Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Sports and Geography: Genetics or a Culture of Excellence?

I've been doing some desultory reading on the topics of motivation and success-- books like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Danny Boyle's The Talent Code, and Daniel Pink's Drive-- and now I'm reading David Shenk's new one called The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong. I've just finished a chapter that is very Gheorghe: it's called "Can White Men Jump? Ethnicity, Genes, Culture, and Success."

The chapter is predominantly about the fascination we have with "sports geography." How does South Korea produce so many great female golfers? Why do so many baseball players come from the Dominican Republic? Why were the Jews so good at basketball in the 1920s? Why are they so funny now? And why are Jamaicans so fast? What is their "secret sauce"? How did an island with a population of 2.8 million capture six track and field medals in the 2008 Olympics?

Scientists immediately turned to genetics. Those racist bastards. And they quickly discovered the powerful protein alpha-actinin-3, a protein that "drives forceful, speedy muscle contractions." It's produced by a special gene named ACTN3, and ninety-eight percent of all Jamaicans possess this gene. This is far higher than just about any ethnic population. Mystery solved. White men can't sprint.

But they didn't do all of the math. Eighty percent of Americans have the gene. Eighty two percent of Europeans have it. There are 2.8 million people in Jamaica. Just about all of them have the gene. But there are over three hundred million people in America. So 240 million Americans have the gene. Add Europe and you've got 597 million potential sprinters. So it's not in the genes. It is in the culture, and the training.

Jamaica's Super Bowl, according to Shenk, is the annual high school Boys' and Girls" Athletic Championships. For Americans, track is what you do in the off season to keep in shape. But in Jamaica, track is what you do. And Jamaican coach Fitz Coleman says," We genuinely believe that we'll conquer." More and more research is piling up that says it doesn't matter who you are and how you start, and your genes aren't as influential as you think. What matters much more is the atmosphere, your mind-set, deliberate practice, and training. 10,000 hours of this stuff. Gladwell describes this in Outliers. Danny Coyle explains why Brazilians might be so good at soccer in his book The Talent Code. It's not genes, it's location, practice (and futsal).

Occasionally, a region produces athletes that are so good at a sport, that no one else can compete. No one else is good enough. I am sure the Bemidgi curling squad has a tough time finding away matches . . . unless they head to Canada. Or Norway. But at least they have options. Now allow me to describe a particular example where the superstars have become so good that they literally have no one to play except each other.

I am talking, of course, about the sport of "Zoom." (Have one). And geographically I am referring to the "Zoom/Schwartz/Profigliano" mecca of the world: Williamsburg, Virginia. And I don't want to get into the semantics of the the word "sport." "Zoom" has a ball-- it is intangible, ethereal ball, passed around verbally-- but nonetheless, it is a ball. And it has certain athletic components: you have to stand, there is the head fake, and, of course, the Gibson. Some may say: this isn't a sport, it's a drinking game! I beg to differ. The folks I know are so good at this game that they couldn't play it sober. It would be too easy. They have to play it drunk. And, honestly, if you're good, then you're barely playing a drinking game. You're drinking and simultaneously playing "Zoom."

The game is rather simple: you stand in a circle and listen to where the imaginary ball goes. If it is "thrown" to you, you quickly say a command, which sends the ball rocketing away from you. Say "Turbo" and the ball goes one to the right of you. Say "Boink" and it goes one to the left. Say "Schwartz" and look at who sent it to you, and you send it back. There are only seven of these commands in the typical game. Mistakes are punished. Repeated mistakes are punished more severely (chug!) But it's all in good fun, and you can step out if you need a break. And, once again, there are only seven words to learn. That is within the grasp of any human's short term memory. Yet no one who observes ever wants to learn to play. This always astonished me, but now I know why. The players from a certain period of time (the late eighties and early nineties) in a certain place (Williamsburg, VA) got so good at this game that it wasn't even worth competing with them. Even to watch them is to realize their mastery. To this day, I only see the sport played by this elite crew, when fate brings them together. The sport will not spread, until this daunting generation of players dies (or become senile, so that the rest of the population has a sporting chance).

