My New "Sports Gene" Lenses

On July 19th, during a heat wave, the author David Epstein texted me that he’d just gotten back from his morning run and was ready to talk about setting up an interview about his new book The Sports Gene.

The Sports Gene is a perspective changing examination of the role of nature versus nurture in the highest performing athletes based on the very latest science.

After chatting for about ten minutes I asked him if he had a good run.

“Great” he told me. “I got engaged.”

Buried Lead, David!

“I sent my girlfriend into Manhattan and told her to run home, and I ran from our apartment in Brooklyn, and we ‘bumped into’ each other on the Brooklyn Bridge.” That’s where he proposed. That’s where she said yes.

I wanted to talk more, but Epstein told me he had to call his parents to tell them the great news.

“You haven’t told your parents yet?”

“No,” said Epstein. “You’re the first to know.”

That’s the kind of person I like to interview. Someone who tells me the important stuff before he tells the people who matter most in his life.

And that’s the edge I got from Epstein, a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, when we sat down for an hour in the CEO’s office of the majestic Brooklyn Public Library (I dreamed of bringing the cameras to the engagement spot on the Brooklyn Bridge. Great symbolism. Too noisy.)

The first thing Epstein accomplishes in The Sports Gene is to dismantle what we’ve come to know as the 10-Thousand-Hours-Of-Practice-Rule to reach the height of sports or any skilled profession.

That 10-thousand hour rule has sent a lot of parents scrambling for their calculators.

What Epstein found is that, while practice and determined training is essential to high performance, how much training one requires to excel at a sport varies greatly from person to person based on an individual’s genetic makeup.

Which is why Epstein’s advice for parents, based on the latest science, is this. Specializing in one sport when you’re a child can be detrimental to a child’s long term athletic achievement – not to mention the joy of sport.


Warning. There are some case studies in The Sports Gene which make you wonder whether it’s even worth the effort to train hard. It is worth the effort. In fact, Epstein lays out the evidence that our growing (but far from complete) knowledge of genes makes it more possible than ever for all of us to train smarter.

For the moment though – just marvel at this story of how one boy went from a low level high school runner who could barely make the team – to one of the fastest milers in the world – in less than a year.


Before you watch your next baseball game, be it Major League or Little League, I recommend listening to this next exchange based on David Epstein’s reporting in The Sports Gene.

Epstein has news about the remarkable visual acuity of the average professional baseball player. It’s way better than 20/20, he reveals. And then he throws this curve ball. “The advice to keep your eye on the ball is rubbish,” says Epstein Oh – that requires an explanation, which you can hear by clicking play on the next video.


You don’t need a great hitter’s 20/12 vision to see a wide receiver racing down field. We can all see that. But we may be looking for the wrong thing.

By the time Epstein gets finished with us in this next video exchange, you’ll realize that a great quarterback, like Peyton Manning, may have more in common with a speed chess player than a home run hitter.

It comes down to a concept that could change the way you watch – or play – your next football game. It’s called chunking.


I had to bring up my elementary-school daughter with David Epstein. The only diamonds she’s interested in are on baseball fields.

She is, proudly, the only girl on her little league team. Right now – she’s on par with the boys. In fact, my fellow team parents will tell you, if her team is down in the last inning with two outs, bases loaded, my daughter’s one of the players you want at the plate.

But she is not – in a phrase that David Epstein coined on page 91 of his book, “naturally doped.” Just to name one factor, her disparity with the boys in strength enhancing testosterone will grow with time.

Are my daughter’s genes stacked against her in the game of hardball? Should she give it up? I love David Epstein’s answer.


After reading The Sports Gene and spending an hour with David Epstein, I asked him to summarize the body of his work in a tweet.  140 characters.

He thought for a while and came up with this.

The New Talent Is The Ability To Respond To Training

52 characters. Room for 88 more. My turn.

50% of your ability to respond to training is determined by lineage- your parents.

And now – I ask you this. If 50 percent of our ability to respond to training is inherited – and the other 50 percent is learned – how can those of us with a relatively poor lineage, athletically speaking, dream of becoming champions.

David Epstein’s answer – next week – exclusively here on

Oh – the two tweets above totaled only 139 characters. I have one more character left to capture the impact of The Sports Gene on my understanding of athletic achievement.