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How Genetics May Predetermine Athletic Success

Personally, I know for a fact that I will never become a world-class sprinter. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I haven’t sprinted in well over two years, but also because my genetic make-up is not one that would be beneficial for a world-class sprinter. I could probably dedicate my whole life to sprinting and more than likely would still fall short of even getting within striking distance of making an Olympic team. Sure, you can be fast and work hard, as well as develop more strength and speed over time, but the fact of the matter is if you don’t have the genetic make-up you won’t be able to compete with others that do have world-class speed genetics.

Without diving too far into muscle fiber types I will touch on the differences in the make-up of the fibers in our muscles. Essentially, there are two different muscle fiber types: slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers. Some people are predominantly slow twitch while others can be mostly fast twitch, but we all have at least some of both fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. For more endurance-based exercise, such as a marathon runner or a cross country skier, having more slow twitch fibers would be ideal because these muscle fiber types do not fatigue very easily and they are able to maintain a steady pace for an extended period of time. If you are looking for short bursts of speed and explosive exercises, such as 100m sprinter or an Olympic lifter, having a high percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers would be the best case scenario for these athletes because of the high firing rate and force fast twitch fibers are capable of.

Just because you’re a genetic make-up isn’t perfect for your sport, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a chance of high level success. However, this does mean that if there is an individual with a more desired make-up then yourself, then the harsh reality is that if you both put in the same amount of work towards that sport, the other person will more than likely come out on top and experience higher levels of success.

There absolutely is something to be said about not being the ideal body build for your sport, still working your ass off, and finding great success. We see this time and time again in professional sports and I think it is a great testament to those individuals work ethic and all of the time and energy they have put in to that respective spot. Sometimes these athletes overcome the ones that are genetically ideal for their sport, simply because of that work ethic. Occasionally, extremely gifted athletes dominate their way through lower level competition, like middle school and high school, off of their raw talent alone without developing good practice habits or work ethic. This can cause problems as they progress into high levels of competition where they are met with athletes that have the same amount of raw talent but better habits outside of the competition space.

At the end of the day we are all animals and the same genetic differences between species can also be seen in different animal species. Take horses for example. If you had to bet either a Clydesdale or a thoroughbred racehorse the Kentucky derby which one would you choose? Yeah obvious answer is, you guessed it, the thoroughbred 100 times out of 100. The same could be said for us humans in almost any sport. You will always find someone who is genetically perfect for their sport and, if they put in the effort for the sport they will succeed and extremely high levels.

Now throughout most of this newsletter I focused mostly on racing (simply because it was the easiest to explain) but this idea that genetics can predetermined athletic success is able to be applied to any sort of athletic endeavor. I we were to look at basketball for example. There are little to no players in the NBA currently that are below 6 feet tall. Does this mean that if you are shorter than 6 feet you have zero chance of making an NBA roster? No. But your chances are significantly lower than if you are above 6 feet or even above 7 feet tall. Look closer into different sports and see if you can find similarities between the athletes. I’m sure you will. There will always be anomalies, like 5’3” former NBA Veteran Muggsy Bogues, but for the most part there will be a consistent body type between most athletes in each sport. This will obviously vary sport to sport, depending on the overall goal, and is oftentimes interesting to see how much different some athletes look compared to others, but in each individual sport there is a build that is best suited for success.

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