In search of eliteness...
One of my favorite adages from the days of the high school locker room is "Iron Sharpens Iron;" the idea that surrounding yourself with people who are better than you mentally and physically will help you become the best athlete and teammate possible. Fifteen years later, I am still piqued by the concept of eliteness. Many of you may recall that I study relationships between the brain, genes, physiology, and performance and wrote a popular science book entitled Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain (on Amazon) related to my laboratory findings. But, unlike most researchers who focus on disease states, I am most passionate about high-performing systems: what makes an organism elite behaviorally, physiologically, and genetically?
Because of my scientific training, I often believe that "nature beats nurture." However, this post is meant to convince you otherwise; that nurture is just as important, and perhaps even more of a driver as nature. With that, this article combines two professionals in athletic performance: one who studies its evolution in the laboratory, and one who studies it in the chiropractic office working on many high-level athletes in the Atlanta area (Dr. Austin Cohen).
To focus on the natural history of athletic performance, I have become skilled at breeding and selecting animals that are resistant to enormous amounts of stress. Whether it's severe sleep deprivation, long-term jet lag, fighting an "intruder" or "aggressor" for several days, or consuming copious amounts of drugs, these genetically altered critters handle stress remarkably well. In all the years of doing these studies, I have discovered that an animal's genetic environment is the primary regulator of: 1) how much sleep it needs; 2) how quickly it can adapt and persevere to regimens of sleep deprivation and jet lag; and 3) how sensitive and tolerant it will be to aggression and drugs. Below is just a snapshot of genetic and molecular factors that I have studied. There are thousands more. These factors are also coincidentally conserved across the evolution of mammals. What this means is that disruption in the expression levels of each of these genes have similar effects on behavior and performance in both mice and men (also been studied just not by me).
Bmal1 (also known as brain- and muscle-ARNT like factor): altering expression of this gene is linked to changes in amounts of sleep and sensitivity to sugars and insulin, to name a few.
Per2 (also known as Period 2): altering expression of this gene is linked to changes in the timing of sleep and sensitivity to positive and negative rewards, to name a few.
I have been further intrigued by this idea that one's genetic landscape determines the capacity to be elite after getting my DNA examined by 23andMe. Not only are there online support groups and chat rooms for nearly every type of biological trait in existence, but many athletic teams have toyed with the idea of genotyping their athletes. The idea is to determine which positions their athletes should play and when athletes should play. Some of these strategies are based on whether an athlete is a morning "lark" or a nighttime "owl" and built for speed, for distance, or somewhere in the middle. Yes, we are back to the days of Ivan Drago. Therefore, I am a believer that separation of the 1% is primarily due to one's genetic and physiological landscape. Basically, Rich Froning can train and compete the way he does because he has a very optimal genetic and physiological landscape.
However, I would like Dr. Austin Cohen to convince you (and me) otherwise.
Saying that one's genetic makeup is responsible for them becoming a professional athlete can be compared to someone who has a genetic makeup for cancer. The goals are different. In cancer, your goal is not to express the genes and in athleticism, your goal is to express the genes. The similarity is we have choices on how far we will go to either express or suppress the genes.
If you have a genetic makeup for cancer, particularly one that is highly heritable, then it would be wise to do everything to avoid expressing those genes would it not? You may consider eating more cruciferous vegetables, working out more regularly, taking supplements to keep the immune system strong, and utilizing other strategies to suppress cancer from spreading throughout the body. The definition of cancer is having abnormal cells within the body, which all of us do. The key, however, is making sure that those cells don’t spread and become malignant. By using all of those strategies, are you 100% guaranteed to prevent cancer? Absolutely not, BUT you reduce your risk and chances of it developing.
When it comes to sports, are some athletes born with a genetic makeup for being elite? Yes!! However, does that mean it should be used as an excuse for why any of us can or cannot be the best of the best in our respected sports. No!! In the cancer example, your goal is not to express the gene and try to keep it suppressed from forming cancer. There are hoards of people born with genetic factors for becoming elite athletes that will never express those genes. There are also hoards of people that will express those genes for being the best in their sports but they won’t stop there. Those specific genes will be expressed by them pushing their body and trying to be the best of the best at their respective sports. What I find in my top athletes is that it is not about their genetic makeup, but about their determination and willingness to always wanting to be the best.
