Why is it that some people are college basketball MVP’s and ultra-marathoners, while others get a pat on the back for making it through a round of mini-golf? Though there are certain genes that help determine both how active and athletic we are, getting the gold also comes down to motivation and hard workNeural substrates of motor memory consolidation depend on practice structure. Kantak, S.S., Sullivan, K.J., Fisher, B.E., et al. Motor Behavior and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California. Nature Neuroscience, 2010 Aug;13(8):923-5. Epub 2010 Jul 11.. (Sorry, sideline slackers.)

All for Sport — Why It Matters

We shouldn’tonly thank our genes for that sweet smile and bangin’ bod; there are over 200 different genes specifically connected to fitness and performance levelsThe human gene map for performance and health-related fitness phenotypes: the 2006-2007 update. Bray, M.S., Hagberg, J.M., Perusse, L., et al. USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2009 Jan;41(1):35-73.. One specific genotype, ACTN3, has been linked to the more athletically-inclined. Depending on the combination of variants we possess, the gene can help produce a protein found in fast-twitch muscles (essential for sprinting and strength-related sports). And when putting the gene to the test, researchers found that over half of elite sprinters possess that magic combination— two copies of the R variant— which produces this power protein.

But being an athletic powerhouse isn’t only thanks to strength, and staying motivated is also keyto making the cut. One study found certain hereditary traits like self-discipline translate to voluntary exercise. When looking specifically at twins, their willingness to hit the gym was largely credited to their genes. (Thanks, dad!)

Talkin’ About Practice — The Answer/Debate

Still, the extent of influence genetics have on our A-game remains unclearGenetic influences in sport and physical performance.Puthucheary, Z., Skipworth, J.R., Rawal, J., et al. UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, London, UK. Sports Medicine, 2011 Oct 1;41(10):845-59.. In fact, scientists have yet to pinpoint a gene that will produce the next great Wayne Gretzky or Serena Williams. There’s also some mystery that goes beyond biology: Aside from being able to sink that three-pointer, athletic success also stems from being able to “feel” the game, or “see the court”— a skill that still baffles most scientists. Environmental and sociological factors, like access to facilities and family support, also play a part in athletic performance.

In the long run, many factors influence our sports star status— some of which we can control. Aspiring athletes must be willing to train long and hard, regardless of what’s passed down from mom and dadGenes and human elite athletic performance. Macarthur, D.G., North, K.N. Institute for Neuromuscular Research, Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Westmead, Sydney, Australia. Human Genetics, 2005 Apr;116(5):331-9. So even though genetics can influence potential, no one pops out ready to join the Olympic team. A person can’t just lounge in the pool and out-swim Phelps. We have to work hard, and maybe even more importantly— love what we do— to become a natural.

If you could be a “natural” in any sport, which would you choose? Tell us in the comments below!

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft