Football Helmet Design Can Reduce Concussion Risk

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Can helmet design reduce the risk of concussion in football?  Short answer: yes.  Dr. Steven Rowson and colleagues recently published a study in the Journal of Neurosurgery to evaluate concussion risk and concussion rates using two different helmet designs.  This study, along with others, shows that improvements in helmet design can reduce concussion risk as compared against each helmet sections

The researchers placed accelerometers inside commercially available football helmets to measure various types of impact and rotational movements.  Nearly 2000 players at 8 Division 1 NCAA football programs participated, and data was collected from 2005 through 2010.  Two types of Riddell football helmets were tested: the VSR4 and the Revolution.  The data showed that players wearing the VSR4 helmet sustained 8.37 concussions per 100,000 head impacts, and players wearing the Revolution helmet sustained 3.86 concussions per 100,000 head impacts.  In other words the players wearing the Revolution helmets had a 53.9% reduced concussion risk compared to players wearing the VSR4 helmet.  That’s a huge improvement.

Some limitations of the study

With respect to the youth and high school football player I would caution against taking the concussion numbers literally.  We know conclusively that concussion rates are different in high school or youth football as compared to college players.  The young brain responds differently to impact, and certainly the nature of the impact is drastically different in Div 1 college players.  Additionally, the VSR4 helmet is an older model and not sold by Riddell today.  Finally, I would have liked the authors to at least comment on the key differences in the design of the two helmets that they feel contributed to the reduced concussion risk with the Revolution helmet.

Take-Home Message: modern helmet design can reduce concussion injury risk

As I look at the design of the two helmets it appears to me that there are two key differences that could account for the reduced injury rate.  First, the latest Revolution helmet foam liner is 40% thicker than the VSR4.  Intuitively I would think that dissipates impact forces better than a thinner liner. Second, the offset portion of the helmet extends far forward on the chin in the Revolution compared to the VSR4.  I am not an engineer but it seems to me that this would change the point of force in front impacts and could further reduce brain impact.  Taking this idea even further, the newest model from Riddell called the 360 has removed the screws from the front forehead portion of the helmet, essentially creating a crumple zone with the facemask similar to a car’s front bumper.  This should go one step further to reduce concussion risk from front impact.  I have not seen published data to support that statement, it’s just my opinion.

Helmet Design Innovation Will Continue

I think we will see several innovations in the next few years designed to have the helmet absorb more of the impact forces and reduce force transmitted to the brain.  Helmets from several manufacturers have design characteristics that can make a positive difference in reducing concussion rates.  When combined with new rules on tackling and improved tackling technique I would expect that we will start seeing reduced concussion rates in our young players.



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The Pluses and Minuses Of Early College Commitment

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Much has been written about the trend towards earlier and earlier recruitment of young athletes for college sports programs.  This trend is especially pronounced on the girls’/women’s side of the equation, with recruitment for sports such as soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey beginning in the 7th grade resulting in formal offers and required commitments in 8th grade.  You can read an article chronicling one girl’s experience here.  Our blog is focused on health and fitness, so I’d like to briefly explore the possible pluses and minuses of early college scholarship commitment on the mental and physical health of the young recruiting

The NCAA has formal rules in place governing interactions between coaches and recruited athletes but there are gaping holes in the rules allowing a number of different types of communications between college coaches and young student-athletes.  Many coaches either use these loopholes to communicate their intent to the athlete’s family, or some seem to openly violate NCAA policy.  No matter the mechanism used the result is that contact with athletes especially on the girls’ side is happening at very young ages.  The girls are typically 12 to 14 years old at the youngest age of the contact spectrum.

