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The Sports Gene

Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

By David Epstein
  • Read in 13 minutes
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Sports Gene by David Epstein

The Sports Gene takes a look at the physiological traits that are beneficial in various sports, and at their hereditary background. It also examines why people in certain parts of the world have evolved in their particular way, and how this is beneficial in the realm of certain sports.

Key idea 1 of 8

Hereditary factors like one’s height and arm span are key advantages in basketball.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become an outstanding athlete, like a NBA basketball player or an Olympic sprinter?

Obviously, hard work and dedication are essential. But it also helps immensely if you happen to be blessed with excellent genes, as they can give you a body type well suited for certain sports.

One of the most often mentioned and obvious physical traits that is genetically determined is height. In the industrialized world, it’s estimated that approximately 80% of the difference in people’s heights is due to their genes.

But there’s no single gene that determines height. As yet, even the best study on the topic managed to explain only 45% of the height differences among people, and even that required surveying hundreds of thousands of genetic differences. What’s more, genetic influence on other physical traits is similarly ambiguous.

What is certain, however, is that tall people are clearly advantaged when it comes to basketball. Because the basket is ten feet off the ground, the higher one’s reach, the greater his advantage. Indeed, at a professional level, this advantage is such that, right now, an incredible 17% of American men aged 20-40 over seven feet tall are in the NBA.

Height is so important in the NBA that shorter-than-average players usually need other attributes to compensate for their short stature. For example, they may have long, stiff achilles’ tendons that allow them to jump high – like Spud Webb, who at just 5’7” still managed to win the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest.

Shorter players usually also have a disproportionately long arm span, which gives them a higher reach, enabling them to for example better block shots and get rebounds. In fact, the average arm span of a NBA player is so wide compared to his height that this disproportion would normally lead to a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, a disorder which affects the body’s connective tissue. And just like height, the skeletal structure that produces a wide arm span is also largely hereditary.

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