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David  Epstein

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. Read More >

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. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

TEDTalk: Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, Stronger?

Juggling Through Implicit Learning

CLSA Investors' Forum 2014

Appearance on Good Morning America

2014 Sports Summit with Tony Hawk

Epstein Versus Gladwell: The Sports Gene Versus 10,000 Hours

Speech Topics

0.5%: The Margin between Good and Great, and How to Find It

As sports have become high stakes, global competitions, the performance margins that differentiate good, great and legendary have shrunk dramatically. Fortunately, cutting edge science has shone a light on the best path to peak performance, and it contradicts the most popular notions about skill acquisition, like the famed “10,000-hours Rule.” That argument says that only accumulated hours of practice matter to success. In fact, though, future experts start off practicing less in their eventual discipline than their peers. David Epstein explains just what it is that future elites are doing during that time that primes them for later (and greater) success. He also dissects how — once at the top competitive level — athletes are using “small data” to find what factors most matters for performance, and which of those they can change in the pursuit of the final 0.5% of performance. The conclusions from elite sports can guide any individual or team in the search to find their personal 0.5%.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

What’s the most effective path to success in any domain? It’s not what you think. Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule. David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in most fields—especially those that are complex, unpredictable, and difficult to automate—generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

From Wicked to Kind: Easier Learning in a Changing Environment

Today’s rapidly evolving knowledge economy has created a major challenge for every business: employees have to keep learning and evolving on the job. Traditional training approaches — lectures and workshops that are separated from the work experience — aren’t enough. The typical result: after an initial learning period, most people tend not to get much better at the most complicated parts of their work--the parts that entail what psychologists call “wicked” learning environments. A wicked learning environment has too little feedback, and what feedback does exist is either delayed or incomplete, which severely undermines learning. In this talk, David Epstein shares the science of how to build in feedback mechanisms that facilitate on-the-job learning in a constantly changing environment.

AI & Watson & You & Google Flu

Since Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in chess in 1997 — leading to the ominous Newsweek cover, “The Brain’s Last Stand” — every sector has had to grapple with how (and whether) to incorporate AI. As it turned out, though, Deep Blue’s triumph was not nearly the brain’s last stand. A similar cycle of promise and hype has proliferated in the wake of Google-owned AlphaZero’s staggering success. Unlike Deep Blue, AlphaZero taught itself how to play chess, and promptly destroyed the competition. And yet, AlphaZero has not sealed the brain’s last stand — not even close. In this talk, David Epstein will use real-world examples — from chess and self-driving cars to IBM’s Jeopardy!-winning Watson and Google’s flu prediction project — to discuss the opposite strengths and weaknesses of humans and computers, and how you can use that knowledge to smartly incorporate AI into any workplace.

The Few True Learning Hacks

Mass media is rife with “learning hacks” and “brain training” exercises that promise to speed up your ability to assimilate important information and skills. The bad news is that the vast majority of them are total nonsense and have no scientific backing. The good news is that there is a short list of true learning strategies that are among the most rigorously supported findings in all of cognitive psychology, and they work from grade school to grad school. And yet, they are virtually ignored. In this talk, David Epstein details the most effective known strategies for learning, and how they make new knowledge durable (it sticks) and flexible (it can be applied widely). From how to use tests as the ultimate educational tool to how to order learning experiences for maximum retention, science-backed strategies may not be as fast as the shiny new learning hack in that Medium post you read, but they have one major benefit: they work!

How Elite Teachers and Learners Act

As athletes have gotten better, and as the performance gaps between elites have narrowed, sports have become far more than simple physical competitions — they have morphed into learning contests. Sports scientists search furiously for any way that skills can be taught and learned more rapidly and more completely, and much of what they’ve found applies in any teaching arena. Read More >

Epstein shares with audiences specific tips and tools that can applied right away to bolster learning like:

  • Chunking: the practice of contextualized learning that makes chess masters appear to have photographic memories, when really they’ve just learned how to quickly analyze groups of pieces the way you can analyze words in a language you speak fluently.
  • Self-regulatory behavior: a pattern of reflective self-analysis — which can be taught — that sports scientists have used to accurately predict which 12-year-old children will avoid dreaded learning-plateaus and go on to become professional athletes in sports from hockey to soccer. Amazingly, self-regulatory behavior also predicted which students would outperform their peers in the classroom!
  • Implicit learning: sports scientists have found that rigorous technical instruction for young learners often backfires, slowing the rate of learning. Instead, they have developed systems to help performers “learn like a baby,” and enhance their rate and depth of learning with strategies that make use of indirect instruction.

These are just a few of the cutting edge findings from the science of skill acquisition in sports that Epstein will share. With the concrete instructional examples he includes, any teacher will walk away with something new to try. Read Less ^