Genetics in Sports

How important are genetics in sports? Depends on who you ask I suppose. There are those that believe that success in sport is all about hard work, determination, focus and desire. These people would say that the other physical characteristics aren’t as important or as high up on the scale.

Then there are those whose opinion is opposite – that to be successful in sport one must have the right kind of genetics and physical characteristics in order to reach the highest levels of competition and success even before you begin your training. The above qualities would be important, but not as important as having the right body for what it is you’re trying to do.

I personally think high-level success in sports involves a good combination of both physical traits as well as approach to the sport. Even though someone may not be quite as fast or quite as tall, they might still be able to out-work and out-hustle their opponent by training harder and doing the little things more precisely.

Now when you really get down to business, what determines success and what is most important? If ending up in a professional league is your idea of success, you’ll have to have quite a few dominoes fall in the right pattern, but it is certainly worth pursuing. If only playing in college or high school is good enough, great! No matter one’s physical traits, sport is something can be a part of your life forever. With so many opportunities for participation now and more attention given to some of the more “non-traditional” sports, your options are many.

But back to the genetics aspect of sport – what role does this play in sports success? Well, probably a great deal actually. Anecdotally and from personal experience, some of the most successful athletes I’ve known have all had extreme features, either a genetic anomaly or from very specific genetic profiles of their parents – very tall for reaching or very large hands for catching or throwing or very long legs for jumping and springing – that enable them to perform certain actions better than most others.

I enjoy watching college athletics for the anecdotal evidence of athletes’ body types and team success. Many athletes in the same sport have similar body types, more tuned for the sport they play – basketball players are generally tall, wrestlers are average height but perfect strength-to-weight ratio, runners are thin and light, etc. I don’t have any evidence for what kind of genetic makeup makes a successful athlete, but it’s rather interesting to compare the physical characteristics of athletes on successful teams versus other teams. Sometimes there is an obvious difference, but other times there is not.

Check out this article from Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker magazine that discusses this exact issue of genetics in sports. He takes a different angle on the same subject that I thought was worth sharing. For further reading, consider buying The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (affiliate) by David Epstein. I haven’t read this one yet myself, but will be adding this to my list to read as well.

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