Sunday, May 12, 2013

Natural Born Athletes: Genetics, Social influences and the Sportsman.

The 1988 Jamaican 4-man team practices pushing together for the first time at the Winter Olympic Games.
L-R, Dudley, Devon (hidden), Chris, Michael)
Chapter 2. Genetics, Social influences and the Sportsman.

When we see someone perform some skill with absolute ease without prior training we tend to refer to them as 'natural born ________' - athletes, artists, liars or even drinkers. Irrespective of the skill, the 'natural born' is whats interesting here. Does it really hold ground? How true is it? And i it is, to what extent?

I shall again visit my hostel school days for an anecdote. 
It was mandatory for us all hostellers to run the cross-country race. the day-boarders had it optional. Keep this in mind for this same cross-country race was quite a learning ground for many physical observations.

There was a certain boy (call him X) who had just joined the hostel. He came from Rajasthan. Skinny as hell, extremely stubborn and quite stupid. Needless to mention, he was generally disliked by almost everyone - especially for his habit of sucking up to the seniors. His bad grades and behaviour made the housemaster dislike him the most. Soon it was time for the first of the two annual cross-country races to be held. Everyone was abuzz with excitement. Winning the top three positions of the cross country meant big points to the HOUSE (the departments in the school - like frats). The runners were given points depending on their position in the race and that's how the total was calculated. only the first 20 from each house were counted. For the HOUSE and for the Individuals who regularly ran the race, this was an epic moment. Month long preparations were put in, modes of cheating were plotted, and diets were changed. But till the day of the race nobody expected what happened. 

Given that the 5th, 6th and 7th graders all ran in one category called JUNIORS, the 7th graders were always the ones who came in the top 3. They were also the students who considered themselves primadonnas and often were the ones involved in hardcore ragging in the hostels. And since they won great points for the house, even the housemaster favored them and their ragging practices.
The housemasters were in for a shock when this 11 year old (he was in the fifth as being quite stupid and not inclined towards academincs, he had failed one year) came in way before the 7th graders and expected winners - not to mention that he broke the previous years record time!
Immediately everyone suspected him of cheating thanks to his known misbehaviours in school - they cross checked with every checkpoint to check if he had covered them all - and found out that he had. The Juniors had an unexpected new champion runner! 
By the time he moved to the senior houses (8th, 9th and 10th grade) he was very well known for his running capabilities. But in the senior houses, the ragging was way above the junior level. Today when i look back, i can clearly say that what happened back then in the senior houses, was not ragging - but serious juvenile delinquency just short of actual murder. 
When he won even the first cross country of the senior houses, he had left nothing for surprise. he was gifted. 

Underage, averagely trained and injured - he still came in 3rd. 
We may all call that a massive feat of determination and spirit and will power and awesomeness even. me too ofcourse. But here, i also look into the one factor we might just overlook - GENETICS.

Endurance is majorly dependant on this one magical hormone called EPO or Erythropoetin. This hormone is primarily responsible for the amount of OXYGEN and RBCs that your blood can carry. And more the RBCs and Oxygen, they more you can keep exerting yourself without fatiguing. Ever wonder why the African races predominantly triumph in the marathon races in the olympics despite the huge technological and scientific advances in the western countries - including designer steroids that cannot be caught by officials? That is because EPO is naturally and genetically much much higher in these african races than in the others. So unless its an event like tour de france where people have the opportunity to hide from camera and dope their blood and need millions of dollars for training and equipment, these natural born athletes of the african continent will keep kicking ass at each and every endurance event! 

I bet if an african team got enough sponsorship and the tour de france was put under a 24x7 surveillance rule and actually made a drug free event, the africans would rule it.
Coming back to our story, X came from Rajastan and that is one of few places in india where people have the genetics for higher EPO. Being a desert region, their bodies have adapted as a survival measure over centuries to conserve energy and spend it with extreme efficiency.Their cardiovascular and muscular endurance is beyond par. 
Given that genetic make-up and his feats, there can be no denying that X was indeed a 'natural born athlete' or rather atleast a 'natural born runner'. 

