In this article, I’ll share a brief analysis of some of the key aspects in understanding the relationship between a person’s genetic profile, their talent, and how they become elite athletes. Born or Made?
What’s the relationship between genetics and sport?
To talk about genetics and sport is to venture into an immense field of knowledge and an infinite number of questions that are yet to be answered.
It’s clear that it’s an topic we’re yet to fully understand. That is, to resolve the relationship between genetics and environment and see the interrelation and predominance of one of them to determine whether the elite athlete is born or made.
It’s worth mentioning that the area that studies this relationship is the field of epigenetics.
This studies the relationship of the expression or inhibition of certain genes according to other factors, such as: the external environment, training, diet, affective relationships in the first years of life, etc…
In 2003, the Human Genome Project was completed, which mapped the human genome. Nearly all DNA regions containing genes were identified: 23,000.
However, due to the complexity of genetics, the genes responsible for having a strong influence on sports performance were not identified until years later.
At first sight, we might think that certain genetic characteristics would be decisive for the predisposition of the individual to practice one sport or another: sex, race, size…
But it’s also known that the environment in which certain populations, civilisations and/or individuals have developed and evolved under has directly affected the genetic profile of these populations over time.
It is said that there may be a genetic predisposition to practicing one sport over another, depending on the disposition of the muscle fibres, hormone levels of certain predominant hormones… but apart from the fact that they may be an aid to success in a specific sport, we know that they’re not everything.
How does an athlete reach the elite?
- What other factors result in an athlete becoming an elite athlete?
- What are the factors that predispose an athlete to being successful in their discipline?
As I have indicated, the psycho-social environment plays a relevant role in the development and evolution of athletes from an early age until they achieve success in their sporting career.
Which gene influences speed and endurance?
We have already stressed that there’s still great ignorance of which genes make us better athletes. However, through different studies carried out by the paediatric neurologist and geneticist Kathryn North, some very revealing conclusions have been established: the ACTN3 gene and the alphaactinin-3 protein.
In one of her studies, she collected DNA from subjects with abundant fast-shrinking fibres: elite sprinters.
Together with the Australian Institute of Sport, they tested international athletes. Among the results it was found that, while in Australian sprinters 18% had 2 copies of this ACTN3 gene, almost none of the country’s elite sprinters owned it.
The sprinters not only generally tended not to have two copies of the ACTN3 but, the better they were, the less likely they were to be XX.
The author concluded that this gene encodes velocity and is found in fast-shrinking muscle fibres.
In the case of endurance sports, we find the blood volume regulating ACE gene, which generates the “angiotensin” converting enzyme and plays a key role in the regulation of blood volume, electrolyte balance as well as blood pressure.
Are you born with sporting talent or is it made?
To look into talent, aside from sports, I went to Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.
The primary aim is to determine why some people have special skills, even unknown to them, and what is the factor that causes this ability to develop.
What part of our brain is activated, or what is the neurological mechanism through which a specific practice becomes skill.
Among scientific studies and discoveries, the finding that stands out is that there is a natural insulator, myelin, which many neurologists consider to be the holy grail of skills, whatever they may be.
That is, whatever the human ability, it comes from a chain of nerve fibres that transmits a tiny electrical impulse, which travels through a circuit.
Myelin surrounds those nerve fibres, as an insulator.
This prevents the electrical impulses from escaping and helps them travel through the circuit faster and stronger. The greater the layer of myelin, the greater the capacity for isolation, so the faster our thoughts and movements will be.
So, the more time you spend practicing properly, the more time you spend in those proper activation zones, the more activation in those nerve circuits, and therefore the more skills you gain.
In this sense, we could have an innate talent for three-pointers in basketball, but for true development and success, constant and intense practice is necessary as well as the greatest possible attention…
Because of this, sports talent is made based on good practice and having an environment that facilitates it.
In the sports environment, practice oriented to and focused on learning and error is fundamental. To build a good circuit of connections, the best way is to activate it, to pay attention to errors, and to activate it continuously.
In view of the above, there’s still a large field of research that can help us determine which genetic profile is most like that of an elite athlete, without taking into account environmental and external factors, although there may be several.
Our genetic profile can predispose us to develop within a field and/or sport, more oriented to endurance or strength/power, and can affect other variables such as nutrition, the ergonomic effect of certain supplements…
- Coyle, Dan. “Las Claves del Talento”, 2009, Editorial Planeta.
- Epstein, David. “El Gen Deportivo”, 2014, Ediciones Urano.
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