Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category
I have done a couple of recent posts on the idea that practice (the so-called 10,000 hour rule) is more important than talent in reaching elite levels of performance. The main conclusion from all of this is that practice can make most people really good at most things but talent (and also exposure to given activity) are required for truly exceptional levels of performance. When the topic of talent comes up the assumption is that it is inherited from our parents and other ancestors. This then leads to the idea that talent is genetic and that eventually genes that confer the chance for exceptional performance are out there waiting to be identified.
You can take the same general line of reasoning and apply it to things like height, weight, or even your risk of getting certain diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes that tend to “run in families”.
Let’s Start With Darwin
Charles Darwin’s ideas pre-date the concept of genes. He made lots of observations about how animals vary from place to place and adapt to their environment. One of fundamental ideas is that via the process of natural selection, animals and plants best suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce. This reproductive success is dependent on the transmission of key characteristics to the offspring which increase their odds of survival. When this happens generation after generation certain composite traits called phenotypes emerge.
Galton is Next
After Darwin, his cousin Francis Galton came along and started to make statistical estimates of heritability for things like height and intelligence. His observations showed a strong correlation between parents and offspring for many phenotypes and he commented that:
“I have no patience with the hypothesis occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike, and that the sole agencies in creating differences between boy and boy, and man and man, are steady application and moral effort. It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality. The experiences of the nursery, the school, the University, and of professional careers, are a chain of proofs to the contrary.”
Galton’s statistical work was later extended and amplified by Pearson and Fisher who are familiar to anyone who has ever taken a basic statistics class. The figure below is from a paper by Fisher in 1919 showing his estimates of how height was inherited from parents and earlier ancestors.
The First Version of Genes
About the same time that the statisticians got busy the work of Gregor Mendel was rediscovered. Mendel did breeding experiments with peas of different phenotypes and showed via so-called “laws of inheritance” how the various characteristics were transmitted from generation to generation. None of his observations could be explained in a satisfactory way by earlier ideas about how phenotypes were transmitted from generation to generation. In about 1909 Wilhelm Johannsen came up with the idea of both genotype and phenotype and:
“Johannsen’s most notable experiments concerned his so-called ‘pure lines’ of the self-fertile princess bean, Phaseolus vulgaris. Studying the progeny of self-fertilized plants, he selected the character of bean weight and found that both the lightest and the heaviest beans produced progeny with the same distribution of bean weights, i e they were genetically identical. He concluded that the variations in bean weight were due to environmental factors and he introduced the terms genotype (for the genetic constitution of an organism) and phenotype (for the characteristics of an organism that result from the interaction of its genotype with the environment). Johannsen favoured the view of de Vries that inheritance was determined by discrete particulate elements and abbreviated de Vries’s term ‘pangenes’ to ‘genes’.”
In this view we have the idea that genotype = phenotype with some modification by the environment. It also explains why Fisher assumed his estimates of the heritability of height could be explained by this early definition of “what is a gene”.
Genes and Evolution
The ideas about the statistics of heritability, genes and the fossil record were then integrated in the 1930s and 40s into something called the “Modern Synthesis” of evolutionary biology:
“The synthesis, produced between 1936 and 1947, reflects the consensus about how evolution proceeds. The previous development of population genetics, between 1918 and 1932, was a stimulus, as it showed that Mendelian genetics was consistent with natural selection and gradual evolution. The synthesis is still, to a large extent, the current paradigm in evolutionary biology.”
The Changing Definition of a Gene
What happens next is that DNA is discovered and the more general version of a gene is replaced by one based on the idea that DNA is a “read only” genetic code and that has been oversimplified to infer that DNA = phenotype. There is actually something called the “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology” that has been perhaps unwittingly over extrapolated to infer that DNA=phenotype. The term “Central Dogma” also has a strangely medieval religious ring to it.
