Why Genetics Should not be Used for Talent Identification

By Casey Jones (@CaseyMAJones)

What determines talent?
Some say it is in your genes while others live by the 10,000 hour rule (1).

No matter which side you are on, decades of research tells us that athletic ability is a composite picture of our genetic gifts and the environment around us.

One academic review states with ease (2):

“…although deliberate training and other environmental factors are critical for elite performance, they cannot by themselves produce an elite athlete. Rather, individual performance thresholds are determined by our genetic make-up, and training can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is realised.”

Identifying Talent with Genetics

With personal genetic testing becoming a reality in the last decade, the information wrapped inside the human genome is becoming uncovered. The vast array of genetic applications range from screening for heritable diseases, testing for lifespan, and discovering genealogy. Genetic test results have also been inappropriately utilized in assessing the talent of youth athletes.

There are reports of parents using genetic testing (3) to guide their children into certain sports or disciplines based on results. Lessons learned from others in the sports genetics industry, and from published scientific findings (4, 5, 6, 7, 8) substantiate that using genetic data as a decision-maker for determining a child’s future sport is an improper use of genetic information.

The Risks of Talent Identification

Talent identification comes in many shapes and forms, but generally defines the process by which specific metrics are used to identify athletes who have remarkable potential for success in a given sport or discipline, especially in young athletes (6). These metrics are complex and vary by sport, but generally include body composition, VO2 max, strength, and sport-specific skills such as stick handling in hockey (6). More recently, genetic information as it relates to athletic ability has been included as a metric to predict talent in sport.

A 2014 editorial (9) from Sports Gene author David Epstein reveals the negative consequences of inappropriate talent identification.

These negative outcomes (Figure 1) are rooted from premature specialization of a child in one sport, which can lead to a host of issues like higher rates of injury. Epstein highlights one case in which a 25-year-old goaltender underwent a hip replacement due to the amount of time spent in the butterfly position. In a longitudinal study that analyzed athletes over three years (10), researchers from Loyola University found that specialization in one sport was a risk factor for serious overuse injuries.

I played everything. I played lacrosse, baseball, hockey, soccer, track and field. I was a big believer that you played hockey in the winter and when the season was over you hung up your skates and you played something else.” – Wayne Gretzky

Playing multiple sports had a protective effect in the study, and also provides the framework for elite status later on. Epstein makes the point that skills learned from other sports ultimately transfer over to the sport that pro athletes eventually play exclusively. Despite few athletes making it to the collegiate, or even professional leagues, data shows that very few of these athletes ever competed exclusively in their sport during youth (11). Even the Manning family that produced two NFL MVP quarterbacks were not subject to premature specialization.

Figure 1. Risks of talent identification in youth. Early specialization can lead to psychological issues (e.g. burnout, stress, fatigue) and overuse injuries in children.

While evidence is accumulating that genetics-based talent identification is a suboptimal approach in youth and not recommended by experts, there are still concerns that genetic testing can be used to selectively place an individual in a sport based on their genetics. The scientific, ethical, and psychological implications of this use of genetic information are serious.

Can genes determine talent?

Based on the state of genetic research and technology today, the answer is no. There is currently no scientific basis for predicting what sports or activity an athlete will excel at based on their genetics. While other groups in the sports genetics field may try to exploit this notion, we believe it is not possible based on today’s state of scientific knowledge.

Athletigen does not claim to identify the athletic talents of children or adults; nor do we recommend your “ideal” sport based on your genetic results. From our extensive research into our community’s likes, dislikes and habits, we’ve been told that you already know what sport or activity you love to do. Human traits, including sports performance, are a complicated puzzle where genetics is only one piece. With this knowledge in hand, we recommend using genetics in conjunction with your goals and chosen sport to determine the best training and nutrition plan possible.

So, what does Athletigen do?

Our goal is to provide you access to your genetic information and education to distill the science into making improvements in your performance. Through a simple saliva sample, we analyze your genome for traits related to athletics, nutrition and sport psychology on our online platform. We provide you with recommendations on improving aspects of your performance that are grounded in the last two decades of scientific discovery.

The Athletigen platform has been adopted by ALTIS athletes and coaches in their journey to win gold at the 2016 Olympics. With Athletigen providing genetic knowledge, athletes and their coaches have improved training, diet and recovery programs with great success in the lead up to the Olympics. Together with our science team, the ALTIS coaches understand that genetics is only one piece of the athletic puzzle. Optimal environmental conditions are also absolutely essential to high performance.

Although the human genome encodes the information to our bodies, there is no one “sport gene.” Ability in sports is a complex interplay between genetics, environment and life experiences. We must respect the limits of science that we’ve reached, while still appreciating the discoveries that have been made thus far.

Join us in our goal of accelerating the discovery of human potential by joining The Pursuit today.


Casey Jones is a Research & Marketing Assistant at Athletigen. He is completing his honours degree in Microbiology & Immunology from Dalhousie University in Fall 2016, and is one of the captains on the Dalhousie Tigers Football team.



Text References:

  1. Anders, K., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.
  2. Tucker, R., & Collins, M. (2012). What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sporting success. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46(8), 555–561.
  3. Macur, J. (2008, November 29). Sports May Be Child’s Play, but Genetic Testing Is Not. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/sports/30genetics.html
  4. Webborn, N., Williams, A., McNamee, M., Bouchard, C., Pitsiladis, Y., Ahmetov, I., … Wang, G. (2015). Direct-to-consumer genetic testing for predicting sports performance and talent identification: Consensus statement. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(23), 1486–1491.
  5. Camporesi, S., & McNamee, M. J. (2016). Ethics, genetic testing, and athletic talent: children’s best interests, and the right to an open (athletic) future. Physiological Genomics, 48(3), 191–195.
  6. Breitbach, S., Tug, S., & Simon, P. (2014). Conventional and genetic talent identification in sports: will recent developments trace talent? Sports Medicine, 44(11), 1489–1503.
  7. Loland, S. (2015). Against Genetic Tests for Athletic Talent: The Primacy of the Phenotype. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 45(9), 1229–1233.
  8. Eynon, N., & Birk, R. (2011). Using genetic tests for talent identification in sports: too soon to be true. Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology & Metabolism: JPEM, 24(7-8), 607–608.
  9. Epstein, D. (2014, June 10). Sports Should Be Child’s Play. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/opinion/sports-should-be-childs-play.html
  10. Jayanthi, N. A., LaBella, C. R., Fischer, D., Pasulka, J., & Dugas, L. R. (2015). Sports-Specialized Intensive Training and the Risk of Injury in Young Athletes A Clinical Case-Control Study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(4), 794–801.
  11. Malina, R. M. (2010). Early sport specialization: roots, effectiveness, risks. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(6), 364–371.

Infographic References:

  1. Jayanthi, N. A., LaBella, C. R., Fischer, D., Pasulka, J., & Dugas, L. R. (2015). Sports-specialized intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: a clinical case-control study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(4), 794–801.
  2. Epstein, D. (2014, June 10). Sports Should Be Child’s Play. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/opinion/sports-should-be-childs-play.html
  3. American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. (2013). Effectiveness of early sport specialization limited in most sports, sport diversification may be better approach at young ages. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from https://www.amssm.org/News-Release-Article.php?NewsID=69
  4. Albrecht, R. (2013). Coaching myths: Fifteen wrong ideas in youth sports.

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