Potential Pluses: Psychological Relief, Lessened Physical Load During High School

Very few articles state the possible benefits of early commitment to a college.  Two that I can think of would be tremendous psychological relief that comes from knowing there is a college you will attend upon graduation from high school, and the second is that there is the possibility that the committed athlete can focus on physical and technical development during high school.  Any parent that’s been through the college application process knows how stressful the whole process can be, and has also experienced the joy, excitement, and sheer relief that comes from successful acceptance.  If this happens as early as 8th grade there’s the chance that the high school years can progress with far less stress.  And from the physical side the committed athlete could have less pressure to overstress her body.

But There Is Real Danger For Psychological And Physical Stress In Middle School

The real problem with the trend in my opinion is that we will simply shift the severe stress of the recruitment process to earlier and earlier ages in the girl’s life.  This stress would hit many girls before puberty, precisely the time when we need to be very cautious about physical overuse and single sport specialization.  There is strong evidence that single sport specialization has the potential for overuse, and that in turn is a significant risk factor for major injury.  The physical injury risk is well known, but there is psychological risk too.  Conditions such as eating disorders or burnout can be linked to sport overuse at young ages.

My guess is that the trend to very early college recruitment in girls’ sports will continue unless the NCAA or the colleges themselves take a strong leadership role in recognizing the trend and taking steps to bring it under control.  Until then we as parents or mentors need to be on the lookout to encourage the positive aspects and minimize potential harm to the kids.

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What Can We Learn From Mikaela Shiffrin?

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

If you live in the U.S. and have even a passing interest in the upcoming Winter Olympics then you’ve seen her by now- Mikaela Shiffrin.  The 18-year-old skier currently living in Colorado has become the youngest American World Cup winner in history.  How do you get to be that good when you’re so young?  Surely there are aspects of Mikaela’s upbringing that other athletes can learn from to help them be their best too. Mikaela Shiffrin

Much has been written about her but one of the better articles chronicling her young life was published in the New York Times recently.  Some key aspects I took away from the article are that she is focused on process and technical excellence, she seems to be very resilient, and her family is exceptionally supportive while de-emphasizing podium results (and sometimes used quirky training methods…).  From what I can read I would say she has other critical attributes likely shared with other young prodigies such as Tiger Woods: intense personal drive, and genetically mediated physical traits.

Focus on Process and Technical Excellence

Ms. Shiffrin seems obsessed with process and technical excellence, and indeed at the speeds these skiers are traveling, with hundredths of a second proving the difference between the podium and fourth place, you better be focused on technical detail.  Again I think of stories from the young Tiger, hours on the range, even more hours putting (who actually likes to practice putting???).  This is a common theme for the world’s very best athletes in any sport, building a foundation of technical excellence at a very young age.

Resilience, Embracing Adversity

I am very impressed with her ability to race and thrive in adverse conditions.  She has trained in a wide variety of conditions and lived in two very different skiing locales, so I get the feeling that even though she is very young that she’s experienced quite a lot.  It’s been theorized that one reason young baseball players from the Dominican Republic are so good is that by the time they make it to the perfectly manicured fields of Major League Baseball they’ve handled bad hops on dirt or pockmarked grass since the time they first played the game.  I’m not saying we should intentionally place kids in poor playing conditions, but a wider variety of training experience could prove beneficial.

Supportive Family, De-Emphasizing Results

Youth sports are increasingly results driven, with competitive leagues forming at the very youngest age groups.  I will probably go to the grave with this thought, but my belief is that at the youngest ages we’d produce more individuals interested in lifelong health, fitness, and sports excellence if we de-emphasize results at the youngest ages.  Hats off to the Shiffrin family for taking a courageous stand for their young prodigy and keeping her grounded with “fun” activities.

But The Missing Piece:  She’s Just Better Than Us

Emphasis on technical excellence, using a positive mental attitude, and de-emphasizing results are all things that just about everyone could do, and if you did so you’d have a chance to be the very best you could be. But still there would be no guarantee that you’d be the best in the world at anything.  I’m sure that if we were to perform sophisticated testing on Ms. Shiffrin we’d find that she has several genetically mediated traits that give her the edge- superior reflexes, visual field, pattern recognition, etc.  For now I’m just glad she has them and I’m looking forward to seeing her succeed on skiing’s biggest stage.