However, it turns out that the genome and the products coming from it are subject to all sorts of environmental influences and that the idea of a linear – one way street – transfer of information from gene to protein to phenotype is a gross over simplification. There is even evidence that acquired characteristics can be inherited. These newer ideas about what might be described as a more flexible genome also explain why it has been so hard to find discrete DNA snippets that fully or even mostly explain many things including the statistical estimates of heritability exceptional longevity, height, BMI, intelligence and the risk for many common diseases.
For those of you who want to take a deep dive into these issues the link below is to a lecture by Denis Noble who has argued for a far more nuanced view of how genetic information is converted into phenotypes and how this influences how phenotypes are inherited from one generation to the next.
Back to Talent
Many human characteristics including things that might be called talent have a high statistical probability of being inherited from our parents and ancestors. When the pre DNA definition of gene is used, then it is pretty easy to think about a sort of non-specific genetic explanation for them. However, when the DNA based definition of a gene is used it is hard to find discrete or obvious DNA based genetic explanations for most things. So, don’t expect a blood test anytime soon that is going to tell you that your kids are can’t miss at anything, and even if they have all the “genetic” talent in the world will they get exposed to what they might be great at and will they be willing to practice both intelligently and relentlessly? The author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) who comes from a long multi-generation family line of exceptional achievers said:
“There is no substitute for talent. Industry and all its virtues are of no avail.”
On the other hand a standard concept from the sporting world is that you “can’t coach desire”.
Perhaps the truly elite performer in any endeavor needs to have it both ways.
Wooden: A Coach’s Life
Today’s post is a reflection on John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” shown below. Many versions of it are available on the web; the one below is my favorite. It also includes 12 of the many sayings Wooden used to motivate his players and teach life lessons to essentially anyone who was interested.
The motivation for this reflection was reading “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” by the noted basketball writer Seth Davis. This is a terrific and even scholarly biography with incredible footnotes and original interviews and insights about the great coach. I rank this book as one of the top four sports biographies I have ever read, and I have read 100s over the last 45 years starting at about age 10. It is just as good as “When Pride Still Mattered” about Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss and also biographies about Casey Stengel and Babe Ruth by Robert Creamer. All four books do a great job of telling the stories of these men. They all take a deeper dive into how their sporting achievements and personal narratives reflected the bigger picture of what was going on in America and even the world as lived out incredible lives.
Wooden lived to be almost 100 and his life spanned the end of traditional rural non-mechanized America beginning before World War 1 all the way to the present. He was the first man in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach. His teams won 10 of 12 NCAA titles in the 1960 and early 1970s. He won with small teams, medium sized teams, underdogs and with supremely talented players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton. But he did not really win big until he was in his early 50s and had been coaching for 30 years. During his nearly 35 year retirement he then went on to be a sort of cultural Yoda (using the pyramid) to teach the world his ideas about achievement and success.
A “Coach’s Life” does a great job recounting the deeply religious and upright St. John version of John Wooden that is typically promulgated by Wooden’s many admirers. It also shows that John Wooden was not perfect (he never claimed to be), had a number of faults and turned a blind eye to things players and boosters did over the years. Which brings me to the Pyramid of Success. Wooden developed the Pyramid as a high school teacher and coach during the 1930s in Indiana. He claimed he used it to help students, parents and players understand the value of doing their best vs. becoming focused on some arbitrary definition of success like grades and “winning or losing”.
However, as I read the book I wondered if the Pyramid was more about Wooden reminding himself that he needed to constantly harness his tremendous competitive energy, drive and skill to become a better coach and “teacher”, his preferred description of what he did. During the 1920s and 1930s Wooden was a fiercely competitive player and coach who sometimes let his emotions get the best of him. He was a superb pool hustler and golfer. He was a noted bench jockey of opposing players and officials. Bill Walton has called Wooden one of the two greatest trash-talkers he ever saw (the other was Larry Bird). Wooden could also routinely beat his all-American players at free throw shooting contests in his late 50s and early 60s. At some level Wooden was an ultimate alpha-male who did not become a great coach until he mastered his emotions and channeled his energy. For example, he shortened practice in the early 60s and became even more obsessed with simplifying what he taught is players vs. extending practice to “do more”. If you look at the Pyramid of Success in the context of John Wooden talking to himself, it is a road map of how he mastered his emotions, focused his energy and got better over time.
