Malcolm Gladwell fans, prepare for disappointing news, said Bryant Urstadt in Bloomberg Businessweek. David Epstein of Sports Illustrated has sifted through the latest science for his new book on athletic achievement, and his findings essentially refute Gladwell’s electrifying contention, made in the 2008 book Outliers, that 10,000 hours of practice is all that separates any of us from mastery of virtually any skill. Epstein clearly hates to emphasize training’s limitations. Even so, “The Sports Gene is an implicit—and, in one chapter, explicit—refutation of the 10,000-hour benchmark,” and it makes sobering reading for anyone who hopes to achieve superiority in sports, music, or even chess simply by outworking the competition.
It’s not as if Epstein totally discounts the importance of practice, said Reeves Wiedeman in NewYorker.com. The author makes a strong case that major leaguer Albert Pujols became one of baseball’s greatest hitters because practice enabled him to sort efficiently through visual memories and decide quickly whether to swing at any particular pitch. Yet it’s not practice that explains why major league players typically have exceptional eyesight—or why fully 17 percent of the young men in America who are over 7 feet tall play in the NBA. Epstein’s exploration of various genetic traits that distinguish elite athletes eventually inspires an uncomfortable question: Could humans begin breeding for athletic achievement? Creating a perfect athlete remains well beyond science’s reach, Epstein tells us, but genetic tweaks might not be far off. And just think: The huskies that compete in Alaska’s Iditarod are already cultivated not only for speed and strength. They’re also bred to possess an almost masochistic will to keep running.
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Epstein never does provide a simple conclusion about the relative importance of talent and training, said Alex Hutchinson in The Globe and Mail (Canada). The Sports Gene “doesn’t leave you with the satisfying click of clarity and enlightenment that you get after reading something by, say, Jonah Lehrer.” But that’s a point in the book’s favor. Unlike Lehrer and many other writers of general-interest science books, Epstein refuses to cherry-pick research evidence. In the end, the picture of athletic greatness we get in The Sports Gene proves “fascinating and humblingly complex”—just like the world that the book aims to describe.
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