Genetics and Hard Work Part 1

On occasion my students will ask me about genetics and how they contribute to sport. Without a doubt they have an effect, but hard work is also very important. I’m going to make a few posts diving in to my thoughts on how hard work and genetics effects sporting success and how this contributes to the level of success that an individual athlete can achieve. This is more of a thought experiment than anything else, so don’t take this too seriously as hard and fast rules but more or less exposure to this information. I won’t be getting in to all of the science of fiber type, connective tissue, metabolic function, height, limb length, intelligence, etc. but this area grows a little bit more each year and is very interesting to learn about if you have some interest. I suggest watching the Ted talk on the Sports Gene and perhaps even reading his book which is good (and honestly just the tip of the genetic iceberg).

Potential

Your genetics really are just the blue print. You might have the genetics to be incredibly tall and very muscular, but if you grew up in a time of nutritional scarcity then you will likely never reach your total height potential. The same can be said of your athletic potential. I truly believe that nearly anyone can be a division one athlete, but you might have to work incredibly hard for years just to be a walk-on that maybe only gets to play for one minute in your entire college career. One thing that you need to do is find the sport that your own unique genetics are the best suited for. If you are very tall, then figure gymnastics, diving, and pretty much every weight class sport is out for you (aside from being a super heavyweight), but this height is a huge asset for you in sports like basketball and volleyball. If you were never very fast, but you have great endurance you will never beat someone like Usain Bolt, but you could maybe be a great distance runner. Things like how long your limbs are relative to your torso makes a big difference on your potential in a variety of sports. Now, notice I am just saying you have potential, seeing wasted potential is incredibly easy to come across, this is where hard work plays a huge role, but I’ll get to that later.

Sliding scale

Your genetics and their ability to influence sport performance is a hugely sliding scale. What I mean by this is that certain sports a few traits are so highly selected for that if you don’t have them you will never be national or world class. Good examples of this are sprinting, marathon running, and forwards in basketball. If you don’t have a lot of fast twitch fiber, slow twitch fiber, or are super tall you will never be great at any of those (respectively). Other sports like soccer, genetics still play a factor, but not at that great of a level.  Even find a sport where genetics seem to have no influence on it at all (like curling (just kidding, I don’t know of any sport like this)). From there, with these genetics there are thresholds. This just means you have to have enough of one element to be able to compete with others in that sport.

So with those two quick points now we have to ask; what sport can you excel the most at?

Selecting the sport

Your goal should be to find a sport that you are well adapted to do and then commit yourself to it. Do research on a wide variety of sports (including ones you might never have heard of before or been exposed to) and see what you might be well adapted to. Where I grew up you played baseball, soccer, and basketball after that you might do some pick up football, roller hockey, or swam some. That’s not a knock on St. Louis, but more an observation that if you look around the world at other sports played by people you see a huge variety and maybe one of those sports you were destined to be great. Maybe you are meant to be a great at cricket, badminton, or highland games, but if you are never exposed to them you would never get to show your greatness at them.

Hard Work

The ten thousand hour rule is a good starting point for this. It has been argued a bit back and forth, but the big key to think here is that getting to be great at anything takes a long period of time. Think of it this way. If your sport requires exactly ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to be a master of it (deliberate practice means that you are working for each of those hours not screwing around), then how long will it take you to be a master? Well let’s say you can dedicate one hour each day of your life from now until you become a master, well that will only take you just under 27 and a half years. If you work your sport like a part time job (20 hours a week) now it is only going to take you just over 9 and a half years. This is a huge time investment. This also assumes that you will never go backwards, that you won’t take time off, and that you only need exactly 10,000 hours. If you look at the original paper you notice that the 10,000 hour rule is based on the average, which means some people needed more time than that and others needed less. Maybe for you to be a master of a sport it will take you 20,000 hours, hope you have good genetics for longevity then. Don’t get discouraged though, this is just a rule of thumb not a hard and fast rule.

Putting this together

Your genetics are your potential, how much you work is how much of your potential you fill. From here this is where hard work can beat talent. In that some people might have great genetics, but they won’t get their butts off the couch and work. You can see this at just about any high school reunion where some folks will get together and talk about how great they could have been. Other folks work themselves hard to just be mediocre athletes, they leverage every last ounce of performance out of their potential and tap themselves out. Most people probably walk somewhere in the middle, where they get to a middle ground between the ends of the spectrum. So let’s use some graphical examples to hopefully make this a little more clear.

Fun with graphs

athlete potentialThe graph illustrates two different people’s total potential for a sport. Now, notice one person has a huge advantage over the other when it comes to potential, but the right side of the graph shows how much of their potential each individual filled. This is the effect of hard work, the person with the lower potential in this case would be the better athlete, simply because they out worked the other one (by a huge margin of work at that). If both athletes put in the same amount of effort then at the end of the day the one with greater potential would be the better athlete.

Summary

So I hope that you enjoyed reading this, I’m going to follow up this post with the next one being about the filters that come in sport and then on how leveraging your genetics and otherwise will allow you to rise as far as you are willing to work. Maybe then wrap it up a bit on how you can apply this to just normal daily living.

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The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree

Turns out like every other person out there I have a father. Not everyone gets to know theirs for a variety of reasons, but I’ve been lucky to really know mine. As much as I like to think sometimes that I’m my own completely made man, that forged myself on my own, I realize now how little I really did.

My dad, though short, he be fierce (to paraphrase Shakespeare). He grew up on the north side of Saint Louis, Missouri and was the second youngest out of six. From an early age he was a pain in the posterior and quite the hellion from everything I’ve heard. The stories I’ve heard first hand from both himself, his siblings, and friends paints a very colorful picture to say the least.

Now the story with my dad that I want to convey is what I’ve seen and remember in my life especially in my early years. In my office I have a picture of me on my dad’s lap as he rode on his exercise bike at the house. I look at it from time to time to remind myself where I come from. I couldn’t be older than 4 in the pictures, but you can tell from the picture that I’m happy to be there. The picture helps me center myself when I’ve spent a few hours breaking down data, writing, or otherwise.

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Riding the bike back in the day.

When I think back to my youth I remember how he had a weight bench and simple weight set in the basement of our house. I remember hearing the sound of the Rocky theme followed by a questionable amount of 80’s Madonna “Material Girl” album being played without fail most days of the week in the morning at 6am. There were times when I would go down and train with him. I remember doing pushups on the floor, dumbbell curls, and presses (I was a total bro from the beginning obviously).

He had an old school Nordic track that he would be on for what seemed like forever (and was probably half an hour). While he did that I would be jogging circles around our bumper pool table (I was a fat kid, so that was obviously a challenge for me (this was 80s and 90s fat kid so probably normal today). We would do some sit ups and other calisthenics. Looking back I appreciate that I have this image of my dad in my youth.

No one is simply their workout program, but the impression of seeing a man up early and training I believe helped lay some of the foundation of who I am today. There is a lot more to my dad than simply his old morning routine, but I think it is important to keep some perspective and appreciation for what effect you can have on others, and what effects other people have had upon you.

I don’t have kids, but might someday and it will be important to me to model what a man should be. By having that role model to observe when I was a kid gave me ideas of what a man should be. I don’t want to preach to other people and say that they are failing as a parent for not training, but when the research shows that if both parents are obese the children have an increased chance of being obese (nature vs. nurture arguments aside), it sure can help to train. Also please forgive the very gendered perspective when I wrote this up, but I just wanted to tell a story (also love you Mom).

Thanks Dad and happy Father’s Day,

Mike

me and dad training
Training together, obviously we use professional photography (thanks mom).

Coaching Athletes, breaking down mistakes

So I work with athletes on occasion trying to get them to improve their skills and rise to their highest potential. Also known as I coach. I’ve been doing this for a little while in different areas like cheerleading, strongman, powerlifting, water polo, Olympic lifting, and even a bit of baseball. Obviously each sport has different skills that are necessary to win. There are some things in common between each of them, but the goal with coaching is to find a way to get your athletes better. Here is a basic flow of my thinking with athletes in order to make things better when things aren’t working.