One of Wooden’s favorite sayings goes something like “control yourself so others don’t have to”, and in the final analysis maybe that is what the Pyramid of Success is all about.
During the 2012 Summer Olympics I did a number of posts on all-time greats like the sprinter Bob Hayes and perhaps the most underrated distance runner in history Bob Schul. Both won gold medals in the 1964 games at Tokyo.
One of the points I have made with both men is that when you make a few adjustments for equipment, their performances are probably as good as the best performances are today. The same can be said of the miler Jim Ryun and of course Secretariat is perhaps the greatest and most dominant “athlete” ever. One shining example from the Winter Olympics is the incomparable Russian figure skating pair, the Protopopovs who dominated pairs skating in the 1960s with golds in 1964 and 1968.
The video clip below shows their winning performance in 1968 at Grenoble, France. It is a long clip but note their incredible balance, tempo, synchrony, and timing. The lines of their skating are absolutely beautiful. You will see more impressive throws and acrobatic maneuvers in the 2014 skating events, but you will not see a more beautiful performance. Enjoy watching the Protopopovs!
There are a large number of vitamins and other supplements that are purported to improve metabolic health, cardiovascular risk and perhaps have anti-aging effects. The idea is that is that these products do things like lower blood pressure, improve blood lipids, and reduce the risk of diabetes. The consumer market for these products is huge with about 27 billion dollars spent in the U.S. during 2009.
Do They Work?
There are a couple of ways to answer the do they work question. The first way is to survey the population and see what the health of users and non-users looks like. When this was done in about 300 multiple supplement compared to about 600 non-users, the supplement users came out ahead for many variables associated with better long term health.
Dietary supplements consumed on a daily basis by more than 50% of Multiple Supplement users included a multivitamin/mineral, B-complex, vitamin C, carotenoids, vitamin E, calcium with vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, lecithin, alfalfa, coenzyme Q10 with resveratrol, glucosamine, and a herbal immune supplement. The majority of women also consumed gamma linolenic acid and a probiotic supplement, whereas men also consumed zinc, garlic, saw palmetto, and a soy protein supplement……After adjustment for age, gender, income, education and body mass index, greater degree of supplement use was associated with more favorable concentrations of serum homocysteine, C-reactive protein, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglycerides, as well as lower risk of prevalent elevated blood pressure and diabetes.
Pretty convincing, except who knows what other health behaviors the supplement users were engaging in. For example, they might have been exercising more or eating a generally healthier diet than non-users.
So, what happens to the blood pressure, lipids and glucose levels to matched groups of people given multiple supplements prospectively? Do they make a difference? When about 60 generally healthy middle aged men and women were randomized to receiving either a standard multivitamin or a multivitamin and supplement cocktail containing resveratrol, quercetin, carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, curcumin, pomegranate extract, fish oil, cinnamon bark, green/white/black tea complex and sesamin:
“The main outcome measures were arterial stiffness, endothelial function, biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress, and cardiometabolic risk factors. Twenty-four weeks of daily supplementation with 10 dietary supplements did not affect arterial stiffness or endothelial function in nonobese individuals. These compounds also did not alter body fat measured by DEXA, blood pressure, plasma lipids, glucose, insulin, IGF-1, and markers of inflammation and oxidative stress. In summary, supplementation with a combination of popular dietary supplements has no cardiovascular or metabolic effects in non-obese relatively healthy individuals.”
What About Vitamins?
