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American Program Bureau Speaking to the world for over 50 years

David Epstein

Best-Selling Author of The Sports Gene


Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training? In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Based on his bestselling book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, David Epstein, a reporter at ProPublica, tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this timeless riddle.

In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Epstein investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence. Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, in fact have important genetic components. Some amazing facts from Epstein’s work include: Redheads have a higher tolerance for pain than other hair’d people; nearly all professional baseball players have better than 20/20 vision; only a specific tribe within Kenya is actually good at distance running; and 17% of seven-foot-tall American men between the ages of 20 and 40 play in the NBA.

The Sports Gene has been publicly purchased by President Obama at a local bookstore in addition to Condoleezza Rice publicly announcing reading the book; published in over a dozen countries and has received notable attention; recently being recognized as: one of the best books of 2013 for entrepreneurs by Inc. magazine; one of the top five sports books of 2013 by Business Insider Australia; one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2013; a notable nonfiction book of 2013 by Washington Post; Runner’s World 2013 book of the year; and a William Hill Sports Book of the Year finalist. Also, Epstein discussed hacking the human body via technology and sports science at TED 2014, which was called one of the best TED talks of the year by many audience members, has over 1 million video views so far and was named one of Prezi’s Top 100 online resources for presenters and a Prezi staff favorite. In 2014, his book was nominated for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, an honor given to the top nonfiction book about sports.

As the former Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated (SI), Epstein has become one of the top sports science and medicine investigative journalist today. His work has appeared in TIME Magazine, Discover, Scientific American, The Washington Post, Slate, National Geographic, British GQ, The Guardian, Inside Higher Ed and The New York Times, among other publications.

All audiences will be captivated by the knowledge and experiences Epstein shares from his work as a journalist and his own athletic pursuits. His thought-provoking speeches will alter the perception of how and why athletes train through learned performance in addition to how coaches develop the people they lead. The wisdom Epstein shares on brain sports science and finding and maximizing one’s hidden talents produces lessons applicable to businesses, colleges, healthcare institutions and anyone following their passion to achieve personal and professional success.


How the 10,000-Hour Rule Hinders Peak Performance

Every high performer has heard of the 10,000-hours rule—the idea that voluminous, task-specific training is both necessary and sufficient for expert performance. But few know that it originates in a tiny study of violinists who were so highly pre-screened that they had already gained admission to a world famous music academy. This would be like looking at NBA centers, noticing they had practiced a lot, and ignoring the fact that being seven feet tall also helped. The danger in the “rule” is that it prevents the kind of talent identification and individualized development that truly leads to peak performance. Through stories and cutting edge scientific findings that range from research on chess masters and musicians to Kenyan marathoners, David Epstein explodes the 10,000 hours myth and, as Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets general manager and co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, puts it: “Epstein reveals the true complexity behind excellence.” Epstein explains how research into talent identification, skill acquisition, and team dynamics can help every individual and team march toward peak performance.

Cookie-Cutter Training: Why the Problem is You

Ever notice that you can do the exact same training—whether in the gym or learning a new skill at work—as a teammate or peer and get different results? In the years since the sequencing of the human genome, medical genetics has taught us that no two people respond to any drug quite the same because of innate biological differences. And now exercise geneticists and performance scientists are finding the same theme in the high performance realm. Because of how truly different we are at the deepest levels of our biology, there is no one-size-fits-all performance plan. If a training or skill development plan isn’t working as well for you as your partner, the problem may be you, in the very deepest sense! David Epstein traveled the world, visiting scientists who study high performance and skill learning, and shares new insights into how every individual can seek out the best training plan for his or her unique endowments.

Finding Hidden Talents: Nurture that Brings out Nature

One tenet of high performance: “Better people make people better.” And part of having better people is putting each performer in the right slot in the first place. Unfortunately, increasing emphasis on early “hyper-specialization,” or strict devotion to a narrow category of task, is hindering that endeavor. Contrary to intuition—and the occasional cherry-picked Tiger Woods story—sports scientists have found that early training that is both narrow and specific often leads to a loss of motivation or premature performance plateau. Rather, the path that elite performers follow more typically involves a “sampling period,” in which a range of skills and activities are tested. Only later do eventual elites specialize, at which point they rapidly catch up on and then surpass their peers in training volume and skill level. David Epstein explores how performers like point guard Steve Nash, who first wanted to be a soccer player and didn’t get a basketball until he was 13, actually turns out to be quite typical of high performers. No matter the task, whether athletic or technical, early hyperspecialization can hinder a team or company’s ability to identify hidden talents and to avoid the dreaded performance plateau.

