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Athletic acumen a matter of more than just practice

Like many others who read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” I was impressed by the 10,000-hour rule. I wrote a column espousing the rule, which holds that to become a world-class competitor at anything, all that’s required is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

David Epstein has convinced me I was wrong. His thoroughly researched new book, “The Sports Gene,” pretty much demolishes the 10,000-hour rule – and much of “Outliers” along with it.

The practice-makes-perfect theory is certainly inspiring. In 2009, and after reading Gladwell’s book and some of the associated research, a 30-year-old man named Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job as a photographer, determined to practice golf for 10,000 hours and turn pro – even though his previous experience consisted of just two trips to a driving range as a child. He now practices six hours a day, and is scheduled to hit 10,000 hours in late 2016.

Epstein suggests that McLaughlin better have a backup plan, because, while real elite athletes have put in plenty of practice time, their aptitude is enhanced by their genes.

If 10,000 hours of practice is necessary and sufficient for world-class performance, Epstein asks, why do some people reach the master level in chess after 3,000 hours while others require 23,000?

The average number of hours needed for many pros may be about 10,000, but it varies widely.

The reason for the variation is genetic, Epstein says. In one study, researchers measured changes in VO2 max, an indicator of aerobic capacity, in people who followed a strict exercise regimen. About 5 percent of participants boosted their VO2 max levels by an astonishing 40 to 50 percent. Another 5 percent saw almost no gain at all; the rest fell in between.

The clincher was that, although a subject’s rate of improvement had little to do with how fit he or she was to start with, members of a family showed somewhat similar gains. The rate of improvement varied 2 1/2 times as much between families as within families, highlighting the importance of genes in determining how much improvement occurred. As one of the researchers told Epstein, “Unfortunately for the low responders in these studies, the predetermined (genetic) alphabet soup just may not spell ‘runner.’ ”

The research does not suggest that genes are dominant and training is irrelevant; instead, it says that the benefit from training is partially driven by genetics, so that a combination is required for top performance.

Consider professional baseball players. A batter needs years of practice to recognize subtle clues about pitches and thereby have a better chance of hitting them. This is why even the best baseball players tend not to hit well when they face softball pitchers; their accumulated clues are of little use.

Yet professional batters also tend to have extremely good vision – they can see the small nuances in a pitcher’s delivery to begin with. One study of minor and major league baseball players found that their average vision measures 20/13, which means they can read a letter at 20 feet that a normal person could make out only at 13 feet. To see how rare this is, consider that, in a large sample of eye tests from China, vision better than 20/17 occurred in only 1 in 200 people.

Epstein says the specific genes and attributes associated with high performance vary from sport to sport (raising the question of whether his book should be more appropriately titled “The Sports Genes”). Basketball players tend not only to be tall but also to have long arm spans. In a controversial theory, Epstein suggests a disproportionate share of sprinters and jumpers carry sickle-cell trait and/or low hemoglobin, which may have evolved as protections against malaria and are harmful for aerobic activity but may boost fast-twitch muscles. High jumpers tend to have long Achilles tendons. And so on.

Ultimately, Epstein’s book is consistent with the literature about IQ. Neither athletic nor intellectual performance is solely a matter of nature or nurture. Instead, the two interact. We can all improve with practice, but some will see will bigger gains than others.

Peter Orszag is vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup. He wrote this for Bloomberg News.