Posted in In the News, Parents, Performance, Psychology, Skiing | Leave a comment

3 Things High School Athletes Must Do Between Seasons

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

With the increasing trend towards sport specialization, the young athlete is often faced group strength trainingwith a high school sport followed by a club sport.  This can result in essentially a yearlong “season” resulting in very little down time for the young athlete.  And this in turn can lead to an increased risk of injury with possible decrease in sport performance.  Ideally, you’d want some time off between sports in which you can do a bit of maintenance work for your body.  Here are 3 things I think every young competitive athlete must do in their off-season.

1.  You need to take some time off from intense training.

It’s critical for coaches, parents, and players to realize that there needs to be a balance between work and rest.  Over training is a huge risk for injury, especially with growing young athletes.  You need to be willing to take off at least a few weeks or maybe even a month from intense exercise each year in order to allow your body to rest.

2.  See a sports medicine specialist if you have nagging injuries.

Athletes of all ages will commonly put up with injuries towards the end of the season, especially if your team happens to be playing well.  If you have ongoing pain or an injury that just hasn’t healed with simple treatment, the off-season is the time to seek specialist care.  After a proper diagnosis is made, a plan can be put in place to get you back to peak performance.

3.  Start a proper preseason conditioning program prior to your next sport.

Properly designed preseason strength and conditioning programs can dramatically decrease the risk of injuries.  “Fitness” needs to begin prior to the 1st day of practice.  Many scientific studies have shown that the majority of injuries occur in the 1st few weeks of a sport season, often times due to inadequate preseason preparation.  No matter which sport you play it is important to focus on general conditioning and core stability, as well as overall cardiovascular fitness.  Cross training during the off-season is especially important if you happen to participate in a predominantly one-sided sport, such as baseball.

How rapidly can you advance your off-season training?  Most sports medicine specialists recommend that young athletes follow a simple 10% rule: don’t increase your weight load, training activity, mileage, or pace by more than 10% each week.  This will allow your body an adequate period of time to rest, rebuild and recover after any training session.

Right now many parts of the country are experiencing bitter cold weather conditions.  Use this time to take care of some things you may have neglected during your fall sports season.  Do your best on your homework.  Help your mom with chores around the house.  And take care of your body.

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Hydration, Equipment, Weather Conditions Are Keys To Safe Winter Sports

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Many families will be spending the December holidays in snow or cold weather.  Be sure to take some reasonable precautions to ensure that your time outdoors is safe, enjoyable, and allowing you to perform to your best effort.  snowboard

Many outdoor winter sport injuries are the result of trauma. Common causes will include falls, collisions, lift accidents, or ski/snowboard on dangerous terrain. In my orthopedic practice I commonly hear from patients that fatigue played a major role in the accident, and this observation has been supported by scientific studies. In other instances poor judgment plays a role, for example overestimating one’s physical ability and utilizing runs that are too advanced for true skill level.

Here are some common factors, and steps that you can take to lower your sport injury risk:

  • Dehydration. Many people falsely believe that you can only get dehydrated in warm weather.  But dehydration in winter sports is common, and dehydration can lead to fatigue, which in turn increases risk of injury.  The American College of Sports Medicine has a simple tip sheet on hydration which recommends 8-12 ounces of a sports drink up to 15 minutes before exercise, and 3-8 ounces of a sports drink about every 15 -20 minutes during exercise.  This isn’t always practical outdoors, but do your best.  Pay attention to hydration.
  • Improperly adjusted or fitted equipment.  Bindings can be too loose, too tight, or you are in the wrong equipment for your skill level.  All of these can happen, but in my experience bindings that are too tight are a big risk for knee injury.  Make sure a skilled professional has properly fitted and tuned your equipment.
  • Poor conditions and lack of altitude acclimatization.  I lump these together as they are all location specific risk factors.  Snow conditions on the extremes are knee injury generators, specifically icy and slushy conditions. Beware of these.  And for those individuals who are not aerobically fit you may be at risk for altitude sickness, particularly above 6000 feet.  Ideally you’ll start with a few days of limited time on the slopes and work up as you acclimate.
  • Participation while fatigued.  This has been studied scientifically, and fatigue plays a significant role in possible serious injury.  Pay attention to your body.  If you’re feeling tired then get some rest, get some food, and hydrate.  Get back out when your energy level recovers.
  • Skiing/snowboarding above ability level.  If you’re a novice skier do your really think you’re capable of the black diamond slopes?  Resist peer pressure and stay within your skill level.
  • Skiing/snowboarding off trail or in closed areas.  Tragically, people die each year by going off trail.  Warning signs are posted for a very good reason.  Pay attention and be around to enjoy another day.


Posted in Hydration, In the News, Knee, Parents, Prevention | Leave a comment

Pay Attention To Low Back Pain In Young Athletes

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Key Points:

  • A recent study shows that low back pain is the third most common injury complaint for young athletes, ranking behind knee and ankle injury
  • A “pop” or “snap” associated with immediate pain signals a possible significant injury and should be evaluated immediately in the nearest emergency department
  • Any neurologic symptoms such as pain radiating down the leg, numbness, or tingling may signal a significant injury and should be evaluated urgently
  • Mild to moderate low back pain that lasts two weeks should also be evaluated by a qualified physician

Low back pain is a common complaint amongst the young patients I see in my orthopedic practice.  Most of the time the problem is a muscle strain that can be resolved with appropriate rest and rehabilitation.  Occasionally, however, low back pain can signal a more serious condition such as a stress fracture or disc injury. back handspring

Dr. Neeru Jayanthi from the Loyola Strich School of Medicine and colleagues performed a large study of 1,206 participants who were between 8 years and 18 years old. The study followed 837 participants with 859 unique injuries and 360 uninjured participants who acted as controls. Low back injuries accounted for 127 injuries. Overall, 39% of the back injuries were serious, including stress fractures and complications of stress fractures.

I find that certain sports, typically involving spinal twisting and/or hyperextension place the young athlete at risk.  This would include sports such as gymnastics, diving, lacrosse, tennis, and baseball pitchers.  A second risk factor is improper form in weight lifting.  And the study by Dr. Jayanthi also pointed to excessive hours of participation in a single sport as another risk factor.

When To See A Physician

There are two broad situations in which it would be important to seek qualified medical care.  First, if there is concern for a serious acute spinal injury, and secondly, for low back pain that is lingering without improvement.

If a young athlete is on the field of play and has a sudden onset of significant pain, this is a sign of a potential serious spinal injury and should be evaluated urgently in the nearest emergency department.  In almost all of these instances you will want to have the athlete lie still on the field of play without moving him/her, call for emergency transport, try to keep the athlete calm, and stay with them until emergency transport arrives.  An athlete in this situation will have sudden onset of significant pain, they may have heard or felt a “pop”, and there may be complaints of pain radiating down the leg, or numbness and tingling.

In the second situation there may be mild to moderate low back discomfort that persists for days or up to a couple of weeks.  The pain may be significant enough to cause the athlete to skip practices or games.  In this case there could be an underlying significant cause for the pain, and a qualified physician should also evaluate these.  Stress fractures in the spine can be successfully treated if caught early but stress fractures that are untreated can lead to a lifetime of low back issues that can drastically affect quality of life.