Thinking Outside the Box and Engineering Top Tier Performance

Hardly is there a sector more hidebound by tradition than sports. Coaches often trust their guts rather than cutting edge science, and players--because they are experts--often assume that they are best equipped to assess their own performance. But at the elite level of sports, as in the most competitive echelon of many endeavors, the difference between success and anonymity comes down to a performance disparity of less than 1% between the winners and also-rans. Even expert coaches can be ill-equipped to home in on that fraction that makes the difference, and elite athletes--expert though they are--are often the worst equipped people to understand how they perform, as they have learned skills so well as to unconsciously automate them in their brains. David Epstein discusses how going outside of traditional thinking about performance--for example, how forcing mistakes can improve performance--enables coaches or managers to identify the information most critical to success.

Taking on the Ultimate Taboo: The Importance of Race, Ethnicity and Genetic Differences

While traveling the world reporting his bestseller, The Sports Gene, David Epstein encountered scientists who admitted that they were hiding data on differences between black and white subjects in their studies. It’s hard to blame them, as race is the ultimate taboo in high performance science, particularly due to the idea that athleticism and intellect are on some type of a biological teeter-totter. That damaging notion led many well-intentioned scientists to deny ethnic differences in genes altogether in effort to combat bigotry. David Epstein explains that the “teeter-totter” idea did not even arise until athleticism became associated with African Americans, and explores some of the damaging—even deadly—consequences of ignoring ethnic differences in science. With experience discussing ethnic differences in sensitive environments—including as part of a presentation in South Africa—Epstein talks about what “race” does and does not mean from a genetic perspective, and is uniquely equipped to spur an exchange of ideas that is both meaningful and comfortable.

What High Performance Science Can Teach You About Youth Sports

Despite its diminutive size, the Netherlands is a global soccer powerhouse. And no country has done a better job of tracking children who grow up to be professional players. Some of the findings as to what predicts a future-pro are intuitive, like running speed, but others are shocking. (Hint: The kid who most annoys the coach might have it figured out.) While sports science has often focused on adults and elite athletes, there is a wide array of research that can (but isn’t) being applied to youth sports. David Epstein discusses how anecdotal—and often incomplete—narratives, like that of Tiger Woods’ childhood, have come to dominate the youth sports discussion, even though the science suggests the “Tiger-path” is either unnecessary or actually detrimental to the ultimate development of most youth athletes.

Brain Sports Science: Lessons Learned and How to Apply Them to the Classroom

How many of these twenty words can you recall in ten seconds?...Ready, go!

“Sentence grouped are twenty meaningful to much words random because are they remember chunks into easier part as of a”

Get all that? How about this time…ready, go!

“Twenty random words are much easier to remember as part of a sentence because they are grouped into meaningful chunks.”

You may have guessed that these are the same twenty words, and yet you can remember the second set far more accurately, because you’ve learned groups of words and a system of grammar that allows you to quickly make order of chaos. You are no longer remembering twenty random pieces of information, but rather just a few chunks. “Chunking” is what allows baseball hitters to intercept speeding objects that should be moving too fast for human biology to catch up, and it also enables chess masters to appear to have photograph memories, when really they’ve just learned enough chunks to be as fluent in chess as you are in English. David Epstein discusses how chunking and other work from high performance science can be used in any realm of teaching to get better results, and to instantly improve memory skills.

Calling All Students: Experiment in the Higher Ed Sandbox

College should be the place where students have the freedom to fail and test interdisciplinary ideas. Instead, similar to what has happened in the sports world, we have moved toward earlier specialization and more insular disciplines within universities. A former writer for Inside Higher Ed, David Epstein suggests this is not the way to go. Sharing his own interdisciplinary story of how trial and error in college helped him create a niche in sports writing, Epstein suggests that higher ed should be a sandbox for students to try something new, experiment, learn and progress.

In this speech, Epstein explains how experimentation should be fostered and the possibility of its use for interdisciplinary careers should be explored within the higher education system. In addition, universities vie for the most accomplished professionals and many have little interest or skill in mentoring. Pro teams have also tried this. They assume having Michael Jordan as a coach is the way to go, because he was the best player. However, doing this will always end in disaster because the elite players are often the farthest away from understanding what novices need to succeed.

Epstein offers audiences solutions to these issues, which is important now more than ever as workplaces require more specialized knowledge. These include transforming higher ed into a place for an early “sampling period” akin to the one we know works in sports, calling for more focus on mentoring that provides creativity-fostering constraints and that coaching and interdisciplinary work should be by design, not by accident.

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