The data on vitamins is generally worse. At least one analysis that has evaluated all of the studies on vitamin E supplementation suggests that relatively high doses might increase all-cause mortality. Others have concluded that there is likely no effect. There might also be issues with vitamin A. When the effects of vitamin C and vitamin E on longevity and lifespan are evaluated in “model organisms” like fruit flies and rodents, the data is all over the place. Here is a summary for the vitamin E studies:
Twenty-four studies were included in the final analysis. While some studies suggest an increase in lifespan due to vitamin E, other studies did not observe any vitamin E-mediated changes in lifespan in model organisms. Furthermore there are several studies reporting a decrease in lifespan in response to vitamin E supplementation. Different outcomes between studies may be partly related to species-specific differences, differences in vitamin E concentrations and the vitamin E congeners administered. The findings of our literature review suggest that there is no consistent beneficial effect of vitamin E on lifespan in model organisms which is consistent with reports in human intervention studies.
To Take or Not To Take?
Based on the summaries above, it is hard to make a convincing argument that anyone without evidences of a primary vitamin deficiency should be taking vitamins. This is especially true if your diet is high in fruits, veggies, “good fat” and you are physically active. Pretty much everything vitamins and supplements are supposed to fix can be optimized with a reasonable diet and plenty of exercise.
Like a lot of people, I get regular e-mail updates from my alma mater and last week I learned that Rick DeMont had been named head swimming coach at the University of Arizona. In addition to being a great coach, DeMont was a superb swimmer and is an accomplished painter, but what struck me was the following statement in the press release:
“…..DeMont also pioneered negative split swimming, which utilizes the strategy of swimming a faster second half of a race than the first.”
I have also been reading a new comprehensive biography of the late UCLA coach John Wooden by Seth Davis. The book describes in detail how Wooden adopted the full court press at the suggestion of his assistant coach Jerry Norman. The goal was not so much to create steals and easy baskets; the goal was to control the tempo of the game, and frequently UCLA simply exhausted the other team and pulled ahead during the second half. Sort of a negative split approach to basketball.
The concept of negative splits might also be applied to other things and developing a “negative split mindset” is maybe one way to think about managing your effort to optimize performance. In endurance sports negative splitting can be learned by engaging in specific training sessions designed to develop a sense of pace, rhythm, effort and controlled fatigue. The classic way to do this is via something called a descending set of intervals. For example a runner might run a set of 4x1200m with a 400m jog between the 1200s. In other words the three laps of a standard 400m track fast with 1 lap of jogging between. The idea would be to run each of the 1200s a bit faster. In addition to the time targets, the real goal is be in control throughout and sort of sneak up on a maximum but relaxed and purposeful effort during the final fast 1200. This general scheme can also be adapted to almost any kind of structured physical activity or exercise training. Your imagination is the only limitation.
Can negative splitting also apply to your work day, your work week and perhaps other elements of your life? Is it possible to learn to slowly improve over time by managing your effort? Can consistency level out the inevitable valleys in life but at the same time serve as a platform for more frequent peaks? The concepts of rhythm, balance and tempo are all essential elements of high level swimming and basketball. They also apply to music and other performing arts, and I would argue that by learning how to negative split via exercise training you can develop a skill set that carries over to other things. Learn to control your pace so it does not end up controlling you.
Super Bowl Sunday is about to land on us again. I will leave to others to analyze the football, advertising, TV viewership and economic impact statistics associated with the game. I want to cover the potential health related effects of the big game – on fans – not the players. So here is a list of some of the main risk of mass spectator sporting events.
1. Heart Attacks
The risk of heart attack during and after the game goes up especially in people (middle aged and older men) who have multiple risk factors and are passionate fans of team that loses. There is also some interesting data from Germany showing a 2-3 fold increase in emergency room admissions for cardiovascular events when Germany was playing. This study concluded that:
“Viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event. In view of this excess risk, particularly in men with known coronary heart disease, preventive measures are urgently needed.”
Here is a chart from that study, the 2006 data is from the World Cup year, the 2003 and 2005 is data from years with no World Cup:
My advice for passionate fans who know they have heart issues to make sure they take their medicine the day of the game. These folks also need to remember that no matter who wins or loses, the sun will come up in the morning and the key is to make sure they do too.