I found a video of some regular people playing the game-- which is highly unusual in itself-- and I must tell you, that they are playing it so ineptly that it is almost unrecognizable. I am actually reluctant to even embed this video because it such a poor example-- but it is the only coherent film of game play I could find! In the other Youtube clips, the games never even got to this level. I urge you, if you possibly can, to find those spectacular players from Williamsburg and see them in action. You will not be disappointed.



I am sure many of you have your own examples of local "sports" that you or your peers are so good at, that no one else can compete. It's not because you are something special, and no one you've come into contact with has this special genetic quality. You should be prouder than that. It is practice, determination, dedication, and persistence under competitive duress. I think I can still play a mean game of Pong-Ping . . . but that's another post.

Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us provides some explanation of why these particular players-- many of whom neglected their studies in order to excel at "Zoom"-- got so good. And one thing is certain: they are good. Better than good. To see them play, is to know that-- though the game is useless-- there is nothing in life that these players are better at than "Zoom."

There is mounting evidence that extrinsic motivation is detrimental to motivation. It's hard to master something that you consider "work." That's why I'm writing this post instead of unloading the dishwasher. Yet my wife will unload the dishwasher to avoid writing her graduate school essay. I'll get up early to record a Greasetruck song, but I won't get up early to write my lesson plans. So the next time you see six older guys in a circle rapidly yelling words in an inscrutable pattern, and you think to yourself: those guys are super-geniuses! they must be genetically superior to the rest of us! they have an amazing, unique, one of a kind talent! you are doing them a disservice. They are no different than anyone else, and anyone could achieve their level of mastery; it just takes practice. Lots of lovingly deliberate, difficult, challenging, drunken, puking practice.

70 comments:

Dan said...

an interesting mix of zoom participants. looks like 2 fathers and their 4 kids. did you play with your fathers at w&m?

Dave said...

only jason played with his father.

Geoff said...

At Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Jay Rockefeller's (D-WV) recent reception for retiring Atlanta Braves mgr. Bobby Cox, the cake accidentally read: "Thanks for 50 Great Years Bobby Cocks" (Roll Call).

Dan said...

so we could now make fun of wv'ians and/or ga'ans/atlanta'ans...

i think it helps the ratings.

Geoff said...

I figured the mocking of West Virginia was implied. In general, I assume anyone who doesn't live in NY, DC, or Chicago is borderline retarded.

zman said...

I played with your mother. Da-dum-dum.

zman said...

And I like this "Song of the Dodo" meets "Sports Illustrated" idea.

Mark said...

That hurts, Geoff.

Geoff said...

Mark, when I last visited you in Gainesville I actually thought I was in Mexico for the first couple days. I asked someone on the street to direct me to the finest men's clothier in the area and they sent me to something called "Big Dog's."

Dave said...

nice quammen reference, zman!

but you might need to explain yourself for the philadelphian readers . . .

Dan said...

geoff - your first mistake was not having taken care of your shopping needs prior to your trip go gainesville.
your second mistake was using the word "clothier" in gainesville.
lessons learned i'm sure.

zman said...

Thanks Dave. That's really what Shenk's thesis seems to be though, a convergence of island speciation/biogeography with culture. And nothing was more of an island unto itself than the culture of Unit M.

zman said...

fyi - I hear Murray's Toggery Shop is opening a storefront in Gainesville next month with another in Panama City soon thereafter.

TR said...

So is that the official spelling? Profagliano? Is that even a real word? I'm afraid to google it at work, given the first two syllables.

I always thought it was "filyano," never to be uttered in anything other than a drunken slur.

Geoff said...

I always said "figliano."

zman said...

I was taught to say "figliano" but I think any sound that ends in "o" is acceptable as long as you throw your head around spastically.

Dan said...

another philly fan stormed the field last night. and he had some narcotics on his person. if you're looking to get caught with possession, that is a good way to do it.

Jerry said...

Most of our hyper-explosive athletes use their explosiveness to play football or basketball. On an individual basis genetics plays a decisive role. At the national level, culture is more prominent, although some genetic factors, like height probably still matter for some sports.

Dennis said...

This is my favorite post of the last 2 years (sorry, Rob) on Gheorghe. The power of Z is undeniable; and those that possess its power have been witnessed to take that ethereal ball and use it to pound another human being into the breaking surf on a random shoreline in the Ft. Walton Beach, FL area- nearly drowning them.