The skill is not successful, so:

Was the failure due to a physical limitation, technical limitation, or psychological limitation?

Physical

This type of limitation then fans out again immediately in to a number of different forms. Were they not able to get in to the position or maintain the position needed for success? This could be due to a lack of mobility or strength. If they weren’t able to get in to the position for the start or finish we are probably talking mobility. If they weren’t able to move from one to the other or hold either position we are now talking strength. Finally if they weren’t able to go from one position to the other fast enough we are now talking power. If they are making mistakes after trying the skill multiple times this could be an issue with conditioning.

Strength

Within strength you need to then ask is it just a gross movement pattern problem (aka multiple muscle groups holding them back) or is it just one muscle group. An example of this in lifting for gross movement is when someone gets stapled in the squat (aka went down and didn’t come back up) if their technique was fine, simply their muscle groups are not strong enough to support and move the load. Whereas the one muscle group could be from an exercise like the deadlift where a lifters gets the bar up but the bar falls out of their hands. This would be an example where their issue is simple grip strength (yes I know the grip is made up of lots of muscles and multiple joints, but it was to show a point). If strength is the limiting factor there is a lot of work that is going to have to get done to overcome it.

Power

Not to be confused with strength this is your ability to move something quickly. An athlete can be strong enough to move an opponent, but not powerful enough to do it rapidly and get to where they need to be on the field. They can obviously be strong enough to stand up and walk, but aren’t able to rapidly accelerate out of the blocks.

Conditioning

This is key when you are no longer just practicing the skill, but they are having to do this in competition energy requirements. If skill breaks down and not because of being stressed (mental) you now have a problem with their conditioning. Good news is if this is anaerobic program you will be able to get this up in a painful week or two, but if there is an issue with aerobic ability in these athletes this will take some time to build up so that the athletes will be able to keep their performance up for the entire period that they compete.

Mobility

If the athlete is not able to hold the correct posture of the skill without load you have a mobility problem. This could be an issue with only one muscle group, but often will be a larger pattern that has deficits which you will have to work with. Look for things like compensating with the spine, coming up on to the toes, or excessive bend in the wrists when an athlete is making up for lack of mobility in other joints such as the hip, shoulders, and ankles. This can take a while to fix, but sometimes simple drills and a longer warm up can help fix this problem.

Technical

Hope that all the mistakes that you work with end up here. This is simply the skill wasn’t done correctly. This is where as a coach you can make a huge difference in a pretty short period of time. I like to break this down in to gross and specific (or you could say big and small).

Gross Skill

This is when your athlete is screwing up in a big way. This could be improper stance, posture, or basic movement pattern. These are the glaring mistakes that are easy to spot and hopefully easy to correct. When you do this aim to correct them by giving external cues. Using internal cues often causes the athletes to not fix their mistakes as quickly. Using terms like “contract your spinal erectors” when an athlete is squatting tends to not be as effective as either “chest up” or “tall posture”. Think about what is the simplest cue you can give an athlete to fix the problem without eating too much of their mental bandwidth.

Specific skill

This is a very little mistake, it could be as simple as not flicking their wrist or turning their hand. This is something that you need to take some time to really watch your athlete perform their skill. Try to see it from different points of view. From here you can hopefully figure out what type of cue to give. What also makes this tricky is athletes making these mistakes are already most of the way there to the skill they are working on. So giving them lots of instructions here could cause a decline in performance not moving forward. Use of special exercises here (breaking the movement down) I find can be pretty useful along with only try to give one cue at a time and have them practice it a few times before trying another cue.

