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Do You have the Genes to Excel in Basketball?

David Epstein has an interesting article about the “speed gene” and the confluence of genetics research and sports in the latest Sports Illustrated.

People often reference the successful sons or daughters of professional athletes and credit their success to their genes. Epstein references Ken Griffey Jr., while I like to use Stephen Curry as an example. Now that Curry is an excellent professional player, after being a lightly recruited high school player, people point to his genes: since his father was a professional player, he has the genes to be a professional player too.

There is support for the role of genes in the success of power and speed athletes:

Take ACTN3, the so-called speed gene, one of the most thoroughly studied performance genes. In 2003 a seven-scientist team published a study in The American Journal of Human Genetics in which 429 elite Australian athletes were tested for the ACTN3 gene. All people have two copies of that gene, each of which comes in one of two variants, R or X. The R variant instructs the body to produce alpha-actinin-3, a protein found only in fast-twitch muscle fibers, the kind that contract rapidly and violently to facilitate explosive movement, while the X variant prevents the protein from being created.

Eighteen percent of the “normal” people used as a control group had two X copies, and thus none of the power protein in their muscles. But not a single one of the 32 Olympic sprinters in the study had two X variants. Similarly, of the sprinters whom Pitsiladis has analyzed so far, not one current or former world-record holder has two X variants.

However, simply having the right genetic combination of the “speed gene” does not make one an Olympic sprinter.

In 2008 Pitsiladis tested Colin Jackson, a British former world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, for ACTN3. “He had the right version,” Pitsiladis says, “but so do I.” And so do billions of people worldwide, but that doesn’t make them world-class sprinters. In fact, it seems that all an ACTN3 test can do consistently is tell someone he isn’t going to make the Olympic 4 × 100 relay team. But even that sweeping conclusion leaves room for exceptions, such as the Jamaican sprinter who was recently found to have the “wrong” copies of the explosiveness gene, or the Spanish long jumper who also has them yet sailed more than 27 feet and twice made the Olympics.

The Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate long-distance running, so many assume a genetic advantage. However, rather than a genetic advantage, they have the advantage of their socioeconomic status and the circumstances of daily life (i.e. the environment).

When Pitsiladis compared 400 elite Kenyan athletes with a group of randomly selected Kenyans, he found that as children, the athletes were more likely to have lived at least several miles from school, and much more likely to have had to run there and back. Eighty-one percent of the elite Kenyan runners he studied had to rely on their feet to get to and from school, compared with only 22% of the control group…Haile Gebrselassie, the world-record holder in the marathon and perhaps the greatest distance runner ever, began running to school when he was five, covering more than six miles each way. For Ethiopians like him, Gebrselassie says, “every day is running. Every job is running: working in the fields or just getting somewhere. Life is running.”

While the speed gene may not determine a young athlete’s ultimate success, there is genetic evidence to suggest that motivation is genetic.

Another 2006 study…concluded that about half to three quarters of the variation in the amount of exercise people engaged in could be accounted for by their genetic makeup, while environmental factors, such as access to a gym, often had less influence. And studies of laboratory mice suggest that the difference could be in genes that regulate dopamine, a brain chemical involved in sensations of pleasure and reward…one interesting difference was that the high runners’ brains were larger. “Presumably, the centers of the brain that deal with motivation and reward have gotten larger,” Theodore Garland, a physiologist at UC Riverside says.

When I recruit or evaluate players, work ethic is one of the first characteristics that I seek. When I train players, I weed out those without the motivation to work hard, as they will never work hard enough to maximize the training.

We often see great athletes who excel in multiple sports and assume that their success is genetic. Stephen Curry is a great shooter because Dell was a great shooter. However, the research suggests that it is more likely that Stephen received Dell’s work ethic gene and has similar motivation which has enabled him to excel as well.

Wayne Gretzky famously said, “Maybe it wasn’t talent the Lord gave me, maybe it was the passion.” But what if the two are inextricable? What if passion is a talent? Might not, say, Floyd Mayweather Jr.—who has been known to jolt awake in the middle of the night salivating to get to the gym—get an innately outsized sense of reward from working out?

The players who make it to the next level tend to be these players, the ones who enjoy working out and investing more time and energy into their pursuit of excellence? Is this a genetic trait? Is it innate?

Possibly. Regardless, Epstein’s article eliminates the common excuses that many offer for their athletic failures. While some may be predisposed to endurance events and others predisposed to power sports, there is no super-athlete genetic profile. Becoming a top athlete requires hard work, time and effort, and everyone has the capacity to invest in themselves and their pursuit of excellence.

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