That sunday when the race began, X shot off like a bullet. Everybody expected him to be making the most common error beginners do in a cross-country - ie: to start out fast an then fizzle out in the first few minutes. But to their surprise, X kept running at the same speed. By the time most of them were going towards the mid point, they could see X running (not jogging) back to the start-finish point. 
This changed a lot of behaviors amongst students and more noticeable among the seniors and the housemaster. Suddenly X was in favor by the housemaster everytime the cross country was around. Rest of the year ofcourse his bad behaviour and misconducts got him caned and punished often. 
But as soon as cross country season came near, even his punishments became more lenient and sometimes even functional - for eg: duckwalking, sit ups, running. He was the champion horse of the stable.

The story doesn't end here. So he was a great runner. So he had never trained. So he won all the cross countries in the junior houses. so what?
By the time the second cross country of the year approached, on the surface, everyhing was cool. Everybody was preparing for the second cross country of the senior houses. Even the housemaster expected X to win and set new records. By now he had also been training regularly. The next day was the cross country race. For the 'champions' of the tenth standard this was their last chance to win the cross country and they were not going to leave it to chance. They locked themselves up in a room with X and asked him to come in fourth so that they got to come in first second and third. he refused. And their request, turned to demand. Thy tied him to a chair and slapped him and threatened him. But stubborn that he was and somehow just admirable in this one way - he refused to lose the race on purpose. The desperate seniors, thrashed his legs till they were swollen and blue in places and threatened him that if he told anyone about this they would frame him for all the hefts in the hostel (that he was a known kleptomaniac didn't help and often the seniors stole stuff themselves and blamed it on him - a few times even planting stolen stuff in his cupboard to frame him - the most idiotic part being that till that day, he still sucked up to them). And yet, the next day he ran - with his swollen legs, and STILL came in third!

When it comes to endurance, as racist as it may sound, some tribes and races have a clear and massive advantage over others. 'EQUALITY for ALL' is not a concept of which evolution is based unfortunately or fortunately. 


If X isn't a sufficient example, i came across this chubby Rajasthani guy who wanted to lose weight. He was 90 kgs. And he read somewhere that running helps weight loss. Now an average chubby guy can walk an the rise upto running atmost 2-3 kms by the end of 3 months - this i'm estimating from the general people i encounter at the gm coming in for weightloss - who again are instructed to do more cardio to lose weight (which is wrong and unhealthy and i shall explain in later chapters why). Now this dude lost 25 kgs in 3 months just by running! and i asked hi how much he ran. to hich he coolly replied, just 10 kms everyday.

10 KMS EVERYDAY??????????????

screw me! i get shin splints just running 3 kms everyday! and this dude was a FAT, PERCIEVEABLY UNATHLETIC GUY mind you!

if not genetics, what explains that level of endurance? magic? drugs? no - he wasn't on either of them. 


In schools, when coaches go around looking for basketball players, they are quick to pick the tallest boys and train them. Its a clear example of the fact that its the SPORT THAT CHOOSES THE ATHLETE and not the other way around. A brilliant example of this was the 1988 Jamaican Bob Sled team that went to the canadian winter olympics. 

"the people who conceived the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team were inspired by pushcart racers and tried to recruit top track sprinters. However, they did not find any elite sprinters interested in competing and instead recruited four sprinters from the army for the team." 
So in 1988, Four Jamaican runners competed in a winter sport despite hailing from a region that has never seen snow and qualified! And once this event gained worldwide popularity, Jamaica, a country that had never before competed in winter olympics, sent in bobsledders year after year. They realised that they had the potential for the sport and started investing in it - country and its people!


Given its tendency to bestow amazing gifts like musculature, endurance, lack of a certain reflex (like certain aztec tribes do not have the neck jerk reflex which would make them almost invincible to certain locks and chokes in jiujitsu), Genetics plays a huge role in designing an athlete. Now which SPORT that athlete choses and how society influences him is what decides whether he becomes a champion at the sport or fades away into darkness. 

Ever wonder why India is amongst the world's best in two entirely different sports: Cricket and Hockey?
If there is one thing the masses love more than anything else in sport - its winning. Not sportsmanship, its winning. And whatever sport your country wins most often in, becomes the favourite. And that favourite starts killing away other sports making sure all its best athletes are automatically tempted towards the 'winning' sport to make their living. its a vicious circle. 
In a country like India that is obsessed with cricket, it's no surprise that we make some of the world's best cricketers.
From millions of people herded towards the sport since early childhood aiming to achieve name and fame like their 'winning' sports stars that are worshipped, thousands are amazing athletes that would actually do better in other sports. Thousands are such that actually have mettle for cricket. But eventually only around 20-30 of them play for the country, while the rest and the coming generations are left again to chase that 'winning' dream. 

