who will never learn it.

So I don't think that falls in line with the research and in fact if you look at the chess paper he quotes in his critique. In the next paragraph after the one he quotes, it says "the data show various signs of correlated signs of apparent greater natural talent in the eventual top players." And that's the paragraph that gets left out from the one he quotes.

I respect the fact that he has a thoughtful take on it but all of the major points are not in line with the evidence, even where he says, not to belabor this, but where he says "I'd like to see an American point guard in the NBA in less than ten years". First of all, that has nothing to do with individual differences. My whole point is about individual differences, not the absolute time it takes someone, so whether there is or isn't makes no difference.

Second of all, Steve Nash didn't hit his first basketball until he was 13 years old and is one of the most skilled players to ever live. Third of all, when you restrict the range of your performers to only the NBA you have an extremely biased sample. And when you then restrict it to only one position within the NBA it's like you're restricting your potential sample to like 30 people on Earth. So I just have a methodological problem with it.

David Castillo: I'm glad you mention that because getting back to the book with your focus on genetics with how nature and nurture interact with one another to influence athletic performance, this is what I think is so fascinating...which is looking at what traits have a genetic component we suspect would otherwise not have a genetic component.

David Epstein: One of the things that really surprised me in chapter 14 was in talking to scientists who study the dopamine system and realizing that they know full well that variation in brain chemistry basically affects how likely we are to have a drive to be physically active in the first place. I knew that physical activity we undertake impacts the dopamine system but I didn't know the reverse was true. That the dopamine system influences the physical activity we undertake.

That was a big surprise to me. We all know that in order to be a good or great athlete, for the most part you have to have a drive to train, and occasionally that's not true and you get a Donald Thomas who just sort of steps onto the field but that's obviously the exception.

David Castillo: Speaking of which, one of the more unique studies from the book was the section on the COMT gene, and was happy to see you use the Tim Sylvia vs. Frank Mir fight as a springboard for this discussion. So if we're designing an MMA fighter in the lab, why do we want this COMT gene?

David Epstein: So the COMT gene, that's one that connects to pain tolerance but what scientists suspect is really going on is that it affects your emotional response to pain tolerance. The single biggest correlative in the lab to pain tolerance has to do with something called 'catastrophizing', which refers to how anxious people get, and the suggestion is that this gene, given what version of it you have, can make some people less likely to be anxious about pain. Or anxious about being in high pressure situations. Though no one is arguing this is the whole genetic story.

But boy when I watch an MMA fight it seems like the entire second is a higher pressure situation than most people have ever been in in their entire life.

I think back to watching the Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche fight when Liz was on her back twisting her head, and Ronda was asked "did you realize your head was about to be twisted off" and she was like "I was aware of the severity of the situation." And I just thought 'there is someone who can keep her tolerance down'. I just can't imagine anyone making it at the highest levels without being able to keep your wits about you and being able to execute your techniques when you're in great pain, great stress, and pressure. Consider just the presence of the crowd. Getting back to the COMT studies, what scientists are finding is not just about athletic performance but anxiety in the context of an over-stimulating environment. Some people's performance might start deteriorating if you have the so called "worrier" version of the gene and so I think you have to work a lot harder to regulate your emotions if you're not naturally that way.

David Castillo: Certainly the same could be said of Jon Jones if you saw the fight the other night...

David Epstein: I actually missed the fight last night unfortunately, but there's another guy. Yea we know who he is now but in the early going was stuck in the ring with guys with way more experience. I'm glad Jon Jones didn't believe in the 10,000 hour rule because he probably would have never even started.

David Castillo: I'm glad you mention that because one of the really weird situations going on in MMA is this insane rash of injuries. I'm curious if there's an application of your research with how these MMA fighters are training, and how they can potentially limit said injuries.

David Epstein: That's a good question, and I think it goes back to that idea of individualized training. Soccer is the worst at this. I heard from a number of sports scientists, particularly Jesper Anderson who I used in the book, who work in soccer who say that everyone is trained the same. And the problem is that the guys who are really 'explosive', who we might say have fast twitch muscle fibers, end up hurt a lot. Think of the problem like this; if you had a track team you wouldn't train the 100 meter runners and the 5K runners the same. You wouldn't make them meet in the middle. The 5K runners may meet in the middle but the 100 meter runners couldn't.

The athletic pool in MMA is getting better rapidly in terms of just the athleticism of the guys being drawn into this sport. And I think that means you're going to end up getting more guys with different physiology, and more guys with fast twitch muscle fibers. I understand that you have a sport that requires a lot of work ethic, or "warrior" ethic where people are supposed to work and work and work day in and day out, but maybe that's not the answer for some.

For the guys that can contract their muscles rapidly, and explosively, that tends to increase their chances of injury. Those guys just need more rest, and less time training. I suspect that with more MMA guys coming down the pipeline, hopefully someone will help them with individualizing their training against their intuition to take it a little bit easier sometimes like Usain Bolt does.

Bolt's a perfect example. His whole biography is hilarious. He writes stuff like 'I really like my coach because he understands I'm just not gonna show up to practice sometimes'. Between world championship years he's nonexistent. He never even races the indoor season. I can't remember any Olympic champion who doesn't run a single indoor race ever. He just takes a whole season off.

It's possible we might need to see that with some MMA athletes. It's nice that the culture promotes that psychological drive to train and work hard, but that's not always the best. In fact exercise scientists who study training say that in addition to 'deliberate practice', they're now introducing a phrase called 'deliberate recovery'. Which is basically just planned and regimented low stress recovery time as part of your training program. Not just working hard, but resting hard.

Stay tuned at the same time tomorrow for the second portion of the interview. In the meantime you can follow him on Twitter @DavidEpstein.

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