2. Terrorism & Stampedes
The idea that the Super Bowl or some other major sporting event might be the target for a terrorist attack is nothing new. However, as I searched for information on this topic the issues of fan stampedes at major public events popped up. This is a particular problem in the developing world but events have occurred all over and one of the most notorious is the Hillsborough disaster in the UK. It appears that the risk of stampedes can be reduced considerably via a combination of effective crowd control and better stadium design. The authorities responsible for Super Bowl XLVIII should be able to prepare for either of these possibilities and hopefully they will have a bit of luck too.
3. Riots & Hormones?
Riots in one of the participating cities (Seattle or Denver) are a possibility. What is interesting is that rioting in the city of the winning team is not unusual. There are all sorts of theories about what triggers these riots, but one idea is that there is a hormonal surge especially in the young men who are passionate fans via the sociology of “basking in reflected glory”.
“Basking in reflected glory, in which individuals increase their self-esteem by identifying with successful others, is usually regarded as a cognitive process that can affect behavior. It may also involve physiological processes, including changes in the production of endocrine hormones. The present research involved two studies of changes in testosterone levels among fans watching their favorite sports teams win or lose. In the first study, participants were eight male fans attending a basketball game between traditional college rivals. In the second study, participants were 21 male fans watching a televised World Cup soccer match between traditional international rivals. Participants provided saliva samples for testosterone assay before and after the contest. In both studies, mean testosterone level increased in the fans of winning teams and decreased in the fans of losing teams. These findings suggest that watching one’s heroes win or lose has physiological consequences that extend beyond changes in mood and self-esteem.”
These surges might then drive violent or territorial behavior after the game and some people think that the mere presence of the police trying to keep a victory celebration in line might actually contribute to the problem. These sorts of data drive all sorts of speculation about the evolutionary biology of behavior for other hormones like cortisol which can also rise in fans:
“The cortisol data from this study are in line with social self-preservation theory, as higher cortisol secretion among young and greater soccer fans suggests that especially they perceived that a negative outcome of the match would threaten their own social esteem.”
Win Drink & Be Violent?
There is also all sorts of evidence that excessive fan drinking can contribute to most of the problems outlined above and winning may amplify the urge to drink and perhaps feed into some of the effects of hormones on “bad” postgame behavior here is the summary from a study on Rugby fans:
“…..team success but not failure may increase aggression among supporters, and…..aggression, not celebration, drives post-match alcohol consumption. Losing and drawing decreased happiness but winning did not increase it. Better understanding of pathways to violence in these circumstances will pave the way for more effective prevention and management strategies.”
Beyond drinking there is also some evidence that illicit drug use in the host cities goes up as well.
What to Do?
The take home messages from the data above are pretty clear cut. If you have known cardiac issues make sure you take you meds and be aware that simply watching the game on TV is not risk free. If you are watching the game with folks who might have health issues and they develop chest pain, shortness of breath or an irregular heartbeat, call 911. If you are out in a crowd of revelers, pay attention to your surroundings and avoid situations where you could be trapped with no escape route. Finally, how much do you really need to drink? Have a few but not a few too many.
Here are a couple of vintage pictures of Hayden Smith who I mentioned earlier in the week. These shots give you some idea about how his body changed as he made the ten pound transition from a speed/strength/power “fast-twitch” athlete in the middle 1970s to a 2:26 marathoner by the late 1970s. His comments about the pictures are instructive.
Tucson Marathon 1975
“After the race I coached at the regional wrestling tournament for 8 hours. Now I need a nap after a 5 miler.”
Eugene Marathon 1979
“Little did I know Stoney (Dennis Stonehocker) had just missed qualifying (for the Olympic Trials) that day. Blair (Johnson) was 2:16 or 2:17, Tom (Rotkis) was 2:23. I spent the final 100 looking at the clock ticking in the 2:20′s. Finally under 2:30:00! I didn’t bother to kick (like the day we raced to the finish in the parking lot in Tucson).”
Denis Stonehocker and Tom Rotkis were part of our group of “sub-elite” marathoners in Tucson from that era.
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