If LeBron James never picked up a basketball or played any sports, then he never would have known he was a genetic freak and destined for eliteness. LeBron's life is all about becoming a machine and being the best of the best via expression of genes and also outperforming the competition. Some could say LeBron was born to be the best but what some people don’t know is LeBron sleeps for at least 12 hours a night, he eats a predominantly paleo diet, and is one of the first people to show up to practice and last people to leave practice. LeBron's mental game is extremely strong as he is constantly analyzing himself as an athlete, and always trying to figure out how he can improve and be better. He doesn't sit back and say “I have great genes and let me just use those for eliteness”. LeBron does what needs to be done in order to be an athletic freak from nutrition, movement, and mindset. I talk about this heavily in my book Eliteness (on Amazon).
The common thread I find among the top of the top is not their genetic makeup, but their desire to be the best of the best. Tiger Woods used to walk golf courses backwards beginning at the 18th hole. Along the way, he would find spots along the course that would be challenging and would visualize hitting the ball in the hole there. Michael Jordan used to stand at the free throw line without a ball in his hand and would visualize himself making free throws when everyone else was done with practice.
Do some of these athletes have genetic makeups for being elite? Yes!! However, all of these top athletes continually do the things necessary in order to be the best of the best. None of these athletes sit back and say “I have XXX gene so I am going to chill and use that to my advantage”. When it comes to being a professional, genetic freaks surround you. Becoming a LeBron James, Tiger Woods, or any other top athlete comes down to disciple and desire.
I know many people reading this are not trying to become LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Rich Froning, or any other athlete. In my book Eliteness, I discuss many of the strategies these athletes use BUT the book and the takeaway message is for you to find your own eliteness. The question to ask is, how you can be the most elite version of yourself? What strategies are you missing out on or could implement that would take you up a notch to the next level of fitness for YOU? Are you better this year than you were last year and if not, why?
If you want to develop cancer, then feed the cells and eat inflammatory foods, sit all day and never move, smoke regularly, drink lots of alcohol, and think negative thoughts.
If you want to express your athletic genes, then eat a 70-90% paleo diet, workout regularly, get lots of sleep, drink tons of water, take the right supplements, and perform visualization exercises regularly. Eventually, those genes will become activated and give you that advantage above the rest of the competition.
The bottom line is that even if you have the genetic makeup for eliteness, what really matters is your discipline, determination, and mindset to being the BEST F***** athlete alive. How often do you watch yourself working out and playing sports to analyze? How often do you watch people or workout with people much better than you to rise higher? How often do you analyze your lifestyle (sleep, nutrition, and mobility) to improve it and be better than you were yesterday?
WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO BE THE GREATEST VERSION OF YOURSELF?
About Allison Brager:
Professional: Academic Researcher with a focus on neurobiology @ Morehouse School of Medicine and professor at Morehouse College
PHD Info: Kent State with a focus on neurobiology (PHD from Department of Biological Sciences)
CrossFit Games Experience: 2015 Regionals - Team, 2014 Regionals Athlete, 2013 CrossFit Games - Team, 2012 Regionals Athlete
Collegiate Athletic Background: Brown University Track & Field, 4 year varsity letterman, specialist in pole vault and hurdles
Facebook: Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
Allison's Blog: www.dormivigilia.com
Instagram and Twitter: @beastlyvaulter
Like this article? Check out Allison's book Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
About Dr. Austin Cohen:
Dr. Austin Cohen received his doctor of chiropractic degree from Life University in Atlanta, GA. He received his undergraduate training at Virginia Commonwealth University and received a Bachelor of Science in Biology.
Dr. Cohen sponsors and works with on many competitive CrossFit athletes including Emily Bridgers!
Like this article? Check Out Dr. Cohen's book Eliteness