Posted in Back, Baseball, Coaches, Science, Sports Science, Tennis, Therapy, Treatment | Leave a comment

Court Ruling Will Likely Lead To Increased Sport Pressures At Youth Level

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

“Amateurism” in college sports was dealt a significant blow last week, when a federal district judge on Friday certified a class-action suit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Under N.C.A.A. rules, student athletes can’t receive financial compensation — a policy that effectively blocks players from entering into group licensing agreements. But the N.C.A.A. often sells the names and images of players for use in game footage, photographs and video games thus they profit when the players do not.  UKentucky arena

Is the system fair as it is now or not?  Aren’t the athletes themselves receiving something of value, namely a scholarship for free education?  Perhaps that was true decades ago when scholarship athletes typically stayed in school for the duration required to obtain a degree, or when there were far fewer dollars involved in the collegiate sports machinery.  As things are today it seems fair that some form of compensation for collegiate athletes at least in the big-ticket sports like football and men’s basketball is reasonable.  For the most successful athletes their brand images may extend far beyond their collegiate years, and the colleges often receive many millions of dollars in compensation related to those big-ticket sports.

What might happen next, and what could this have to do with youth sports?  It’s possible the case could go to trial.  If the players win at trial, it could pave the way to a player’s association, which could negotiate collective licensing or television deals and then distribute the proceeds to student athletes as the National Football League Players Association does for professionals.  It’s also possible the NCAA will choose to settle and change the system before it goes to trial.  In any case I think it signals that significant change is coming.  And for young athletes it means the carrot at the end of the stick just got quite a bit larger.

There are problems, for sure, with possible payment schemes for D1 football and men’s basketball.  First of all, probably 99% of collegiate athletes will not be playing D1 football or men’s basketball.  How do they get compensated? And what about women’s sports? Male basketball and football players could end up with higher compensation than female players in less popular sports in possible violation of Title IX, which mandates that male and female athletes receive equivalent treatment at schools that accept federal financing.

I would predict that any financial compensation model for D1 athletes will have a trickle down effect to younger kids playing high school or club sports.  Not in the financial sense but definitely ratcheting up the pressure to perform and specialize early on.  There’s a very real chance that the craziness of some youth sports trends will reach epic highs (or lows, depending on how you look at it…) It’s not just a scholarship to college potentially on the line, but a chance to actually make a living at the same time.  This will be a very interesting battle playing out, one with implications for even the youngest athletes.



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Are High School Sports Killing Academics? Not So Fast, My Friend…

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Key Points:

  • A thought-provoking article published recently in The Atlantic titled “The Case Against High School Sports” raises interesting points
  • The author’s fundamental premise is that school administrators faced with very tight budgets need to ask tough questions about continuing to support costly athletic programs that may not contribute to the school’s educational mission
  • She suggests that countries with strong academic testing records greatly de-emphasize school competitive sports
  • However, an association does not prove causation. There is ample evidence that school sports done the right way can enhance the school experience for all students (not just the athletes), and high academic outcomes can coexist with school sports.



It may be true that competitive high school sports are a uniquely American tradition.  And it may also be true that some countries have surpassed the United States in terms of students performing strongly on core academic standards.  But is it possible that our national preoccupation with competitive school sports – especially high school football – is the cause of our students’ declining academic performance?  And for school districts facing severe budget shortfalls does it make sense to cut school sports in favor of academic priorities? shutterstock_FRIDAY-NIGHT-LIGHTS-OUT

Author Amanda Ripley contends that sports crowd out the academic missions of schools: America should learn from South Korea and Finland and every other country in the top tier of international test scores, all of whom emphasize athletics far less in school.

The problem with the argument is a common one in quasi-scientific writing: an association does not prove causation.  In other words, the fact that a given state, region, or country with strong sports emphasis performs at a relatively lower level than other countries on standardized academic testing does not mean that the presence of the sports program caused the lower academic performance.  Indeed, if there were causation one might expect many countries who have no formalized sports programs for their students to perform uniformly better than countries with sports programs.  Here’s an interesting graphic from a Harvard University study showing that students in Massachusetts (with a strong tradition of high school sports) performed better than Japanese students in core mathematics testing.  And in the same study students in Mississippi (still playing high school football…) performed about as poorly as students in war-torn Serbia.

