The Sports Gene: What Makes a Perfect Athlete, by David Epstein

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The Independent Culture

On his 30th birthday just over three years ago, Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job as a photographer of dental equipment in favour of something more adventurous: he resolved to be a professional golfer.

Never mind that his golfing experience to date consisted of two boyhood trips to a driving range, he bought into the fashionable theory of the "10,000-hour rule", as popularised in books such as Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Matthew Syed's Bounce, which posits that practising for that amount of time can turn previously average athletes into world-beaters.

McLaughlin reckons he won't reach his target until 2016, so one must hope he will not be too downcast if he reads David Epstein's illuminating synthesis of the latest research into the nature v nurture debate as applied to sport. Because it debunks the idea that nurture (practice and environment) is the key to success, arguing through a myriad of well-chosen examples that nature, in the form of genetic make-up, also has a crucial role to play.

His viewpoint is persuasive: for instance, he reveals that while many Major League Baseball batters possess only average reaction times, they have far better eyesight than the norm. And while we all know that height is an advantage for a basketball player, the figures are still startling: a US male of between 6ft and 6ft 2in has a five in a million chance of playing in the NBA; for those between 6ft 10in and 7ft that increases to 32,000 in a million.

Even motivation to succeed can be an inherited trait, he suggests, noting the remarkable improvement in the desire of sled-racing huskies to keep running that has been achieved by selective breeding. Despite his title, Epstein's conclusion is that one overall sporting gene doesn't exist, although genes conferring specific advantages, such as the ACTN3 "sprint gene", do. Nearly all Jamaicans possess this, but so do many millions in other countries. He ascribes Jamaica's sprinting success not so much to their genetic heritage as the popularity of schools athletics and a competitive talent-spotting system.

The debate continues, but Epstein has made an important contribution.

Published in hardback by Yellow Jersey, £16.99