18 August 2013
How to Make a Great Athlete? Tell a Great Story.
Maybe the most important thing about The Sports Gene is that it doesn't exist.
The book – the one promised with the title – about the prime biological basis common to great athletes is not what Sports Illustrated's David Epstein actually wrote and published. Not that inherent physicality isn't important to who the athlete becomes and how well he plays. Epstein discovers that in his own life. It's just that there isn't one gene.
The "opposite" is also not true. The title is not ironic in that he writes about how great athletes somehow correctly apply the often misunderstood meme of 10,000 hours of practice to greatness is also not true.
It turns out, pretty much as experience of generation upon generation teaches — some great athletes have great athletic children, many don't and non- or mid-level athletes produced great athletes — that everything matters, nature, nurture, luck and early specialization is a key, except when it isn't. What matters most – and what never makes it into the title or sub-title – is that while the sum of the person's existence plays a part in the development of a great athlete there may be nothing that matters more than the context by which his or her public frames the athlete's story. In something of a sports application of the old and famed zen koan: if a talent is outsized but nobody appreciates it is the athlete really that great?
In other words, appreciation makes the athlete; since we can't define or appreciate "the gene," it doesn't exist. The book, on the other hand, does.