Book Review: 'The Sports Gene' by David Epstein
One day in the early Aughts, Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at the New Yorker, was looking for a body of work that would provide a counterintuitive and inspiring take on how to succeed. At some point he came across K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who’d looked at musicians and found that the significant difference between a middling music teacher and a concert soloist was 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.
Ericsson’s work formed just one chapter in Outliers, the book Gladwell ended up writing, but it was the part that came to stand for the whole. Since then, countless dreamers have run with the idea, testing whether they’re 10,000 hours from greatness in one discipline or another.
One of those dreamers is Dan McLaughlin, who’s currently about 4,334 hours into his 10,000-hour attempt to turn himself into a professional golfer. McLaughlin appears in The Sports Gene, a new book by David Epstein, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. The Sports Gene is an implicit—and, in one chapter, explicit—refutation of the 10,000-hour benchmark, and it’s sobering for readers with hopes of outrunning, outputting, outlifting, outthinking, or outworking anyone else. It’s much easier, Epstein proves, to have been born genetically gifted.
First to go is the idea that 10,000 hours is anything like a rule. As one study showed, chess players do tend to reach grandmaster status in an average of 10,000 hours, but some take 3,000 hours to get there, and others need 23,000. And several players the researchers looked at “started early in childhood” and “logged more than 25,000 hours of chess practice and study and had yet to achieve basic master status.”
Next to go is the notion that 10,000 hours is necessary at all. Epstein describes the heartbreaking competition between high jumper Stefan Holm, who won the Olympic gold medal in 2004 after a lifetime of practice, and Donald Thomas, who beat Holm at the World Championships in 2007 after training for about a year. (There are only 8,760 hours in a year, and that’s if you never eat, sleep, or bathe.) And to take just one workplace example, psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1908 found that adults could rapidly improve at multiplying three-digit numbers with practice, but that the ones who started out faster improved faster as well. That showed, he wrote, “a positive correlation with high initial ability with ability to profit by training.”
Even the will to succeed in any field may also be less a choice than a gift. Sled dogs, for example, have been bred for the need to run. One variant of the modern winning sled dog is an animal that simply will not stop running; racers, when they’re having lunch, tie their sleds to strong trees. DNA may also explain why some people are willing to spend 23 hours a day—and even be enthusiastic about it—combing through corporate memos to make a legal case, or building empires around sandwich making, or writing corporate workflow software. They just have to work.
Unraveling the influences of nature and nurture can be difficult. In baseball, for example, hitting is a largely practiced response to the pitcher’s mechanics, watching his windup and release. Ten thousand hours of practice, however, do not a professional make. Research on baseball players has found that professionals have vision that is off the charts, literally. A doctor named Louis Rosenbaum, testing 87 players in the Dodgers organization in 1992, had to order new charts. The old ones tested visual acuity only down to 20/15. Nearly every player neared the theoretical maximum of about 20/12. Being able to see the ball earlier is a crucial differentiator—and not one an aspiring player can work on. And so it goes with speed in soccer and cardiovascular efficiency in cross-country skiing.
Epstein fights his own conclusions throughout the book, saying early that “nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is almost always: It’s both.” He tries to end on that note, too, but everything about his book feels like a takedown of the argument we all want to make. In Epstein’s world, the outliers are not a more practiced version of you and me. They’re just better.