Sports Science Monthly – February 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. This month we start with a look at how well genetics can be used to predict talent. Then we move on to the latest research on changing team culture, mental health, performance management, and how coaches learn.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Can genetic testing predict talent?

Quick Summary – Genetic testing for talent is often considered to be somewhat of a holy grail. At present, many genetic variants have been linked with elite performance, but the predictive value of these variants is poorly explored. In this study, five elite athletes, including an Olympic Champion, had their DNA analysed, to see if it could identify them as “elite” athletes compared to a population of just over 500 non-athletes; it couldn’t, meaning that, at present, genetic testing is not that useful when it comes to identifying future elite performers.

The penultimate study from my doctoral thesis was published late last year, in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. Whilst much research has focused on the theoretical use of genetic testing as a talent identification tool—and I’ve written about these here—as of yet, very few studies have empirically tested genetic testing as a method of discriminating talented athletes from non-talented athletes. To see whether such tests might have any use, I compiled a list of genetic variants associated with being either an elite speed-power or elite endurance athlete. I ended up with 48 genetic variants associated with speed-power, and 64 associated with endurance athlete status. I then created a Total Genotype Score (TGS), where I scored each individual genetic result as either 2 (most favourable version of that genetic variants), 1 (intermediate), or 0 (least favourable version). For both the speed-power and endurance genetic variants, the scores of all the genetic variants were then added together, divided by the total possible score, and multiplied by 100 to get a percentage. To my knowledge, this represents the largest TGS used in published sports science research to date.

I then determined both the speed-power and endurance TGS for a group of five former elite athletes, including two Olympic medallists (one of whom won the gold medal), and a World Championships medallist. Three of these athletes were speed-power athletes (in this case, 100m, 400m, and Long Jump), and two were endurance athletes (1500m and marathon). I also calculated the TGS of 503 European Caucasians, to serve as a reference population to compare the elite athletes to.

Of the athletes, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the three speed-power athletes had a higher speed-power TGS than the endurance athletes; however, the speed-power athletes also had a higher endurance TGS than the endurance athletes. The three speed-power athletes had speed-power and endurance TGS scores higher than the average speed-power and endurance TGS scores of the control European population. Sixty-eight non-athletes had a higher speed-power TGS than the speed-power athletes, as did 82 in the endurance TGS. This means that, in this group of athletes and controls, the genetic scores I calculated were not able to accurately discriminate elite athletes from non-elite athletes.

This might mean that genetic testing is useless for talent ID. However, it also likely means, at least in part, that a “simple” TGS, such as the one I used in this study, is insufficient to identify talented athletes. Instead, we would require a greater number of genetic variants (which we haven’t detected yet), along with a weighting of variants (i.e., some, more important variants, might be scored as 6, 3, 0, as opposed to 2, 1, 0). Nevertheless, at present it appears that, at present, genetic testing could not and should not be used in this way. This is particularly pertinent when we consider that two of these athletes were European Under-20 Champions, and all had multiple National age group titles. In this case, it seems like the coaches eye might have outperformed any genetic test. If you’re interested in this study, Alex Hutchinson did a really good write up for Outside magazine, which you can find here.

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