Mental

This is a big one in certain sports. Cheerleading (feel free to make your jokes about it being a sport) requires flipping and spinning over a hard surface. One wrong move and you can literally land on your head from ten feet off the ground. Part of the mental game is working with your athletes to learn what way they tend go and figure out how you can progress them mentally to use the skill you want them to. The mind is the most powerful limiting factor on the body (my recent concussion has solidified that point for me), so figure out how to make best use of theirs. The biggest two factors of the mental game (aside from not paying attention, or just being a little dense) that I often encounter is issues with fear and arousal.

Fear

Some skills are scary. If you don’t believe that I want you to get up right now, go outside and throw a standing back flip. Some of you are crazy enough/can already do a back flip so that isn’t an issue, but most people will agree that isn’t something most rational people will do. I like the quote from Dune on this one. Your goal here is to really talk down the fear, spot your athlete, or work with them to build their confidence. This is a normal part of any sport, especially when you get up to a high level. Take your time here and build skills as much as you can in low risk situations and then build your way up. You wouldn’t start practicing MMA by sparing against the current world champ in your weight class, so the same can be said about riskier skills such as tackling, basket tosses, and batting against curve balls to name a few, so start off on an easier note.

Arousal

Take a moment and read up on the inverted U theory of arousal (written by a very smart friend of mine Brian Mann). You will find that athletes tend to perform their best at a certain amount of arousal (think how psyched up you are). I have trained and competed with athletes that have ranged from appearing like they are about to fall asleep to looking like a rabid dog. Each has their use in certain sports (high levels of arousal works great for low skill sports like powerlifting, whereas low arousal works great for high skill accuracy sports like archery and golf), you need to figure out how to talk with each of your athletes. Too much arousal with an athlete and they are likely to make a mistake by over doing it on a skill (throw too hard, swing too early, or over run your route for examples). Too little arousal and now you have an issue with an athlete going too slow, not being aggressive enough, or under powering a movement. Learn where your athletes on an individual basis tend to operate the best. Some athletes do work well when you get in their face and yell at them, others just break down. This isn’t a fault of character, this is just individual differences. Your job as a coach is to maximize your athletes, so work to figure out how you can maximize each of them.

Summary

So I hope if you are working with athletes this basic scheme might be helpful for you to find the way to make athletes better. Now you do need to know two things also when it comes to coaching. One is that you need to know the basics of the skills that your athletes are looking to do (I won’t be coaching fencing to anyone since I have never done it), but also know where your expertise runs out so that your athletes can work with someone of their own level (this is me when it comes to really any tumbling other than falling on the ground with style). Thanks again for reading this and let me know if you want me to build on this in the future.

coco flying kinda
Example of working on skills. This was a technical mistake (we put Coco in the air).
nationals 2016 night before
EKU 2016 Coed and All Girl Squads the night before the competition.

Getting back to it

Well it has been quite a while since I last posted. I will be getting back to my normal schedule soon enough, but you might be wondering what happened. Well the long and short of it is I got a concussion from umpiring baseball which I made worse by working and training while my symptoms were getting worse. If that’s enough for you feel free to stop reading now. I’m going to dive in a bit more about what happened and how I learned a lot through this.

Getting hit in the face

So it all started off with me umpiring a baseball game. It was only a high school level game and I was doing this in evening for a little bit of extra cash (I’m hopped up on the Dave Ramsey debt stuff right now). I was behind the plate (wearing a mask) and the pitchers throws a fastball a little up in the zone and the batter foul tips it directly in to my mask pretty much right between the eyes. It did stagger me a bit for a second and the people there asked if I was ok, and honestly I thought that I was, so I finished up the game. After that I went home and thought nothing of it and went to bed.

In the morning I felt nauseous and my GI was working weird. I had a bit of headache, but thought at this point that I just had food poisoning. I got in to work and suddenly felt like my throat was closing and had a hard time breathing. At that point I went down to the athletic training room and had them check me out since I thought I was having an allergic reaction (can you tell yet that I’m a doctor, but definitely not an MD?). At that point I just felt weird for the rest of the day and since my body was being soft I decided to go for a deadlift PR and hit 585×8 standing on a 2” block with no belt on (can you tell I’m a powerlifter?).

