A Discussion on Genetic Potential

August 31, 2016

Lately, I have been fascinated by how our genetics affects not only how we look and act, but how we perform as well - I've even started a series that you can find on this blog called the "Genetics Series" detailing the research surrounding how genetics largely dictates how we live our lives. I have to give a shout-out to my wife in all of this, as she has a PhD in Molecular Genetics, so we discuss this topic all the time and she helps me understand some of the more difficult concepts.


Genetic potential isn't necessarily all that ground-breaking in 2016, however, as I am sure many of you have used, or heard, someone use the term "God-given talent" at some point in your life. It's no secret that there are individuals around us that are just better at certain things. Is this because they work harder or strive harder for success? Well, not necessarily, as it turns out.


It takes just 10,000 hours of practice to master something, right? That's what Malcolm Gladwell certainly believes. Without belabouring this topic too much, I will just flat out say that I disagree with this - and I'm not the only one who does (here, here, here, and here). It turns out, there is a lot of luck involved in being good at something - or in other words, choose your parents wisely.


The links above detail the data and findings surrounding various studies looking at what makes elite individuals good at something, so I won't necessarily go into that in detail, but I do want to discuss a couple topics that these findings bring up.

We (as a society) seem to have trouble admitting that luck is involved


Whether you are an elite performer in your field (sport, art, etc.) or one who is pursuing advanced or elite status, there seems to be a hesitation to credit most of one's success with a matter of luck. Society in general seems to have trouble with acknowledging the fact that the elite performers have gotten to where they are based on their genetic advantages - aka, their affinity for success.


I need to stress that this is not a complaint or an accusation on my part that elite performers do not work hard. In fact, that is probably the exact opposite of what I believe. In fact, I believe that elite performers that we see on TV are some of the hardest working individuals on our planet. In order to be the best of the best, you must perfect and hone your skills in order to be superior to your likewise genetically gifted peers.


Having said that, realize that there is a very specific reason why elite performers are where they are. They not only have a genetic predisposition to be great at something, but also either had the luck or foresight to choose the craft that they excel in.


Basketball is a fantastic example of being genetically gifted for something - and it also happens to generally be one of the easiest sports to choose based on your genetic gift. If you are tall, you are likely going to better at basketball than others. It is not a certainty that you will make the NBA, that's where hard work comes in, but you are certainly at an advantage to be great at something because of your height. On the flip side of that coin, shorter individuals are not doomed to never play basketball at an elite level, but their shortcomings in height may be replaced with genetic advantages in other areas deemed to be advantageous to their sport such as speed, agility, accuracy, etc.


Basketball tends to be one of the easiest ways to visualize an example of genetic potential because people can generally make sense of seeing a tall person as being good at a sport involving height. Going beyond that, however, we can then start to realize further genetic gifts people are given that give them the potential to be great at other sports.


Specific limb lengths to maximize joint leverage (aka moment arm) in the world of weightlifting, an advantageous ratio of Type-II to Type-I muscle fibers making an athlete faster and more explosive in football or track, a greater rater of Type-I to Type-II muscle fibers in elite distance runners, etc. are just some other examples to think of. We can then start to delve even deeper down to the cellular level to understand the wide range of genetic advantages an individual may have that goes well beyond what you can merely see on their exterior.


In summary, luck is involved to make great performers, great. Hard work generally gets the great ones to be the best ones, but don't assume that you have the potential to be anything you want to be without being genetically gifted for such a thing.

The elite don't necessarily make the best coaches/teachers


Ask a semi-pro or top-level amateur athlete what they have done to succeed and get to where they are, and their answer will probably be the same: "Hard work and dedication."


There's no denying the fact that in order for a top-level athlete or performer to reach the point they are in required a great deal of hard work and dedication - like what was discussed above. Having said that, I don't believe that top-level performers have any secret formula or tricks to help others achieve the same status.


Wayne Gretzky was one of the greatest hockey players of all-time. That did not necessarily translate into a great coaching career. Sure, there are a lot of other factors that play into a successful coach, especially when you consider coaching a team of players rather than an individual. However, it is all too common for people to gravitate towards successful individuals based on their name or former successes rather than their actual coaching ability.


How does this relate to genetic potential? Well, as discussed above, if an individual is more likely the be great or elite at something, chances are, they are genetically gifted to be great at that sport or activity. Does this mean that they know what it takes to help another individual how to reach the same level of success? Not at all. Coaches are great at realizing the potential in an individual, and looking to make their strengths even stronger while trying to round our their weaknesses. Great athletes or performers may have been good at improving their own situation during their career, but that does not necessarily meant they have the skill set to help others do the same thing. Talent does not work through osmosis...

Genetic limitations


Discussing genetic potential does not need to be a death sentence for your athletic endeavours, however. All sports have those outliers in them - the ones that aren't supposed to be good at something, but are. Sure, height is certainly advantageous in the NBA, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been shorter players make it to the top. Take former 5'3" NBA player Muggsy Bogues for example.


I would argue that although Muggsy Bogues is not your typical NBA player (he's only 5'3"), there is no denying the fact that he is one of the most athletically gifted players to ever play the game. Watching his speed and ability to jump is certainly telling at how athletic he is. Did he get that fast and be able to jump that high by working hard? Well, I'm sure working hard and practicing a lot certainly helped, but he is athletic largely due to his genetic potential.


The key things to understand out of all of this is that in order to be good at something, you need a combination of genetic potential, but also hard work. Not every single kid that wants to play in the NBA is going to make it there - regardless of how hard they work. That doesn't mean that those kids shouldn't try, however, as the pursuit of excellence is one of the defining characteristics of human beings, in my opinion.


One of the primary things we stress with our CrossFit members is just that - understand that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Sure, celebrate and glorify the things you're great at, but don't neglect your weaknesses, work hard to improve your overall health and performance.


Tyler Robbins B.Sc. CSCS
Director of Fitness
Head of CrossFit




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