And if true dominance in a sport requires dedication and isolation in practice, well then the Zen masters of Z from Unit M are those dominators indeed. The ability to pull away from the pack and focus on their craft in anti-social extravagance was something to behold. And good luck plays a bit part in this too - sometimes (for reasons unknown) women (and men for that matter) would repel from a Z game faster than if TR had just passed a wave of post chili-dog gas...giving them all the time and space they needed to sharpen those Gators.

Mark said...

Point taken, Geoff. There's a reason I only lived in Gainesville whilst going to school. As I've stated before, there's no place in Florida any more than 10 miles inland that I would choose to make my permanent home. You might as well live in Alabama or Mississippi if you're going to live in the middle of the state.

One more thing: I remember what kind of shape you were in (I'd go with "pear") when you visited me in Gainesville, Geoff. The local you spoke to may have thought that "Big Dogs" was the only store with a decent selection of clothing in your size.

TR said...

Just to clarify, it is a gross understatement of my prowess to suggest that I need to consume something like a chili dog to expunge noxious fumes.

But it's a great point. The socially isolating aspect of that game can not be overstated enough.

Dave said...

thanks dennis.

and you're right jerry, genetics do play a part individually once you have the culture that will push loads of people to the extreme in a particular sport. shenk mentions kenya and running-- the culture is so strong that of the million kids that want to be a kenyan runner, all of whom have been running insane miles just to get to school, it doesn't matter if you push so hard that some will drop out. but they've also been finding that it's not nature vs. nurture, it's nature plus nurture that makes genes express certain proteins.

i first spelled it "pafigliano" but then when i youtubed it, i got more "profigliano." perhaps i will have to do more research.

rob said...

there is nothing in life that these players are better at than "Zoom."

this is sadly entirely accurate. and it's really not even close. nor am i particularly interested in putting the effort into changing that fact at this point in my life.

zman said...

Much like Danny Duberstein I'm good at two things, but math isn't one of them.

TR said...

Dominant male monkey motherfucker...

Mark said...

You gotta recharge the Mitzvah.

Dave said...

if only we had put the time we spent playing "zoom," into juggling, we'd be a juggling troupe.

but who wants to be in a juggling troupe?

Dave said...

holy shit-- there is a wikipedia article about "zoom."

maybe there are other pockets of "zoom" mastery in the country . . .

should jazzfest 2011 also be the site of the international "zoom" challenge?

rob said...

what conan was really thinking when he spoke to 60 minutes:

http://bit.ly/9LdhKl

Igor said...

Uttering "Zoom" out of the context of in-game usage is highly verboten; typing it is okay? I tend to think not, and I am having one now.

Happy Cinco de Mayo to you, yours, and the kind folks who helped Geoff squeeze into a 50 Long seersucker dandy in Florida.

rob said...

an amusing piece (it must be, it says so in the headline) about little danny starfucker's less-than-successful efforts at running his non-redskins businesses. it's an easy mark for this crowd, but it's still fun.

http://www.slate.com/id/2252716/pagenum

Greg said...

That's












IGOR!!!!!!

Mark said...

That Conan clip might've been the highlight of my day.

zman said...

The wikipedia article on Z is piss-poor. It only describes z***, schwartz, and figliano. So you can't play with more than 2 people and unless you're a moron you'll never blow a call.

drexdrago said...

Guys forgive me. I didn't realize that you were just a bunch of antisocial douchewads who stood around in a circle and made spastic motions while drinking beer and yelling at one another. I now bow to your coolness. Carry on.

rob said...

like the salmon to capistrano, he keeps returning to our isle of dipshittery.

Dave said...

i love the fact that drexdrago has read enough gheorghe to form (very accurate!) opinions about the members and commentators.

proud to be an antisocial douchewad in jersey.

Dan said...

douchewads. i like that.
drex - please don't pick on these guys. they really didn't have much else to do where they went to school.

zman said...

I suggest that the gentleman from Drexel read our mission statement. We never profess to be cool.

Dave said...

cool people take themselves very seriously.

drexdrago said...

Crapistrano...

rob said...

see what he did there was add a letter and spin a whole new thread of comedy gold. i like this whippersnapper.

zman said...

Which mascot is worse: a dragon or a griffen?