Side note: The lifting while I had a concussion was the single most stupid and damaging thing I could have probably done aside from getting hit in the head again. The massive increase in blood pressure while training was forcing blood around my brain in structures that were already mildly damaged and I just made the damage more severe.

So I get through my day feeling worse and worse and convinced that I have some type of flu or otherwise. Go to bed and get up the next day and drive to work and when my students were giving their final presentations, I’m focusing on taking slow deep breaths since I feel like I’m going to pass out again and I’m having panic attacks, and the real pain of this is I wasn’t even giving the presentations I just got to sit back, relax, and judge the heck out of my students. I train hard again, do a bunch of work, and finally get home at about 9pm and then relax with the wife still feel weird and like crap. We go to bed and I’m lying there and about every five minutes or less I feel my body going in to full on fight or flight response and my heart rate ramps through the roof. I ride that awful roller coaster for about two or three hours and finally get up and the wife and I go to the hospital. We sit there in the waiting room for a while and then I go back and get checked. They run my blood to check for anything and my resting heart rate and blood pressure is decent (in fact when I fell asleep hooked up to an EKG later on my heart rate set of an alarm since it dropped below 50 which was the alarm’s threshold).

The docs come back later on and my blood panel looks good, no issues with my thyroid (since it did seem like hyper thyroid). So here is where I left something out. When I was filling out my paperwork I couldn’t read the paper very well and when I tried to write everything was turning out as gibberish. My wife had to fill out my admittance since my focus and ability to write had been reduced to my levels when I was probably two years old.

So I got diagnosed with a concussion and was told to relax on Friday and through the weekend. We took it easy on Friday but I was still having panic attacks and weird stress responses while lying in bed. It was bad enough that we went back to the hospital on Saturday and got a CT scan which thankfully showed no brain bleeds or other issues. They also gave me a powerful anti-anxiety which finally stopped the weird overwhelming emotional rollercoaster ride.

Don’t like the drugs

After this for the next 6 days with the help of my wife, little sister, and parents I pretty much did nothing. All I did was lay around being bored (I was never really tired through any of this which was very much so annoying). I would try and work on puzzles or putting together Legos for about 10 to 20 minutes at a time and then I would start to feel this weird type of what I would either call feedback or static in my head.

Crazy Eyes

Also one of my other symptoms was that the pupil of my right eye stayed more dilated than my left and I was having a hard time tracking motion or being able to keep my gaze fixed upon anything. I was happy to see the crazy eye go with time, but I would have liked to have kept it to freak out my students a bit.

I’m disabled

On Thursday we went and saw the EKU team physician to have her check me out and see how I was progressing. I was a bit better than the previous week, but not really that good. She told us that the anti-anxiety meds (which I had been biting in half to space them out a bit more over a day) were actually slowing down my recovery. This was very unhappy news, but from then on I no longer used those sweet anti-anxiety meds. That night I got to ride the anxiety roller coaster again, but at least I had the mental picture that I wouldn’t have to do it for too long and my body would be getting better. The good news is I was released to watch a bit of simple TV such as a comedy or drama. This was a massive improvement and since I have watched all of the IT crowd, which the link above is from, and the Big Bang Theory. This also made me want to start learning more math and physics again.

I don’t feel drunk

Still during this time I was disoriented and could only walk about quarter mile at a time without getting dizzy. Obviously all real weight training or otherwise was off the table. Nothing like slowly watching your hard work fade away. Good news is I could feel the clouds slightly parting each day.

This place is a prison!

I can’t say enough about how boring it was. Each day I would spend most of it in bed or on the couch trying to literally not think at all. Time flies when you are having fun and moves brutally slowly when you have a concussion. At times I would literally just count my breaths. Then I realized that was literally too stressful on my head at certain points so I would then switch to simply counting to ten and starting over. I don’t know how many hours I spent doing this, but it was too damn many.

