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Sunday, December 29, 2013

a book i didn't hate!

I know, I know, I generally only review books I loathe so you guys can listen to me froth and snark and bitch and eye-roll.  But since I've actually recommended this one to other people and it's kinda sorta blog-topical, I'm going to break with tradition and write a positive review.

Oh, Andrea, what the hell book are we talking about?  This one, kids:

Disclaimer: I love this pop science shiz, but I'm well aware when reading it that the author could be citing all the studies that support his thesis and ignoring the ones that don't and that if you're not in the field yourself you'd have no idea.  Mr Epstein, however, seems pretty good about presenting conflicting opinions and data and saying hey, there are only a few experts in the world studying x and they disagree with each other, so I was lulled into believing what he told me.  You all can read and judge as you want.

The most fascinating part of this book for me were the tidbits sprinkled throughout about what physical attributes make a person world-class at any given sport or athletic activity. It's not always what you'd think. For instance, do you know what trait all major league hitters have in common that sets them apart from the general populace?  I'm a huge lifelong baseball fan and it never occurred to me. Hint: it's not anything that can be improved with HGH or any other performance-enhancing drug.  Likewise, what kind of body do you need to succeed in the NBA? If you're sitting at your computer saying, "you need to be 7 feet tall, Andrea, duh," you'd be only half right. Yes, most NBA players are freakishly tall, but more than that, they have freakishly long wingspans.  Even for very very tall people, they have longer arms than normal.***  According to the book, this helps explain the racial disparity in pro basketball. Black people, as a general rule, have longer limbs compared to their torsos than do white people as a general rule.  As one of the scientists quoted in the book said puckishly, it's not so much that white men can't jump, it's that white men can't reach.

I guess I should mention that, yes, the book delves into why certain racial and ethnic groups seem to excel at certain sports and acknowledges that that conversation is uncomfortable for a lot of people.  You can't really deny it out of some kind of misguided political correctness. There are a lot of blond Scandinavian people, but not all Scandinavian people are blond. There are a lot of short-limbed Eastern European people, but not all Eastern European people have stubby legs compared to their torsos like yours truly. Those who do, however, are optimized for the sport of weightlifting and this is part of why Eastern Europeans kickass in international oly lifting. There are physical, genetic differences between people of West African and East African ancestry which explain why Ethiopians win all those marathons but the greatest sprinters in the world are Jamaican.  Actually, the Jamaican sprinter thing is fascinating and the book has a whole chapter exploring the controversy about why Jamaica? and particularly why a very small area of Jamaica?

Moving away from world class athletes to the rest of us, another fascinating study the book references took a bunch of normal people of varying ages and fitness levels and put them on a highly-controlled aerobic training program aimed at increasing their VO2 max for x weeks.  Some people made huge gains. Others made...none.  And it didn't correlate with how good you were to start with.  Some people with great VO2 maxes made huge progress. Some made little. Some people with crap VO2 maxes improved a lot, some didn't.  (And--this killed me--there were/are some people walking around in everyday life who never trained a day in their existence, who basically can and do sit on the sofa eating Pringles and playing World of Warcraft and when you measure their VO2 max, it's extraordinarily good. We hate these people, right? I mean, just a little. C'mon now.)  There was also a similar study done with strength training that showed similar results: put a varied bunch of regular people through the same training program and some gained a whole bunch of strength and muscle and others, not so much. What gave me pause with that is, they controlled the training but they didn't control the nutrition (or at least didn't report controlling the nutrition). So, from my perspective, it's entirely possible that the people who didn't make gainz just weren't eating enough calories and/or protein while the people who did were. Eat to grow! It makes me wonder if there's some similar confounding factor in the VO2 max study that affected the people who didn't improve and I myself just don't know enough about running/aerobic training to know what it could be.

Anyway, I could go on all day talking about interesting shit I read in this book, but instead I'll just suggest you buy and read it yourself.

BTW?  What all major league hitters have in common?  Better than 20/20 vision. You need extreme visual acuity to pick up the ball the second it leaves the pitcher's hand, register its position, and the position of the seams on it, etc, to then unconsciously draw on the database in your head built up from many many years of practice and study to almost instantaneously figure out where that ball's gonna be when it reaches the plate. All the practice, study, and lightning-quick reflexes in the world ain't gonna do shit for you if you can't see the minute details on that baseball when it's 90 feet away.


***The takeaway being, if you as a parent are trying to decide what sport to nudge your offspring towards and they're always outgrowing their sleeves before anything else, buy them a hoop and a ball and in 15 years maybe they'll be buying you a Mercedes and a new house. It's worth a shot, eh?

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