Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sports Genetics

We recently came back from our winter vacation (first one without our baby, and a blowout of SPG points as my Platinum status is expiring) - and because our vacation was a relaxing beach destination, it actually gave me the chance to get some good book reading out of the way.

I'm not sure I read any books in 2015 until this trip, and the causes are threefold:

1. New baby - obviously something of a life change there
2. New job, trading consulting for corporate life - you'd think this would create more time, but it really works out to trading 2-3 hours of daily work time into 2-3 hours of daily commute time. On the plus side, I'm absolutely crushing my podcast listening queue.
3. My weekly Economist - I really need to take the throttle down to 26 issues a year instead of 52. There's just too much content and it starts to sound similar after a while. I'm now at the point where I can't hear the acronym OECD without immediately following it with, 'a group of mostly rich countries'. Next subscription, I'll take it down a notch.

Anyway, I got through three books while we were in Mexico:

- The New Rabbi: A book detailing the succession planning for a rabbi at a major conservative synagogue. Super-interesting, although it happened to be about my childhood synagogue where I spent hour after hour of agonizingly boring hebrew school - it was really interesting inside baseball office politics stuff.

- The Prize: The new book detailing Mark Zuckerberg's $100M gift to the Newark school system and what came of it. Also really interesting and at times infuriating.

- The Sports Gene: A book which outlines a number of recent studies/research into the science of genetics and its links to athletic performance.

The Sports Gene book was really interesting (and recommended), in part because it raises a ton of weird ethical questions around hypothetical scenarios that I, as a new parent, haven't really considered.

The author traveled all over the world, talking to genetics experts and world-class athletes, with a particular focus on many recently-identified genetic mutations that confer huge potential advantages in sports. As a few examples:

- Genes that influence what share of your muscles are 'fast-twitch' vs. 'slow-twitch' - which has major implications for sprinting vs. endurance events
- Genes that influence your responsiveness to training - which may explain why some high-potential college athletes plateau vs. unheralded walk-ons who rapidly progress
- Genes that influence your red blood cell count, your arm/leg length, your Achilles tendon stiffness - all of which could significantly help you in some (but not all) competitive sports

I didn't think the book was perfect. It really plays it down the middle on nature vs. nurture (which to be fair, it's not like there's an answer on), and for all its research on genetics impact on athletic traits it just hand-waves away the potential for genetics impact on academic traits. To me that's just as interesting...but I guess it's not called 'The Study Gene'.

But the book raises some interesting hypotheticals around genetics. Ones that will only become more real for society as more and more of the human genome is understood and linked to human performance.

If you knew your kid was predisposed to succeed at a certain sport, would you 'encourage' them to play it?

Let's imagine you had genes that made your red blood cell count super high, which means your blood could carry more oxygen than the average person, and you'd have a natural advantage at long-distance running...would you push your kid to run cross-country when they want to run the hurdles?

I think your answer will depend on what you think would be more beneficial to your kid -- is it better for them to pursue their own interests -- or maximize their chance at winning.

There are those who might say you should push your kids towards natural advantages because that might make them more likely to get a college scholarship or become a professional athlete -- but those odds are so small that let's hold that scenario out.

The answer might seem straight-forward, shouldn't you just let your kid do what they want? That's where I'm leaning too, but the devil's advocate in me is wondering if the value in being more successful might have more positive knock-on effects than just having a good time.

I say that just in the context of my own sports experiences as a kid. When I was a kid, I played all kinds of sports, and because I was a fat kid starting around the age of 11, I wasn't really good at most of them. Most of my sports genetics advantages, so much as they existed, applied primarily to Nintendo.

Soccer, baseball, basketball -- I played all of them every year, and probably met expectations for an overweight kid playing in the team's least harmful position (hello right field).

There was one completely bizarre outlier, and that was every summer when I went to overnight camp, because I was a freaking amazing swimmer.

Somewhere, buried in my old room, there's a pile of ribbons from all the swimming races I won over various summers. All form of strokes, distances, I was actually pretty good. I'm still not sure why - but it's probably both nature and nurture. I have long arms relative to my height, and a short torso. That's probably a small factor, because I also grew up with a pool and swam all the time as a kid growing up.

So - in hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have been afraid to wear the speedo as a high schooler (remember, I was a fat kid)? Would it have been better to play a sport I was pretty good at, rather than serve as the 4th string midfielder on the lacrosse team?

I'm not sure much would've changed, but it's an interesting question.

And what does that mean for my own kid? I'm not sure, but we'll have to see whether she wants to play sports at all. Remember, she's only 1. But with that said, right now her favorite activity by far is to grab a book, give it to me to read, pay attention to it, then grab another new book and give it to me.

I don't need new genetics research to help me with where she gets that.

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