I’m gonna wreck it

Another major mistake that I made during this (and I made it very often) was pushing myself too hard. I’ve been injured many a time due to sports or hard training. It is part of life, and when that happens I could always train around it. Screw up your wrist, looks like it is time to focus on squatting for a while. Mess up your back, looks like it is time to focus on your bench press. Mess up your knee, and time to become an upper body bro. With the brain injury I had to shut down EVERYTHING. Which is something I’ve never had to do. I often would try and push myself too hard and then that night pay the price again with lots of anxiety and malaise. One of my good friends who is a psychiatrist used a great analogy that your brain is like a horse. In that you can try to command it to do what you want, but sometimes it is going to act differently. At a number of points it felt like mine was a wild horse and all that I could hope to do was hold on for dear life.

Weird Effects

One of the other strange things that occurred to me through this is when I would be napping on the couch or in bed I would wake up and feel like I was reliving certain things in my life. I would be standing on the little bridge over the ponds next to the parking garage at SLU. I would be in the first house I ever lived in as a child watching Sesame Street. I would be working in the lab in Kansas. It was a strange occurrence and I can’t even fully convey what it was like, other than I thought about a lot of people and places that I hadn’t thought about in years.

What my training was like

I really just did a lot of staring at walls and ceilings for two weeks. After that I only mostly did that for one week and finally could do a bit of real work after that. The athletic trainers at EKU were kind enough to give me the SCAT2 forms (for concussion monitoring) so that I could keep track of my symptoms and how my body was recovering. This was useful as a way to slowly track my own progress and see that things were getting better since my paranoia kept telling me that I was dying of brain cancer and would never be 100% again. I was then released to do a bit of exercise.

Fighting my way back

This initially was just walking for up to half an hour and then doing some light dumbbell and otherwise circuits (used Javorek long cycle circuit and his shoulder rehab routine). This then progressed to doing a simple total body circuit with barbell movements and pull ups on the other day. So far I have gotten back to squatting up to 135 for a set of 10 reps. The week of my injury I squatted 455×5 and then did 275×15,15. It was initially hard on the ego, but at this point I just want to feel better.

What I learned

I like to tell my students that; “the greatest limitation put upon their body currently rests behind their eyes and between their ears”. Little did I know how true that is when mine wasn’t working. Even though I never fully lost conscious or immediately had symptoms I found out that concussions can have delayed onset of symptoms, and how severe the initial impact was doesn’t related to how severe the concussion is. When meeting with specialists and talking to my peers that do research in this area I learned a lot about how everyone is different. Some athletes who are knocked out cold for a few minutes can be 100% recovered the next day and others who barely take a hit will be out for months. I also learned that headaches aren’t the only symptoms of concussion, and anxiety and depression can come on from them. One of the most brutal facts I learned about is the delayed onset of concussion symptoms (which can take up to 48 hours to fully manifest). This is how I managed to take what would have been a mild to moderate concussion and made it severe, by trying to work through the symptoms. The damage I did caused the actual blood flow (capillaries) in my brain to shift which caused certain areas to become hypoxic (not enough oxygen) which in turn caused my brain to spaz out on me in a variety of unpleasant ways. This is also important if you get in a car accident or otherwise that you be careful about making statements about how you are perfectly fine, since your whiplash could give you trouble later and you are currently just running off of the stress hormone response from the event.

Early on I figured out that when I didn’t eat enough that day I felt mentally way worse the next one. This was rough since I was honestly not hungry for most of this. I supplemented with Theanine which really did seem to help keep me relaxed and drank Chamomile tea at night which also seemed to help me sleep. Fish oil was supplemented also, but it wasn’t like the above when within half an hour I could feel the effects (and let’s be honest, it could always be the placebo effect anyways). Finally, that you really do need to rest and progress according to what your body needs (not what you want) when this happens.

Conclusion

Concussions suck, come in a wide variety of forms, and take different amounts of time to recover from. I’m incredibly thankful for my wife, family, and friends that have helped me through this and forward. I learned a lot, and I think I’m done with umpiring for a while. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I will be slowly getting back up to my once a week writing schedule when I can. I also might edit this post as I feel a bit better.

-Mike