Chicken or Egg First? Does DNA or Hard Work Make a Person a Great Athlete?
Over the last few years there has been a significant increase in genetic testing. Several companies are now offering genetic tests for a few hundred dollars claiming that they can help identify your child’s preferred sport. While this concept seems logical, there are many problems with using genetic tests to determine the sports in which your child is more likely to excel.
Research suggests that variations in the ACTN3 gene can help classify athletes into various sports. For example, Olympian power athletes express around 50% the RR allele (genotype) and 50% the RX allele of the ACTN3 gene, while Olympian endurance athletes express around equal thirds of RR, RX, and XX alleles (M.R. Roth, American Journal of Human Genetics). Thus, if an individual expresses a low percentage, or none, of the XX allele, they are more suitable for strength and power sports, such as weightlifting and sprinting.
Is this the only gene that influences athletic performance in specific sports? No. We don’t know what genes make elite athletes, and in no way will a genetic test tell you if you will be an Olympic athlete. Someday researchers may find all the specific genes that make up a good athlete, but, even then, should we direct children to those sports for which they are “supposedly” suited? Probably not.
Let’s say that we could determine with 100% accuracy what sports we should play as early as infancy. Is it good to focus on one sport throughout life? Most people would say no. Certainly athletes that play one sport all their life are good at that sport. Tiger Woods for instance appeared on CBS news putting at the age of two.
Would Tiger be as good a golfer if he played other sports as well as golf? Could Tiger have had the same success at another sport? We will never know, but what we do know is that athletes are not just born, they are made. Years and years of hard work and training make an athlete, not their genotype. However, having the right genes along with hard training may result in an elite athlete.
Just because someone may be good at one sport does not mean they will enjoy it.
Children should be allowed and encouraged to play all sports. Naturally, they will learn what sports they are best at and which ones they enjoy. You may be surprised, but typically those are the sports they are good at and that their genes suggest they would be good at. So do we need genetic testing to determine this, or should we let our children figure it out for themselves like we have always done? Personally, it sounds like genetic testing children for placement in specific sports is justification for parents to force their children into a sport too soon.
One of the problems with the emerging science is that some people quickly find ways to try and make money off of the new technology with little regard to actual scientific findings or to any ethical concerns. An example of one such venture can be found here.
Jordan Moon, PhD, CPS, CSCS*D, HFS
Dr. Moon is the Department Head of Sports Health and Fitness at the United States Sports Academy. He has trained athletes at all levels including professionals in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League, as well as college athletes and teams in addition to youth and fitness clients.