What Soccer Can Learn from Genetics (Part 3: Genes and Sport)

By Paul Gardner

In the last couple of columns, I've been looking into the genetic intricacies and mysteries revealed in David Epstein’s book “The Sports Gene.”

He doesn’t have much to say about soccer -- I counted 12 references to the sport, mostly brief mentions to bolster a point that Epstein is making about another sport. This should hardly be too surprising -- most of the sports that Epstein deals with, at length, are sports within the “cgs” category, the centimeters, grams and seconds sports (or, make that the “ios”, inches-ounces-seconds sports if you prefer the non-metric version). That is, where the key aspect of the sport can be measured -- how high, how fast, how long and so on. Sports in which athletes compete as individuals -- which is logical enough, given the essentially personal nature of genes.

Nonetheless, there are several points raised in “The Sports Gene” that have direct relevance to soccer. Points that are worth some attention.

Head injuries, for a start. For sure, soccer is much more aware of the dangers of concussion than it was as recently as 10 years -- maybe even five years -- ago. But there are still episodes -- at the top level of the game -- that are worrying. Earlier this MLS season we had referee Silviu Petrescu allowing play to continue after a frightening clash of heads. More recently, in England, there was the absolutely extraordinary case of Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris being knocked out cold. After treatment on the field, Lloris was, incredibly, allowed to continue playing. The decision was made by the Spurs’ coach Andre Villas-Boas, who made a point of insisting that it was his decision that mattered, not that of the trainers or the doctor.

The dangers involved in allowing players to remain in games after even a mild concussion can now be made more explicit as a result of genetic research done on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The gene involved -- the ApoE gene -- comes in at least four variants, and it has been found that the ApoE4 variant causes carriers to be at greater risk to head injuries. Not that they will suffer more concussions, but ApoE4 exacerbates the trauma of head injuries -- meaning more bleeding, longer comas, complications with rehabilitation, and greater likelihood of permanent brain damage.

For any athlete involved in a contact sport the presence of ApoE4 means a serious risk of brain damage. Since ApoE4 can be detected by gene screening, it might seem like a good idea for athletes -- including soccer players -- to be tested; if the presence of ApoE4 is found, the player can then decide whether to continue with his sporting career.

It sounds like a sensible approach, but there are problems. Epstein relates how the New York State Athletic Commission considered making ApoE4 tests compulsory for all boxers in the state. The idea was nixed because of concerns over the ability to keep the information confidential, and of how it might be used by, say, life insurers, or future employers, who might get hold of it. (This is a concern despite the enactment in 2009 of a law forbidding employers from demanding genetic information).

That’s something for soccer to think about as part of its increased awareness of the dangers of concussion. And certainly something for Andre Villas-Boas to ponder.

A similar -- but much more critical -- situation regarding genetic screening exists with the heart disorder known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, HCM. For sufferers with HCM the risk is of sudden death.

And it is strenuous activity -- typically athletic activity -- that heightens the risk. There is a specific soccer link here, mentioned by Epstein -- the case of the 28-year-old Cameroonian Marc-Vivien Foe, who died in 2003 after collapsing during a FIFA Confederations Cup game between Cameroon and Colombia. His death was later attributed to HCM.

HCM is a disease of genetic origin and the genes involved can be identified. It is considered the major cause of sudden death among young athletes. Should, then, all young athletes be screened? The complication here is that many versions of HCM are so mild as to pass unnoticed during a lifetime that may include competitive athletics.

Cardiologists, aware that a young athlete is carrying an HCM gene, but unable to assess the risk factor, are likely to act cautiously and to prohibit sports to a youngster who, realistically, may not be at risk at all. There is evidence that athletes may prefer to continue playing and to forego the screening -- which may, possibly, bring with it a ban on sports, a ban which may, possibly, be quite unnecessary.

Moving on, we come to the matter of training -- for soccer. Many years ago, Rinus Michels told me “Cruyff will play better if he doesn’t do the training. He doesn’t need to do it. But I can’t have just one player who is excused from training. So he trains.”

A revelation that started me thinking rather differently about soccer training. Did it make much sense that a group of, say, 25 pro players, 25 individuals, playing a number of different positions, should be doing the same training? Why were the goalkeepers the only ones who had a special coach to themselves?

Why not a striker coach, a centerback coach, a holding midfielder coach, and so on?

A big part of any difference in training would surely be that different positions involve different muscular activities, different responses. Did it make much sense that, in the pregame warm-up all the players were doing the same little dances and patterns. And who thinks up those almost childish routines, anyway? -- I mean, do they work? We still get those cases where the starting lineup has to be altered at the last moment because a player got injured “during the warmup.”

