David Epstein is a writer and his work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, National Geographic and The Washington Post, among other publications. He now writes for ProPublica, and is the author of The Sports Gene and his TED Talk, "Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?" has nearly 2 million views. I recently had the chance to interview him over the phone.
David Epstein: It sort of happened a little bit accidentally, so I grew up a huge sports fan of course, and I grew up in an area outside of Chicago that had a lot of Jamaican immigrants. I played football, basketball and baseball in high school at first and later in high school I started doing track. It was really popular at my school, because we had all these Jamaican kids and they really liked track and I got in to it because they were a lot of fun and they were really good, and when I learned Jamaica was an island of nearly 2.5 million people, almost a quarter of the size of New York City, I started to wonder what was going on over there, was their something special about them? And then when I wanted to keep running in college I had to move up to longer distances, and I started seeing all these Kenyan guys. And I started to realize that they weren't just Kenyan, they were all from this particular group in this one little town, and again I was thinking, "What the heck is going on over there?" At the same time I'm training with a group of guys and we're all doing the same thing every day, we even lived together and while we were training we were getting more different, not more the similar, so I saw that you could do the same training as other people and get really different results at the same time. So I just started to accumulate these questions in my head, and then there would be that in connection in things I saw on TV, like when I watched Jenny Finch on her TV show striking out some of the best hitters in baseball and I just really quickly calculated the time that her pitches took, and even though she was standing closer and throws slower than major leg pitchers, the time was a little bit longer than major league fastballs. So it didn't make sense to me that she'd be able to strike out major league hitters like that, and I had this running list of questions, and while I was a science student, I started to wonder about those. So really it's just from my own being an athlete and watching sports both live and on TV that led me to ask my own questions that maybe not many people had been asking.
JK: In your book, you talked about the "Big Bang of Body Types", and how professional athletes tend to have traits that are favorable to their sport, like a large wingspan on an NBA player. Can you explain why this occurs?
DE: So when it first started happening it was sort of by accident. So, like 100 years ago, there was this idea among coaches, it wasn't very scientific really, but there was this idea that an average size guy would be perfect for every sport, with medium height and medium weight. That idea basically started going away as sports scientist started to figure out what they were doing, and they started to realize that there where all these different variations in bodies. So at the time, 100 years ago, athletes were very similar across sports in terms of their stature. Overtime, a couple things happened. Scientists, and then coaches started realizing that you actually wanted these special body types, because they can give you an advantage, and the more competitive sports got, the more you wanted any little advantage you could have. At the same time, there was a change in the economy, basically, because there used to be a lot of amateur athletes, (who were really what we would consider pro athletes now, but they were amateur, because they weren't making a living doing it), but then once money came into sports, and not only money, but mass viewership, so first radio, and then television, and then the internet, so the more that happened, the greater the rewards became in sports. (These rewards) didn't support a large number of athletes around the world, instead it gave all the rewards to the small group of people who were the very best, and then all of the people would just watch them. As this happened, teams started looking all over the world, for these performers, and it caused us to really search the ends of the Earth for these specialized body types. At first, these specialized body types sort of accidentally found their way into these sports, but then as people started figuring out which of these body types are advantageous, then it turned from being an accident, to being something that people do systematically. When I was doing research for my chapter on NBA player's bodies, I noticed that the Houston Rockets were drafting a lot of the guys with the longest arms, and I think now of you look at the 76ers, their General Manager is a prodigy of the Rocket's General Manager, who is big into numbers and stats and things like that, and so, he wouldn't tell me if he was drafting these guys on purpose, but I'm pretty sure it's not by accident.
JK:Do you think these favorable traits will continue to increase, for example will distance runner's legs continue to get longer?
DE: I think a little bit, but it's slowing down, because the big explosion kind of already happened, when sports went global. It can't go global again but there are still some countries that don't have a large competitive population in most sports, like India for example, so their may still be some room for growth, but for the most part, most countries are competing, and teams are looking all over the world now, too. So I do think we will still see that, but I don't think it will be as fast. In most cases you will actually see it slowing down quite a bit already, like in 1983 when the NBA signed it's agreement to make players partners in the league, so they could get shares of ticket and television money. At the same time, Michael Jordan signed his Nike contract that really helped show players could make more money. So, teams started looking all over the world for players, the proportion of men in the NBA who were 7 feet tall or taller, went from 5% to 11% in two seasons, so almost over night, and it has basically stayed there ever since, so it seems like that happened really quickly, and maybe we found most of the 7 footers that have enough skill to play, and I think that is kind of the trend in most of the "Big Bang of Body Types", where most of the work has already been done, so it's still going, but mostly it's slowing down.
JK: You also wrote about "The 10,000 Hour Rule", a theory that any athlete can really become professional with enough practice. What are your thoughts on this theory and it's accuracy?
