October 21, 2016
The book by David Epstein called “The Sports Gene” has given a strong argument that athletic performance is not worked for but actually acquired through birth. Contrary to many of the blogs I have written, Mr. Epstein uses strong evidence to show that endurance runners as well as track star athletes have genes they were born with that allow them to perform better as runners or jumpers than anyone without these genes, no matter how hard they work. One of the research documents can be found here that basically says that specific genes (ACE I/I and ACTN3 R/R) relate to having more speed, endurance, power, etc.
The problem I see in the book (It’s a good read, I recommend it regardless) is that Mr. Epstein focuses on sports that require very little “soft skills” that most sports need. For example, in track there are very little variables you have to consider as you run. It’s the same movement regardless of whom you are running against. In sports such as soccer, hockey and yes, tennis; movement is only half of what is necessary to be considered a great athlete in that sport. Soft skills come into play. These skills are what it takes to read the situations and body language of an opponent(s) to be in the right place at the right time. Wayne Gretzky was the best at that in hockey while Djokovic does this the best on the tennis court. These soft skills are something that makes a huge difference to be great at a sport but Mr. Epstein does not mention this. His argument of the “sports gene” is only with sports that do not require these soft skills. Running and jumping are all natural movements with little to do with soft skills or even technique. Yes there is proper form for running (run barefoot and you will naturally run correctly) but it doesn’t take years of practice to perfect.
Let’s look at some examples to clarify my point. Mozart is widely considered a “prodigy” that developed a skill for composing music that no one has ever seen at such a young age. This is completely false, as shown in many articles and books such as this one. Mozart’s father was a gifted composer himself but he also taught Mozart music at a very young at and with techniques that were unknown at that time. The incredible amounts of purposeful practice Mozart did enabled him to reach the pinnacle of music composition. Mozart is one of many examples that give the same story. Countless hours at a young age enables mastery.
We can look at “talent” at another angle as well. For example, it is known that star softball player Jennie Finch has struck out professional baseball players such as Albert Pujols. Remember that baseball players have had countless of reps of seeing the ball being released by a pitcher over their head, which has allowed them to see the ball early and know what’s coming. This is the same for a returner as a tennis player. They can read the body language well before the ball is hit to figure out a good idea of where the ball will be. When Finch pitches underhand, it throws off the baseball players. They can no longer use all the practice reps they have had with hitting against overhand pitchers, making them just as likely to hit Finch’s pitch than I would. This is the same when I take a baseball player and serve at them. They are not used to the body language of a tennis server and they react to the ball to late to make contact with it.
So what is the take home message? I would say that no matter what body type you have, your ability to play tennis at the level you want is mostly limited to your work ethic and practicing with a purpose. More on this another time :) For now, just know that when you see a great tennis player, remember that person put in thousands of hours to get to that level.