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).


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.


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.


One thought on “Genetics and Hard Work Part 1

  1. Good topic Mike! Epstein’s book is pretty fascinating – like seemingly everything else, the answer is always a mixture of nature and nurture. I’m curious to see where you go with the topic and am looking forward to reading your next few posts.


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