DE: So every time I read somebody writing about "The 10,000 Hour Rule" they present it as some thing different. So it sort of depends who's saying it, but the way I saw the way interpreted, even among scientists, and even among Anders Ericsson, who was the scientist who made it famous, was to say that it only takes 10,000 hours, and that there's no such thing as talent, and only this large volume of training can make you a professional. And, it's not accurate. We know it's not accurate, and it's not to say that training is not important, but scientists have known this for a long time. So Ericsson's original study was a study on violinists, and he only started with violinists that were really, really good, so it would be like a study on basketball players, and only using NBA players. But, he was already starting with people that were already really good, and not how they got there. Of course they're practicing a lot. They're all practicing a lot, but there are a lot of people that practice a lot and don't make the NBA. So the real fact and what we are really learning in physiology and genetics is that you can't make an hour rule (5,000 hour, 10,000 hour, 20,000 hour) there is none, because each person's genes and physiology causes them to improve more or less in the same hour of training as someone else is. So the whole idea that there would be a single number of hours for everybody is totally contradicted by everything that we are learning about how people differ, so I think it's not only inaccurate, according to the science, but I think that it can actually be kind of harmful, because I think we are now pushing now athletes to specialize in a sport year round, because we want them to start accumulating that 10,000 hours, and it takes a lot of time to do that, where as the sports scientists are saying young athletes that play a variety of sports early can delay their focus, even it means delaying getting a little better and specialized, and only focus later. Every one is trying to do the Tiger Woods, when sports scientists are saying that this is like the rare exception. Steve Nash didn't even own a basketball until he was 13, but played other sports. He was 8 years behind me playing basketball, but it turned out okay for him I think. Also, Roger Federer; his parents made him play chess, badminton, basketball and soccer before he was allowed to focus in on tennis. It worked out pretty well for him. Just last week, a new study came out on the German National Soccer Team, which won the World Cup, obviously, and it showed that those guys played a variety of sports early on, and received less technical instruction then their peers, and they only focused in (on soccer) later, so I think the idea of the "10,000 Hour Rule" is harmful, because it causes us to ignore what the sports scientists are saying.
JK: What do you think contributes more to an athletes success: the genes they are born with or the training they do over time?
DE: I think it's impossible to give any one answer for every thing, so one of the things I think displays this is the story from the book that I called "The Tale of Two High Jumpers". In this story, you have two guys that have gotten to the same level, one of whom was clearly born with these incredible gifts and did very little to develop them, and won a World Championship. He's now been pro for 7 years, and he hasn't gotten any better in these 7 years. So he started on top and he hasn't improved at all, where the other guy was kind of like decent, but not phenomenal and over 20 years, he totally dedicated himself to the sport of high jumping, and became the best, so even though one guy who is an extreme of talent, and one guy who is the extreme of hard work, they both get to the same place, through very different paths. So I think it's hard to answer it, but the more competitive the sport is, for example running the 100 meters, the more people get ruled out for making it to the top, either because of their genes, or because of their practice. Likewise, if you were jumping into some new Olympic sport, that's not that competitive yet, like skeleton, you might do well if you were only person that had the best genes, or you were the only person that knows how to train right, but for like the NBA and the NFL, you have to have both. So if someone says its more one or the other, they aren't being honest with what they really know.
JK: In your TED Talk, you talked about how athlete's times in sports, like track and swimming have gone down due to technology. Do you believe that technology will continue to help times decrease in the future?
DE: I do, I defiantly do. I think technology is used in all sports, and not just the kind of technology that I studied, which were some of the more obvious examples. I think the faster times get, the harder will be to get those small improvements, but I do think technology is going to make a big difference. Some of it I think is going to be technology that helps athletes train better and things like that. One of the biggest swimming inventions is one that I didn't even really mention in the talk was googles, which just allowed athletes to train longer, because their eyes wouldn't get stung from the chlorine, so they could stay in the pool and train longer. I think sports medicine has come a long way in figuring out ways to help athletes to train better, and stay healthier, so in that way technology is going to help. There is a great example from before the 2012 Olympics when the British Boxing Team saw they were losing all these training hours, because the boxers would get bruised knuckles from punching each other, so they said, "All right, lets hook up some sensors that can tell us where the pressure is on the hand thats causing this," and so they put sensors inside the gloves, and saw where the pressure was. Once they saw the knuckles the pressure was coming down on, they changed the way they taped the hand under the glove, to relieve some of that pressure, and that saved them like 1,000 training hours in a year. So there is this great use of technology that allows the athlete to stay healthier, and in turn allows them to train a lot more to become better. So I think many applications of sports medicine are really going to make a big difference in how much training athletes can tolerate, and that in turn will make them better.