If you think winning is not a factor, just check the records of admissions in sports academies for a certain sport in a country which wins in a particular sport. In india itself more people started practicing hockey when we won the olympics in hockey and when hockey featured in a main stream movie. Parents are more willing to nurture their 'athletic child' in a sport that shows more promise of getting him/her success, fame and riches. Actual athletic ability assessment goes out of the window. Even the kid himself/herself is happier playing a sport that is wellknown and 'looked upon' as it has an aura about it and it also means more friends his age playing the same sport.

The exact reverse of this is CHINA - where kids and athletes are picked as per their skills and nurtured into specific sports which they can represent their country in eventually. No wonder China has such a massive tally at the olympics every year!
These are two extremes and neither are the right way to go about it. 

Now imagine the exact reverse. Imagine the same jamaican team of bobsledders - with all their talent and skill and latent potential, made a fool out of themselves at the winter olympics that first time an failed miserably. The country would look down upon them, the sport would become an insult to participate in and all that potential would be drowned or pushed into another sport that showed more promise of glory. 

Personally, the most glorious and the most hurtful example i find of this phenomenon is in the field of Bodybuilding - the one sport where GENETICS plays a role so large that it is almost officially a part of the judging criteria. 

Despite all the Genetics and Social influences, if human history has been witness to one factor of promised uncertainity and inspiration, it is HUMAN BEHAVIOUR. Spirit, attitude, determination, will, perseverance - whatever you may consider a part of it.
Phil Heath, a relatively late entrant to the sport is known to have overtaken his own mentor and existing champion Jay cutler in record time. In bodybuilding, no matter how much hardwork, nutrition, training, steroids, hormones and what not you put in - in the end, what determines the way your body will look at its peak is genetics and genetics alone. And Phil Heath had those gifted genetics and he made the most of it!

Now the sad and hurtful part. INDIANS have some of the most sought after genetics in Women's fitness and figure in bodybuilding. Infact, many of the womens champions in this category today, are of complete or partial Indian origin. But thanks to the country's regressive mindset about women where only men are supposed to strength train and only women who are item numbers, actresses and prostitutes are supposed to wear bikinis or flaunt their body, we have never even competed in the category. Its a shame that Nicole Nagrani, the youngest to ever win at the olympia, and Nicole Moneer are both of Indian Origin and both represent the US in the sport. But that's best for them. Because if they did that from India, they would be termed 'cheap' for posing on stage in a Bikini. That's how social influence kills a sport despite having the genetics and all the potential for it. 

Nicole Moneer has Indian Genetics.

Nicole Nagrani has Indian Genetics.
Thanks to social influences, had either of these 'Indian' women been in India, their careers would have never taken off in the field of fitness where they currently literally rule the roost - with Nicole Nagrani being the youngest ever to win the title at the Olympia.


Coming to the last leg of the chapter an the most personal part of this phenomeon: THE SPORTSMAN.

The individual that plays and represents the sport. 

What factor besides genetics helped the fat boy lose close to 30 kgs in 3 months?
Did the Jamaican Bob Sled team return to the olympics?
Would Indian Women ever represent their own country in the sport of bodybuilding?
What happened to the talented Cross Country runner X?

The chubby boy who lost close to 30 kgs in 3 months was determoned to lose weight no matter how - he was willing to make himself run 10 kms everyday no matter what. and that, even though misdirected, is DETERMINATION.

In all countries, Sportsmen who are not capable of handling failure are the ones most likely to fail - not because they dont have the talent, but because they tend to get dishearted by failure. A boy who loses too many races too often - like seabiscuit or a losing horse (a horse they use to train a winning horse to win against), eventually starts feeling like a failure and hates the sport. 

A sportsman with a bad attitude is bound to create too many enemies for his own good. This makes him lose favour from the right kind of teachers and mentors, fosters a bad team spirit in a team sport and eventually gets frustrated and out of the sport. Also the sports persons attitude towards the politics and corruption in the sport can be a career killer(just for the record, it is in every sport and according to me, a real sportsman is the one who plays his game with no regrets for giving the best he can at his sport whenever he does.).
for eg: Cross Country runner X was last heard of tending tables at a restaurant after dropping out of school. 

A sportsman with not so great talent and not so great opportunities but with loads of determination and perseverance puts in the extra miles. He/she out practices the rest and eventually gets further than most of them so called 'gifted' people.

