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 >
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
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%.
The famed biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould observed that, in any complex system, a “spread of excellence” occurs over time. That is, the longer people strive in a field — whether that be baseball, chess, computer programming, or stock trading — the higher the performance bar is raised and the greater the number of elite performers who find the keys to success. Consequently, performances at the top converge, until the point when it can be difficult to discern what separates best from second-best. Perhaps no area of human endeavor more easily exemplifies this than sports, where athletes now routinely approach the limit of what is humanly possible. In some cases, elite athletes have converged so greatly that “photo-finishes” no longer work because the camera’s margin of error is larger than the difference between athletes. Thus, it is more important than ever for coaches, sports scientists and athletes to hone in on the tiny, undiscovered advantages that can separate them from their similarly talented and similarly trained peers. David Epstein draws on cutting edge sports science from around the world to describe how elite performers are finding those hidden advantages, and how similar tactics can be applied beyond sports in the hunt for peak performance.
What do champagne, diapers, and razor blades have in common? Those three items comprise one of the most common purchase patterns of identity thieves. More importantly, fraud detectors at major credit card companies now know this. They learned it not by mounting a massive investigation of the products that are easy to flip on the black market (everyone drinks and shaves…hopefully not at the same time), or with an expensive sociological study of how thieves try to appear nonthreatening at the checkout counter (add diapers to your cart). The lesson came instead from one of the single most important business innovations of the decade: big data. Simply cross reference instances of known fraud with purchase patterns, and boom: catch the thieves more efficiently. Read More >
And yet, when it comes to improving how individuals and teams learn and perform, big data often falls short. That’s because it isn’t supplemented by “small data,” the kind of analysis that finds out not just what variables matter, but, more importantly, which of those can be most easily exploited to achieve goals:
Big data finds patterns of variables that are statistically significant. Small data creates advantages by revealing which of those are functionally significant. With stories from some of the most competitive entities on the planet—elite sports teams—supplemented by analogies from the business world, Epstein reveals how any person, team or company can leverage small data to get more out of big data. Read Less ^
Every ambitious person wants a head start. Why, then, have scientists found that the most elite performers in sports — as well as in other areas, like music — actually get off to a slower start than their peers who get out of the gate quickly but who also plateau before they ever reach elite performance? It turns out that an important component of learning any skill involves delaying specialized training so that the trainee has a chance to go through an “implicit learning” phase. That is, they must first have an environment that allows them to “learn like a baby,” free from certain types of coaching that become important later on. While early, specialized training may be good for a head start, David Epstein explains that if a learner is to maximize their capabilities, a coach, mentor, or supervisor must resist the urge to sacrifice long term development for that head start, and instead follow the optimal path of skill acquisition as determined by cutting edge science.
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.
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:
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 ^
"The event went great! Everything went very smoothly and his presentation was amazing. Everyone had a great time at the event and so many people were extremely engaged."
"Your message was perfect. Interestingly, the feedback has been as overwhelmingly positive about the science that you provided in addition to the message. Our group thought you had hand designed the presentation for us as sports scientists, and it resonated deeply. The way you approached the book as well as how you presented what you found, combines imagination with well-grounded data and makes your message beyond entertaining...exactly what we were looking for. Thanks again, and look forward to seeing what you get us into next!"
"We were fortunate to have David Epstein, our presidential keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine. He was phenomenal. He was very accommodating and gave an outstanding, informed and entertaining lecture. A few examples of the overwhelmingly positive comments from the audience follow: 'One of the best speakers we've ever had;' 'Best session of the day;' 'Certainly enjoyed this discussion.' 'Best talk of the conference, hands down;' 'One of the best lectures I have ever heard. Fascinating, well researched, and funny.'"
"David's presentation made a huge impact at our annual leadership summit. His flawless, enthralling presentation on late specialization was a complete package of fascinating data and illustrations. Speaking to an audience of elite military veterans studying medicine, business, public policy, mental health, law, and the arts, his message was universally applicable to those with unique skill sets who may feel momentarily 'behind' in a new career. He was the highest rated speaker for the second year in a row by our attendees!"
"David Epstein's keynote address was a huge hit with the Strata audience. Through the combination of humor and skillful storytelling, David was able to make sports science come alive for our diverse crowd of data enthusiasts. The most successful keynotes require excellent pacing, great content, and the ability to draw people in and keep them engaged. David did all three successfully at Strata Santa Clara. Based on the comments we've received, his presentations were definitely crowd favorites at this year's conference."
"I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your presentation. Not only were you engaging and the presentation itself visually appealing, but your conclusions and your passion fit seamlessly into the theme of our program. I think our participants were very receptive to your message. Thanks for joining us. You were a highlight of the conference."
"It was great to meet you today. You gave an outstanding presentation. Your talk was extremely generative, not only in terms of understanding sports performance, but also pure science. I found your storytelling and science communication skills to be off the charts. I have worked with a lot of scientists, many among the top in their fields, and while I know you identify yourself as a journalist, your talk was the best science presentation I have ever seen. You are at the top of your game."
"Everyone LOVED David Epstein! We are so looking forward to having him back some day. I can’t tell you how many times I heard 'this was the best talk ever.' Thank you again for you and your team helping with the organization and being so patient with my response time. You all are wonderful. I hope we work together again soon."
"His speech was well received by the audience at the forum…everything worked perfectly. Many of the participants were impressed by the amount of preparation he put into his presentations and visual/audio aids. It made the speech more engaging for the non-English speaking audience."
"David's keynote speech was very well received! His comments hit the mark and resonated very well with the audience. He gave an engaging message, and I am quite impressed with him. Thank you very much for your support through the whole selection process. I will certainly be using your service again!"