Would it be cooler if our mascot was a kid in a Merv Griffen costume?

rob said...

griffin, dammit.

Dan said...

Drex The "Angry Dragon"....lives by the sea....

drexdrago said...

These would be my impressions:

TJ: funny guy, but gross. Likely has a moustache, could be a cop or is unemployed based on all the downtime he has to post.

Igor: drunk, but smooth with the ladies. Secretly wishis he was a Philly guy so he could crush with the best.

TR: sounds like a Philly/jersey guy. I like this dude. We could rock the Parker house together.

Dave: I have no idea. Likes music. Sounds kinda fruity.

Whitney: not sure. Never seen anything from this broad.

Zman: smart, kinda nerdy/dorky. This guy is the anti Philly. Maybe this guy cold write a paper for you in school, but you don't want him when picking up chicks.

Mark: Mr. Florida. Lemmie guess. Jorts, tanktop, crokies.

Rob: thus guy seems like the most kickass of the bunch. Likely kicks igor's ass on a regular basis.

rob said...

suspicion confirmed

drexdrago said...

By the way, Mayhugh is the coolest.

kenan said...

I like the 1st picture. It looks like my brother. Sports Galore

Mark said...

Sadly, I was never entered into the Mr. Florida pageant. I did win runner up at the Little Miss Sunflower contest a few years back though.

Dan said...

http://tinyurl.com/24gukv9

see baltimore in a different light.

zman said...

It cracks me up that in light of everything available in the G:TB archives, I'm the only one described as "smart." And I am indeed the anti-Philly. For instance, I've never purposely puked on people I don't know and I've never been tazed.

TR said...

Parker House! Sliders, sluts and sawdust shuffleboard. And Ashley Dupre, if you're lucky.

Geoff said...

For the record Whit, when I was at my most pear shaped (2003) I did indeed wear a 50 Long suit. They now use that suit to cover RFK when it rains. I'm about to pass back under 200lbs in 2-3 weeks, as I've replaced "dinner" with two glasses of scotch over the last 3 months, and the pounds just flew off.

rob said...

i could cut 4 suits out of a 50 long. do still have any? i could use a few new ones.

Geoff said...

No, since 2004 I have worn a 44 long suit. I decided at some point over the last 6 years not to hold on to those big boy monstrosities. Sorry.

Igor said...

And Drexdrago, the part where you theorized that TJ might be a cop was so accurate, it's eerie.

TR said...

The answer is:

"When it's a 40 year-old guy sitting in the office across the hall with his door open while whistling all of No Doubt's 'It's My Life' out loud."

The question is:

"When should it be acceptable to walk into a co-worker's office, open-hand slap him in the face and walk back to your desk without repercussion?"

TJ said...

A cop who loves to tase, in fact.

Dave said...

a little fruity?

i've got a tattoo of a lizard ripping out of my skin!

i also have the hairiest asshole of the gheorghe staff.

Dave said...

and since when does likeing music make you a little fruity?

drexdrago said...

I didn't mean that liking music made you sound fruity. However, the fact that you have compared asshole hairyness with the rest of your blogites makes you sound fruity. In Philly, we wax our butt holes during beach season so as not to offend the ladies.

Geoff said...

I'm convinced that drexdrago is part of a new blog that Igor is developing. He's probably got buddies named Gamecocklover, Brutus and The Cuntshoveler.

Juan Carlos said...

Read Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

TJ said...

Good to see Milton Bradley is still batshit crazy.

zman said...

Pedroia on Ortiz:

David’s fine. He’s one of our teammates. It could have been me who hit into a double play. It happens to everybody he’s had 60 at- bats (It’s actually 67). A couple of years ago I had 60 at-bats and I was hitting .170 (2007, he was hitting .180 through 61 at-bats) and everybody was ready to kill me too. What happened? Laser show.

I need to work "laser show" into my lexicon.

Jerry said...

Swint?

rob said...

pedroia may be on(to) something. ortiz mini-laser show underway.

cgormley said...

Murray's Toggery is the bomb. If you are into straight up prep-ware. Only thing worth buying there are Nantucket Reds.

Term Papers said...

I can see that you are putting a lot of time and effort into your blog and detailed articles! I am deeply in love with every single piece of information you post here


College Term Papers