I’m not suggesting we take a blind eye to budget priorities and educational objectives.  Certainly any responsible school district facing severe budget crises needs to look at every cost line item and think very carefully about how those activities contribute to the core educational mission of the school.  It’s possible that several sports programs might need to be curtailed in order to keep schools running.  But it’s far too easy to point fingers at sports programs and tag them as the key reason for academic decline.

For more thought provoking commentary on the topic of high school sports and academics I’d recommend you take a look at this editorial rebuttal also in the Atlantic, authored by Daniel Bowen and Collin Hitt.  These authors provide the counter argument that sports programs can not only coexist with strong academic performance, but through the provision of “social capital” raise the bar for all students, not just the athletes.

I’m not much of a fan of the extremists-  either those who would sacrifice educational objectives to keep the lights on at the football field, or those who say we shut down sports in favor of STEM.  On the whole I’m a strong believer that our students can be far better productive and responsible members of adult society by keeping them intellectually, emotionally, and physically engaged.  We face challenging economic times necessitating tough questions.  Let’s keep searching for evidence based answers.





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What Can You Do For Your Kids With $99?

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Key Points:

  • ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­In last week’s post I described some key points in David Epstein’s book, “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” and follow up this week with my own experience with genetic testing.
  • Having certain genes doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a trait or condition, other factors are involved too
  • Genetic testing is interesting and fun to look at, and can also tell you a lot about your ancestry
  • However, you must be prepared that the news you get may be upsetting. Consider this fact carefully if you decide to be tested.


There’s a lot you can do for your kids or for yourself with $99.  You might be able to secure some private sports lessons, buy sports equipment, buy a single high-end cleat… but not a pair.  Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 9.13.56 PM

Or you could purchase a kit from a company like 23AndMe, submit a sample of your saliva, and receive detailed information about your genetic composition and your ancestry.

There Is Power In Knowing

The decision to pursue genetic testing is extraordinarily personal.  You’re getting at the very core of what makes you physically and perhaps psychologically.  For me it really just started off to find out whether I had two working copies of the ACTN3 “speed gene”.  I have always considered myself fast but did I have a genetic reason to gloat?  But testing ultimately revealed much more, some of which was quite surprising.

My very personal decision was that there is a power in “knowing”. Knowing my genetic composition would allow me to take preventative measures if necessary or prepare and mitigate for the things that can’t be changed. I understood that an identified genetic risk for a condition isn’t the whole picture. Genetics are important, but our health is influenced by many factors —diet, exercise, stress, and other factors along with what’s in our DNA.

But not everyone sees things that way. Some people don’t want to know. According to 23AndMe: “If you talk to someone who has tested, they’re often baffled as to why someone wouldn’t want to know. Conversely, if you talk to someone who doesn’t want to get tested, he or she seem incredulous that anyone would want to find out they had a genetic risk for any disease.”

From The Sports Standpoint, Genetic Testing Can Be Fun And Possibly Life-Saving

From my own testing I learned that I do indeed have two working copies of the ACTN3 gene (yes, I think I’m still fast…), and I have a loosely associated genetic risk factor for ligament injury.  Perhaps that helps explain the two ACL tears and chronically unstable shoulder.  But would I have changed my preferred sports activities had I been armed with this knowledge when I was 8?  I hope not.  I did what I did because I liked it and was reasonably good at it.

But the testing can be life saving too. In David Epstein’s book he details the story of one of his high school track teammates, who tragically died of a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy while running track in college.  As it turns out there is a gene mutation strongly correlated with this condition.  If you had this gene and knew it in advance would it change what you did?  That type of testing can be lifesaving.

My own kids play college soccer and we plan to get their genetic profiles. I don’t think they’ll quit their sport and turn into runners if they don’t have the optimal genetic profile, but we think there’s a lot of value in knowing.










