What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. The best collection of advice columns I’ve read.tiny-beautiful-things-vertical_320 People wrote to the “Dear Sugar” online column (the author of which was revealed to be Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame) with some pretty tricky questions about their personal life, career, sex, family, and so on, and she delivered just the right mix of encouragement, tough love, and concrete tips for action. There’s a story of guy who overhears his friends talking shit about him. There’s a woman who wants to write a book but is overcome with self-loathing and anxiety about being a woman in what she perceives is a man’s game. Strayed tells her, “Don’t write like a man. Don’t write like a woman. Write like a motherfucker.” One questioner expresses insecurity over her “useless” English degree. Srayed concludes her answer thusly:

I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say, Oh.

2. Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out by David Gelles. My friend David Gelles of the New York Times has written a solid book on how companies around the world are institutionalizing meditation practices in their offices. His timing couldn’t be better. I suspect many managers, wellness directors, and executives will be picking up his book to learn how to support employees on a quest to be more mindful and to learn why it’s beneficial to the corporate bottom line to set aside time for employees to meditate. More generally, David also offers some nice reflections on his own practice and a summary of the academic literature on the how meditation shapes our brain which will be helpful to anyone getting up to speed on the basics. The book will be published March, 2015.

130723132310-sports-gene-cover-single-image-cut.jpg3. The Sports Gene by David Epstein. A wonderfully researched and engagingly written book about genetics and athletics. It makes you not only re-think a lot of what you thought you knew about sports performance, but also questions assumptions about achievement in general. I recently met David and he’s already become one of my favorite people. Below the fold are my highlighted paragraphs from his book.

The intuitive explanation is that the Albert Pujolses and Roger Federers of the world simply have the genetic gift of quicker reflexes that provide them with more time to react to the ball. Except, that isn’t true. When people are tested for their “simple reaction time”—how fast they can hit a button in response to a light—most of us, whether we are teachers, lawyers, or pro athletes, take around 200 milliseconds, or one fifth of a second.

Elite athletes chunk information about bodies and player arrangements the way that grandmasters do with rooks and bishops. “We’ve tested expert batters in cricket where all they see is the ball, the hand and wrist, and down to the elbow, and they still do better than random chance,” Abernethy says. “It looks bizarre, but there’s significant information between the hand and arm where experts get cues for making judgments.” Top tennis players, Abernethy found, could discern from the minuscule pre-serve shifts of an opponent’s torso whether a shot was going to their forehand or backhand, whereas average players had to wait to see the motion of the racket, costing invaluable response time. (In badminton, if Abernethy hides the racket and entire forearm, it transforms elite players back into near novices, an indication that information from the lower arm is critical in that sport.)

When Abernethy studied the eye movement patterns of elite and novice badminton players, he saw that the novices were already looking at the correct area of the opponent’s body, they just did not have the cognitive database needed to extract information from it. “If they did,” Abernethy says, “it would be a hell of a lot easier to coach them to become an expert. You could just say, ‘Look at the arm. Or for a baseball batter the real advice wouldn’t be ‘keep your eye on the ball,’ it would be ‘watch the shoulder.’ But actually, if you tell them that, it makes good players worse.”

To return to Abernethy’s point, “thinking” about an action is the sign of a novice in sports, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur. (University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting—paralysis by analysis, she calls it—by singing to himself, and thus preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain.) 

The average time to master level in the study was actually about 11,000 hours—11,053 hours to be exact—so more than in Ericsson’s violin study. More informative than the average number of practice hours required to attain master status, however, was the range of hours. One player in the study reached master level in just 3,000 hours of practice, while another player needed 23,000 hours.

In fact, in absolutely every single study of sports expertise, there is a tremendous range of hours of practice logged by athletes who reach the same level, and very rarely do elite performers log 10,000 hours of sport-specific practice prior to reaching the top competitive plane, often competing in a number of other sports—and acquiring a range of other athletic skills—before zeroing in on one. A study of ultraendurance triathletes found that the better athletes had practiced far more on average but that there was a tenfold difference in practice hours among athletes who performed similarly.

Phillip Ackerman, a Georgia Tech psychologist and skill acquisition expert, is a sort of modern-day Wechsler, having combed the world’s skill-acquisition studies in an effort to determine whether practice makes equal, and his conclusion is that it depends on the task.

Variance is a statistical measure of how much individuals deviate from the average. In a sample of two runners, if one athlete completes the mile in four minutes and the other runs it in five minutes, then the average is four and a half minutes and the variance is half a minute. The question for scientists is: What accounts for that variance, practice, genes, or something else? It is a critical inquiry.