A sportsman with not so great talent and not so great opportunities but with loads of determination and perseverance puts in the extra miles. He/she out practices the rest and eventually gets further than most of them so called 'gifted' people.
If cricket is your favourite example, take the careers of Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli as examples.

Take the hundreds of Ranji trophy players and under 19 world cup players and see who eventually plays for the country. What do you think are the factors that drive that selection?
And it is that ATTITUDE of SPORTSMANSHIP that decides more often than just that person's gifts, whether or not he will succeed as an athlete, or a person, on the playground, in the ring, or in life.


The SPORTSPERSON's ATTITUDE is the shell that holds the gifts of genetics potential and talent. It is the shell that decides whether social influence grooms it or breaks it. It is the shell that eventually moulds into the sportsperson and unveils a dead coccoon, a grovelling, struggling caterpillar or a colorful butterfly. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The 'Kaccha Limbu' phenomenon

The Ugly Duckling story makes an apt parallel for the Kaccha limbu Phenomenon.
Chapter 1. The 'Kaccha Limbu' phenomenon
Universal flaws in the educational and social systems that contribute to unjustly classifying kids as jocks and wimps - and suggested measures to overcome them.

'Sometimes being the problem helps you understand the problem better.'

If you went to school in India as I did, you must have noticed the practice of calling the weaker, smaller kids 'kaccha limbus' (raw lemons) during a game - they are the ones picked last on any team, not allowed to bat or bowl but just to field in a game of cricket or just pushed somewhere into the background in a game of football. I, myself grew up as a 'kaccha limbu'. No doubt about it that i was bad at sports among the people of my class/batch (but that has multiple reasons to which we shall get to soon) but to make matters worse, I had too many ideals - especially against lying. So I was generally the boy nobody wanted on their team because if i got out, i would walk off the crease even if the game was rigged by putting our own umpire and i was given not out - and if i was made the umpire while my team bats, I would call fair and not cheat - and in a bunch of kids obsessed with winning over sportsmanship, that's way too much idealism. This put me away from teamsports on the whole and i found myself liking martial arts, swimming, trekking, rifle shooting and games/sports which do not need groups. And yet almost all through school i was never a great athlete. ALMOST.
and that is where the key lies.
Towards the end of my school life and into college, I improved phenomenally in sports and as an athlete - i won a sprint for the first time when i was 14, i hit a six among my school mates for the first time at 14, i won swimming and judo competitions at 15-16, i kicked serious ass at volleyball in college - and even today, at 27 i'm fitter, faster, stronger than most people my age. Infact, i'd even say that most people my age and size cant even accomplish half the physical feats i can.
What happened? Where did the kaccha limbu go? Was there some kind of miracle that occurred as i hit teenage and beyond?

It is something I noticed all through school but couldn't find the right words to put it across - until  Malcolm Gladwell pointed it out in the best ways possible. In his book Outliers, Malcolm points out that the difference in the academic year and the actual year results in an unfair advantage to people born in certain months. Since motor development is extremely rapid in the early years even a difference of few months can make a huge difference. The kids that are in the same class but are older by a few months are with a magnanimous advantage over the smaller kids. These kids are better at sports and many activities than the younger kids - but they are not seen as younger and older, but as the same age! And in India, since the academic year starts in JUNE-JULY Me being born in June put me up for a direct disadvantage against kids born earlier that year (march-april predominantly). And kids born post july-august would go on to the next years batch way older in their own batch and yet percieved to be of the same age. Add to that the fact that there were kids who had flunked certain classes and were later on in my class - years older than any of us (these were the unquestioned jocks - stronger, taller and always at the head of any game). 

On top of that, i was born blue, had a leg fracture at age 2 that left me bed ridden for 6 months and had a genetic predisposition towards low bone density. My motor function development was not just slow - it was RETARDED to say the least. 

Now imagine a game in this class of percieved 'equals'. me and a bunch of kids who were typically june-july born or were obese were the last ones allowed to play any game - so our motor functions did not get any better any faster but infact was stunted even further. ( The only place where we were all equal was in the morning Physical training class where we were all made to go through the same drills uniformly.) Not allowed to bat/bowl, not allowed to play ahead, not passed the ball even when playing - it was a very frustrating scenario - not just for me, but for every kid who was in that situation of being labelled a 'kacchha limbu'. 
On the other hand, the kids who were admitted to school a year late or were flunkies who had stayed back a year were considered the 'gifted' ones - they got to play leads at every game, the coaches preferred them, they were the prima donnas. They just got better and better every year owing to the amount of preferential treatment and practice they got! And this gets worse - with time i also came across coaches who were willing to change their birth year on record so that they could compete with younger kids while being much older to earn trophies for the school/club/state. 
Infact, i actually looked back at the school record of the 'best athlete' every year during my tenure in school and noticed that 90% of them were students who were plainly one year older to the rest of the students when the award was given. So only the 10% of that list were truly genetically gifted/hardworking sportsmen who had earned that award on righteous merit and not owing to a fallacy of the system. And i admire those guys! i met a few of them recently and they are still athletic for their age - some of them even being sportsmen even today. Those are real sportsmen/athletes.
And where are most of those 'prima donnas' today? most of them have big belly paunches and don't play any sport, have mediocre levels of athleticism and are just full of air of memories of the time they were great athletes. Their performance at even their most favored sport has gone below their plateau of averageness, let alone peak. 

What Happened to the STAR athletes? How did some 'kaccha limbus' catch up to them so fast and so suddenly? Here's what happened: 
Till early school set in, the older kids had an advantage over the other kids due to their developed motor system and thanks to the system, that advantage kept growing in their favor all the way upto teenage. Talent didn't truly count for shit. But once teenage set in, the field was sort of levelled - the differential in the development of motor capabilities started levelling out or reaching a plateau - Talent became key. Yet, the years of preferrential treatment and extra practice that the 'jocks' got still kept them in the lead. At this juncture, some 'kaccha limbus' that still didn't give up, started picking up faster and faster. By the first two teen years, the playround was almost levelled in therms of motor capabilities - the only other factors being PRACTICE and TRAINING and muscular development. By 18, the field is actually levelled but the 'jocks' who are still practicing are still often ahead in the game, but not by much, at times due to higher muscular development from years of training. and as it starts moving towards 25 - the age where the body's developmental peak is reached and plateaued, the field is but anyone's field. AND THAT IS WHERE TALENT, SHEER WILL POWER AND EFFORT HAS THE CAPABILITY TO OVERCOME EVERYTHING ELSE.

The Kaccha Limbu that has talent and keeps on training and developing his skills eventually at this point is most likely surpass the jock who was always ahead of him.

Look around you and you'll see a million examples of this phenomenon. 
When you have such a flawed schooling system, would you change it or take advantage of it?
On a systemic level, we would have to match our academic year with the regular year or make sure that kids are admitted to school on ages actually appropriate for their class - especially for sports. infact, for sports and games in early classes, the division of age should be 3 monthly - 6 monthly - annually in growing grades respectively. 
But expecting a system to improve is too much, especially in a country like india. So let me just suggest ways to beat the system and keep your child at par with his actual development: 

Delayed School Admission:
If we can't change the system, i suggest we don't hurry ourselves into putting our kids to school according to the academic year. A school year wasted is not really wasted, its rather invested in improving the kids mental an motor functions. So if your kid is born in jun-july-august- don't be in a hurry to put him/her into school, take your time and send him/her to school in another year. This way the bias would be in your kids favour. 

Playgroup Different from School Group:
Well this wasn't possible for me in a hostel, but let your kid have a playgroup of kids actually his own age or younger from time to time. it will help build his motor functions and self esteem in a big way. 
When i was in school, i realised that every time i went back to school after a vacation, i actually got better at sports - as back home, i played with my younger cousins and friends, putting me at an advantage. When i went back into my group of playing with the 'grown ups' i carried a few of the benefits from my vacation over. 

Use Science, its available:
If your kid actually has a physical condition that delays or disrupts his motor functioning, pay heed to it and take professional help. A little help at a young age makes a huge difference at a later age. Its like a growing snowball. for eg: if your child has flat feet, get orthopedic insoles or he would grow up thinking he is a naturally bad runner/athlete where as the actual problem would be that his feet have pronated from being uncorrected for so many years. (as in my case). If your kid has dietary problems, fix them by visiting a good nutritionist. These are small pebbles that later turn into boulders.

PS: and for parents who are in a hurry to put their kids to school just because their neighbour/relative's child is also in school - i'll kick you in the face. Don't ruin your kids life - he/she would have a double whammy - not just with this flawed system we have in place but also against your clearly misplaced and comparative expectations.