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Nature vs. Nurture: 'The Sports Gene' search mostly skips soccer
by Mike Woitalla, August 8th, 2013 4:32AM

TAGS:  youth boys, youth girls


By Mike Woitalla

David Epstein’s book, “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” is a fascinating look into scientific attempts to gauge "nature vs. nurture" in sports.

Its Malcolm Gladwell-esque approach makes it entertaining while thought-provoking -- and on the way does a nice job exposing the "10,000 Hours Rule" myth, which was born from a study of 30 violinists but "has become embedded in the world of athlete development and an impetus for starting children early in hard training."

“The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is always: it’s both,” writes Epstein. “But that is not a satisfactory endpoint in science. Science must ask, ‘How, specifically, might nature and nurture be at work here?’ and ‘How much does each contribute?’"

The 352-page book mentions soccer mostly in passing, eg: middle-distance runner Andrew Wheating was discovered on the soccer field.

Only two of the many studies Epstein cites include soccer players.

Danish physiologist and muscle-fiber expert Jesper Anderson was “vexed” by soccer, because Danish pros have fewer fast-twitch fibers than an average person on the street.

The University of Groningen in the Netherlands tested youth players, tracked who made it to the pros, and concluded from shuttle-sprint tests that, “You need a minimum speed.”

I’m not surprised that soccer doesn’t play a bigger role in the book, because the sport requires such a complex combination of skills.

The Dutch study prompted the notion that some of the traits that help predict the future pros are behavioral, such as taking responsibility for practicing better.

"We see already when we first test them at the age of 12,” says Groningen’s Marije Elferink-Gemser, “that they are the players who will go up and ask the trainer, ‘Why should I do this?’ if they don’t agree with the training.”

(David Epstein's Interview (NPR's Fresh Air): "Talent Or Skill?: Homing In On 'The Elusive Sports Gene'")

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

  1. Kent James
    commented on: August 8, 2013 at 4:10 p.m.
    One of the reasons that soccer has such enduring popularity is that while the rules are simple (offside excepted), it's a very complex sport. It takes athleticism, technical ability (skill), and conceptual understanding. It is a team sport that rewards individual skill. A sport like basketball comes close to this combination, but size is too much of an important factor to allow truly universal participation. Having coached players for about 20 years, the nature v nurture debate is important, because if its all nurture, there's not a lot a coach can do. My own experience is that a good coach can take anyone who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time, and help them become at least an average player, but if they have athletic deficiencies (slow, tire easily, etc.), that may be all they can become. A good coach can help a good athlete become a good (or even very good) player, but cannot make them exceptional. Exceptional players are born with something that allows them to stand out, and it's usually not a physical gift as much as a mental one (dedication, self-discipline, creativity). Coaches can't create that (though bad coaches can probably destroy players with such gifts).
  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: August 8, 2013 at 9:44 p.m.
    "(though bad coaches can probably destroy players with such gifts). " Ah, we're getting closer to one of the real issues with the US focus on over-coached players. More coaching does not necessarily mean better coaching, more constructive coaching, or more intelligent coaching. Those intangibles like intelligence, vision and creativity--which clubs/academies actually understand, measure and allow these qualities to flourish? Is there a one in the US?

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