Sports and genetics

2 minute read

Sports Are 80 Percent Mental has an interview with Peter Vint of the U.S. Olympic Committee: “Do Young Athletes Need Practice Or Genetics? A Conversation With Peter Vint”. Vint does a good job of describing the complexity of performance – most sports require a combination of physical and mental skills that are developed through learning and practice:

For example, a pilot controlling an automated aircraft may need only nominal motor skill to press a button, but will require substantial mental and perceptual skill to understand what happens when the automation switches from one mode to another. On the other hand, a basketball player will require extensive motor skill in executing a drive to the basket but will, though to a lesser extent, also involve perceptual and mental skills. Good examples of the world's best players in sport (especially team sports) seem to have exceptionally well developed perceptual skills which allow them to "see the field" better than others and "know where players will be before they even arrive".

The broader topic of the interview is, what is the relationship between practice, genetics, and talent? Sport is interesting for its diversity. Even a pure running race involves both mental and physical skill, and the mental game is much greater for some sports. Many sports have limiting physical requirements – elite distance cyclists, for example, are in a very narrow range of body mass compared to the average man. Even so, the subset of people who make it as elite cyclists is so small that a wide range of performance and personality traits can influence the set. At one level, the personality traits are primary – to compete at an elite level, you need the support of a team, which may mean paying your dues as a domestique for several years.

One reason it’s hard to talk about genetic influences on sport performance – the point at which most people care whether genes make a difference is long after many genes have the opportunity to matter. Whether genes make a difference to middle school sports learning and performance or not – that’s just not a burning topic of study. Whether genes make a difference at an elite level is, with a few exceptions, a harder kind of genetic question, because the gene-environment interaction may be so strong by the time people reach the elite level.

A comparable problem: finding genes that influence recovery time after heart surgery. Recovery time may be influenced by several genes of strong effect, but these genes need not have anything to do with the initial risk of cardiovascular disease. Still, everyone who got the surgery must first have gotten cardiovascular disease – the initial risk genes influence the composition of the sample. That’s the relation between elite athletes and beginners – nobody gets to the Olympic level without a long period of being pretty good at their sport, with all the practice that entails.

(via Neuroanthropology)