So while major league hitters might not have any faster reaction time than you or I do, they do have the superior vision that can help them pick up the anticipatory cues they need earlier, making raw reaction speed less important.

is the “flicker” of a pitch, or the indication of the spin of the ball by the flashing pattern of rotating red seams. Two-seam fastballs and curveballs are foretold by signature red stripes on the side of the ball. A four-seam slider shows the batter a bright red dot in the center of a white circle. “That circle right out of the [pitcher’s] hand, you identify in your brain, ‘Oh, okay, slider,’” Keith Hernandez, the five-time All-Star first baseman, once said in television commentary of a Mets game.

Among the children in the original study were two, both under twelve when the testing began, who would eventually become pretty familiar in the tennis world: Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, two of the most dominant players in history. “We called Steffi Graf the perfect tennis talent,” Schneider says. “She outperformed the others in tennis-specific skills and basic motor skills, and we also predicted from her lung capacity that she could have ended up as the European champion in the 1500-meters.”

It was once thought that as we grow and learn our brain forms neurons. But it now appears that we are born overflowing with neurons and that the ones we don’t use early on are pruned away, and those that we do use are strengthened and interconnected.

In sprinting, early training that is heavy and specific can be an impediment to speed development when it results in the dreaded “speed plateau.” That is, the athlete gets stuck at a certain top speed and running rhythm that seems to be ingrained from early training.

In several popular books that give short shrift to the importance of genes, Tiger Woods is put forth as the apotheosis of the 10,000-hours model. His father facilitated colossal amounts of early childhood practice. But, by Woods’s account, that was in response to his own desire to play. “To this day,” Woods said in 2000, “my dad has never asked me to go play golf. I ask him. It’s the child’s desire to play that matters, not the parent’s desire to have the child play.” With Woods, one oft-omitted fact about his childhood is that, at six months old, when most infants are just beginning their struggle to stand, he could balance on his father Earl’s palm as Earl walked around the house.

Some genes—like the ones that give you two eyeballs or the one for the degenerative brain disease Huntington’s—are rather deterministic. If you have the genetic defect for Huntington’s, you will get the disease. Many other genes, however, are not biological destiny, but simply tilt one’s physical predispositions. Unfortunately, that moderate message is often entirely lost in a mainstream press that heralds each study of a new gene as if it completely supplants some aspect of human agency. 

Long-distance runners are skewed toward the slow-twitch muscle fibers that can’t produce explosive force as quickly, but which tire very slowly. Frank Shorter, the last American man to win the Olympic marathon, was found to have 80 percent slow-twitch muscle fibers in a leg muscle that was sampled. It begs the question of whether the athletes get their unique muscle fiber combinations via training or whether they gravitate to and succeed in their sports because of how they’re already built.

Undoubtedly, the increasing amount and precision of practice has helped push the frontiers of performance. But the winner-take-all effect, combined with a global marketplace that has allowed many more people to audition for the minuscule number of increasingly lucrative roster spots, has indeed altered the gene pool. Not the gene pool in all of humanity, but certainly the gene pool within elite sports.

The more that elite sports markets have shifted from participatory affairs to events for bulging masses of spectators, the more rare the bodies required for success have become, and the greater the money needed to attract those rare bodies to a particular sport.

Kidd’s work, along with that of other geneticists, archaeologists, and paleontologists, supports the “recent African origin” model—that essentially every modern human outside of Africa can trace his or her ancestry to a single population that resided in sub-Saharan East Africa as recently as ninety thousand years ago. According to estimates made from mitochondrial DNA—and the rate at which changes to it occur—the intrepid band of our ancestors who ventured out from Africa en route to populating the rest of the world might have consisted of just a few hundred people.

Pain tolerance and pain management are as central to most high-level sports as running and jumping, and just why some people tolerate pain better than others is a topic of research at the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University in Montreal.

Consider this title and subtitle of a Sports Illustrated story: “The Fire Inside: Bulls center Joakim Noah doesn’t have the incandescent talent of his NBA brethren. But he brings to the game an equally powerful gift.” The “gift” is Noah’s desire to win. Never mind that he is the 6’11” son of a French Open tennis champion and has a wingspan of 7’1¼” and a 37½” vertical jump. If those aren’t incandescent athletic endowments, then what, pray tell, are?

In others, as with the ability to respond rapidly to endurance exercise, genes mediate the very improvements that come from hard training. In all likelihood, we overascribe our skills and traits to either innate talent or training, depending on what fits our personal narratives.

As Brook Larmer writes in Operation Yao Ming: “Two generations of Yao Ming’s forebears had been singled out by authorities for their hulking physiques, and his mother and father were both drafted into the sports system against their will.”

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