Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Sports Gene by David Epstein

"I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because I'd rather I make money from my writing than someone else."*

If you had to read just one book this year, make it this one

Some time ago, I read a lovely book called The Genius Factory by David Plotz, which discusses a completely bonkers project to unleash the power of Nobel Prize winners by harnessing their sperm and then extends into a larger discussion on nature vs. nurture. The Sports Gene by Epstein takes this popular debate into the arena of sports and discusses several controversial questions while ensuring the reader is never bored for a moment.

Here is a short & lovely story about how the author got started on his book.

I began reading the book, thanks to a lovely teaser chapter in Sports Illustrated where he discusses how/why the very best baseball players could not handle a softball pitcher, a woman, to queer the pitch, in an already hormone-charged sport (all puns intended).

I didn't even know that running would be such a big theme in the book. Once I learnt that the author was an accomplished collegiate runner himself, before he embarked upon a career in writing, I was even more interested, being a wannabe writer and an amateur runner myself.

Starting with that discussion on baseball sluggers and softball pitchers and the role of talent, skills, training and context and the role of differences between those aspects in those two sports, Epstein grabs the reader from the first chapter. It is not material if you don't understand American sports such as baseball although your reading pleasure would perhaps increase if you did.

The author switches between discussing research, especially of the less-popular variety and conventional thought on the role of talent and training in the lives of sportspersons, peppering the book with some fantastic anecdotes on several sports legends.

One thing which becomes quickly apparent to the reader is the author's grief with the so-called 10,000 hr rule which gained notoriety/currency thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's writing. Epstein devotes quite some effort to deconstructing that myth & consequent over-simplification of the path to athletic success which has stemmed from it. The reader could be forgiven for thinking parts of the book are almost an exasperated, if very-educated rant against such superficial and eye-catching but inaccurate/half-baked observations. Using the examples as diverse of football players (soccer players to Americans), NBA athletes, winter Olympic champions and of course, Kenyan runners, the author passionately highlights both the role of genes and rigorous practice/training. He makes it even more interesting by writing about animals especially dogs in racing of both short and long distance events. There's also examination of the difference between sexes, thanks to genetics.

The book is so well written that the reader could pretty much start with any chapter and read them in any order, thanks to the brilliant writing and perspective the author brings to his writing. Even if you were a researcher and not just someone looking for a good read on sports, the book provides you enough food for thought.

I would particularly recommend it if you have some role to play in the development of a child who is interested in sports.

As your bonus for reading this post, here's a chapter that was dropped from the book, which still makes compelling reading. It gives you a flavour of why Epstein is considered as a must-have participant for debates on talent and performance in sports by my favourite sports scientist.

The book was a finalist at the 2013 William Hill Sports Book of the year awards and is likely to be top of the list for most sports buffs for a while.

Must Read.

*The 1st line of this post is thanks to some support from the nice folks at Grammarly

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