A couple of months ago I started reading “The Sports Gene” by
David Epstein, a book that explains, among other things, the genetic predisposition of certain individuals to excel in specific sports
(for example, laser-sharp vision for baseball players, disproportionately long torsos and arms for swimmers, supersized Achilles
tendons for high jumpers).
The book is in part a counterpoint to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent
sensation, “Outliers,” which touts 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as the key to mastery of any skill from hockey to violin to
computer programming. Both books, through copious amounts of
research, interviews and stories attempt to crack the code of creating elite athletes. As a society, we eat this stuff up. Anything that
promises a concrete path towards thinness, richness, happiness
or greatness is guaranteed to get our attention, and our money.
Of course, even the authors themselves admit that their theories
are not panaceas. There is actually no such thing as a “sports
gene,” and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice does not guarantee
mastery. What stands between most of us and greatness cannot
be expressed in a sound bite or in a title. With that in mind I propose a less lofty prerequisite for athletic excellence in general, and
for skiing excellence in particular. It is the suffer gene — that little
something inside that allows you to suck it up.
In a sport marked by physical discomfort, horrific weather, long
road trips, cramped lodging and questionable food on the fly, the
suffer gene is an extremely important marker for long-term success. And yet, it is not something evaluated with measurements
and tests. In fact, athletes who appear to be less genetically blessed
according to test scores —those well-acquainted with scrambling
and gasping at the back of the pack at the cusp of their anaerobic
thresholds — often have the greatest capacity for suffering.
I think of suffering especially at this time of year when most kids
(unless they live in Colorado), are still doing more dryland than on-
snow training. Pretty much everyone is over kicking frozen soccer
balls, over hopping and jumping over boxes and poles, over cir-
cuits and sprints and core routines on the wet grass. The frequent
sufferers in particular are praying for snow every night.
I feel for those kids because I was that kid. I realize now that dryland training might have been much more enjoyable had I been
less ashamed of the suffering and had instead embraced it as a
world-class skill. After all, ski racing has nothing to do with your
comfort zone, so the more acquainted you are to life outside the
zone, the better prepared you are to thrive.
Ironically, as dryland testing became a regular part of my life, the
lab I once feared became the great equalizer, where suffering was
egalitarian. Max VO2 tests and Wingate tests pushed each of us
to our personal aerobic and anaerobic limits, forcing even the most
ideal physical specimens into red-faced, swearing desperation. In
case you haven’t experienced it, we are not on our best behavior
at or near our aerobic thresholds. But the tests provide a personal
benchmark and a place from which you can chart real progress,
which made subsequent suffering feel strangely good.
It all came back to me last spring when I helped out at a dryland
camp for U16 kids at the Olympic Training Center. Seeing the anxiety of the less-confident kids before they started the box jump or
the beep test brought back memories of being their age at my first
dryland testing camp and feeling exactly that dread. Part of the
dread was simply the anticipation of suffering, but a larger part was
the fear of not measuring up.
The one thing I wish those kids knew, however hard it may be to
believe amongst competitive ppers, is that all those tests are most
valuable as personal benchmarks. They mean far less when used
to compare kids to each other or to an established standard, because of an immeasurable suffer gene.
Every so often I hear a trainer or sports medicine expert trying to
impress an audience by identifying a test score or physiological
marker that unequivocally indicates an athlete’s future success.
It’s creepy — so Eastern Bloc in the way it harkens back to the
places and times where they screen kids at a young age and track
them towards a specific sport. What they can’t track at any age
is one’s capacity to suffer — also referred to as will or drive or
heart”— and the greatness it might allow.
Of course, the suffer gene has to be moderated by common sense,
which, if not genetically ingrained, needs to be supplied by outside
sources, namely coaches, trainers and parents. Take it too far and
you end up like one of those obsessed adults who land in the hospital after trying to out-suffer each other in the gym. Suffering is a
necessary skill for attaining a greater goal, not a goal unto itself.
The good news is that whether you like it or dread it, hardcore dryland season is about to get the boot. Keep your eyes on the prize,
boys and girls: December is just around the corner.
At the Threshold How the suffer gene gets ski racers results By Edie Thys Morgan
Kikkan Randall definitely
has the suffer gene.