Posted in Parents, Performance, Prevention, Science, Sports Science | Leave a comment

Making The Super Athlete

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Key Points:

  • ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­David Epstein’s book, “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” is a great look into scientific attempts to gauge “nature vs. nurture” in sports.
  • There are more than 230 genes identified as of this writing that may have an effect on athletic performance
  • As much as we would like to think there might be a single gene or even a very small number of genes responsible for athletic performance, there will always be a strong influence from environmental factors
  • This book begs us to ask a number of difficult questions about genes and genetic manipulation


Several articles and reviews have been written about David Epstein’s recent book chronicling the search for genes responsible for athletic performance.  I read the book in its entirety and found it fascinating.  If you’re interested in the topic of genes and sports it’s well worth a read.  Here are just a few main points. Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 3.08.18 PM

Superbaby and the possibility of genetic manipulation

The most fascinating chapter dealt with “Superbaby”.  Superbaby was born in 2000, in Berlin. Superbaby was roughly the size of any other newborn, but his biceps were chiseled. His skin held tight around his calves and quads. The phrase “baby fat” did not apply.

By age four, he had twice as much muscle as other boys his age, and could hold a six-pound dumbbell, horizontally, at arm’s length, a struggle for some grownups. Something was going on, and laboratory analysis found that the secret to Superbaby’s physique didn’t come from the planet Krypton: rather, an extremely rare genetic mutation—passed on from his mother, an accomplished sprinter—that inhibited myostatin, a protein that limits muscle growth. This story is absolutely real. Is it possible that someday, someone may try to manipulate the genome to intentionally breed another Superbaby?  That’s a real possibility too.

Should your child sprint or run long distances?

One of the strongest associations between genes and athletic performance centers on the gene ACTN3. It turns out that most elite sprinters have two working copies of the gene, whereas many long distance runners have no working copies of the gene. Several companies sell kits that can analyze for a person’s ACTN3 genes using saliva.  One Colorado company specifically markets their kit towards parents, to help them steer their child in a direction best suited for their genetic makeup. The problem is that there are likely hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. alone with two functioning copies of the ACTN3 gene, yet only about two handfuls of them will become elite power sport athletes.  So properly functioning ACTN3 is not the golden ticket, merely a prerequisite for entry. “The ACTN3 gene may tell a billion or so people in the world that they won’t be in the Olympics 100-meter final,” Epstein writes. “But chances are they all already knew that.”

Albert Pujols: the power of repetition

We all like to believe in the American work ethic, that with proper hard work we can achieve just about anything.  To some extent Epstein’s book supports that statement.  Take Albert Pujols, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Common sense holds that Pujols’s success at the plate is due at least in part to superior reflexes. Yet when scientists at Washington University in St. Louis tested his reaction time against a random sample of college students, Pujols landed in the sixty-sixth percentile—better than most, but hardly two hundred and forty million dollars over ten years better.

What Pujols does have is hours and hours of visually recorded memory, and the ability to “chunk” that information into useful segments. Over the years, he and other top hitters have compiled a mental database of physiological clues—how a curveball’s delivery looks compared to a fastball’s, for instance—that allow them to react to a pitch more quickly than, say, a recreational softball player can.  The great athletes are able to use pattern recognition of body language to be the best.  And to a good extent this can be learned.

Conclusion:  lots of questions, still searching for answers

If you’re a parent thinking the key to your son or daughter’s athletic scholarship can be found in a saliva test the answer is a resounding “not yet”. This book is long on difficult questions and short on easy answers.

Can nature predict athletic performance? Yes, to some extent. What about nurture?  Yes, that plays a huge role too. Is it possible to create a Superbaby from scratch?  Probably not yet but we will likely get close very quickly.  If we can, should we want to?  Each of us will have to dig deep within ourselves for that answer.





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