Those treasonous thoughts receive strong support from various studies that Epstein reports. Firstly some soccer-specific news -- well, it was new to me. Starting with the idea that “soccer coaches all want the fastest athletes” (which, admittedly, is already a questionable assumption, and one that cries out for a definition of fastest) Danish researchers were puzzled by the fact that many Danish pro players were so average, or below average, in their possession of fast-twitch muscles.

The answer they arrived at was that the fast-twitch muscle players simply could not tolerate the hard training that all players underwent. They were injury prone -- “much more risk of hamstring injury.” So, many of those “fastest” players simply did not survive the development years. “Some athletes are sacrificed to the idea that the same hard training works for everyone,” says Epstein, but “... for some, less training is the right medicine.” Which fits neatly in with Michels’ observation on Cruyff.

Then there’s trainability. Plenty of studies have been carried out to measure the response of athletes to training routines. These studies have found immense differences in the extent to which athletes respond to exercise. Tests of aerobic capacity -- all the participants were given the same exercises -- showed a huge difference in response -- from increases of 50% and more (the “high responders”) down to little or no increase (the low responders) and all levels in between.

The response levels have a genetic origin (how many and which genes are involved is an ongoing study) -- something that no amount of training is going to change.

Similar results have been obtained in research on weight training. Again, there were the high responders (whose muscles grew 50% in size) and the low-responders (who showed no muscle-growth at all). And again, the level of response was gene-based. In other words, a hardware factor, not to be influenced by the software of training routines.

This is clear evidence that to get the best, in athletic terms, out of his body, an athlete should be using training methods that are tailored to his personal make-up -- to his own genome. In a phrase that he repeats several times in his book, Epstein stresses that “there is no one-size-fits-all training plan.”

Soccer, it seems to me, is not keeping up with the research in this field. If the sport is lacking in tricky playmakers and ball artists, is it because they can’t survive (meaning that their genes will not allow them to survive) the unsuitable training they’re given?

Come to that, if Epstein is right with his “there is no one-size-fits-all training plan,” how many soccer players are given suitable training anyway? Arguably, only the goalkeepers. The argument is often heard that today’s goalkeepers are better prepared, better -- and more scientifically -- trained than ever. The same argument is rarely, if ever, advanced for players in other positions. Maybe it’s time for soccer to begin a wider program of specialist training. Something that, research suggests, would lower injury rates, increase playing efficiency, and -- hopefully -- allow more scope for the development of skillful players.

The Sports Gene. Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. By David Epstein. Current, 2013. $26.95.

Complexity, Nature vs. Nurture, and the Holes in the 10,000-hour Theory (Genes and Sport, Part 1)

Jamaican sprinters, Kenyan distance runners, high-responders and Alaskan huskies (Genes and Sport Part 2)


4 comments about "What Soccer Can Learn from Genetics (Part 3: Genes and Sport)".
  1. Andres Yturralde, December 5, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

    I like this particular piece the most, (compared to Part 1 and Part 2), because you bring soccer into the picture. Job well done, PG. Thank you very much.

  2. Kent James, December 5, 2013 at 6:20 p.m.

    Andres, I agree with your assessment. But the last part of this piece raises huge questions. Are there really people who make no aerobic improvement with training? Although I have trouble believing it, I'll admit that personal experience might confirm it. I've always benefited from aerobic training, but my son, who has great speed (in contrast to his Dad), has trouble with fitness. This last summer, in preparation for his college season, he trained very hard but made little progress. Given how hard he trained, I was surprised at how little he improved, but maybe it's genetics. I'm blaming his mom...

  3. Kent James, December 5, 2013 at 6:25 p.m.

    The point about player (or position) specific training is a good one, but I would guess most good coaches do at least some of that already. The more significant question for me is when you train a specific player, do you spend more time making their weaknesses stronger, or building on their strengths? I think probably early in the development process you focus more on correcting their weaknesses (using their weak foot),whereas once their strengths are more identifiable, you build on them. But a thought provoking series of articles, and clearly more research needs to be done. Especially if one of the findings is that players need not endure so much fitness training!

  4. mike renshaw, December 7, 2013 at 10:23 a.m.

    Goalkeepers get specialized training for the simple reason that they are effectively playing a 'different sport' than the field players. What is the point of training a holding midfield player in isolation...? i.e. by himself (as goalkeepers are trained) when, invariably there is hardly any moment in any game when he/she is NOT surrounded by opponents and team-mates..?The extensive use of small sided games in training can address this issue much better than extensive lap running and other unrelated soccer training...There is, at NO point in a soccer game where players are running at a steady pace for 25 minutes or why all the lap running particularly at the youth level..?

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