Midweek books: The science of sports feats

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” has generated a lot of attention well before its publication, and if the early reviews are any indication, it will be talked-about for quite a while.

The Sports Illustrated senior writer has tackled the subject of talent vs. luck, brain vs. brawn, nature vs. nurture, etc., etc., in one accessible volume, boiling down scientific, medical and other arcane language into understandable prose for the everyfan.

51JovzMU2KLOne of Epstein’s more intriguing chapters details how Major League Baseball sluggers struggle to hit Olympic softball pitching sensation Jennie Finch (excerpt here). It’s all about reaction time, and I find the intracacies of this particular science are fascinating to learn:

A typical major league fastball travels about 10¬†feet in just the 75¬†milliseconds that it takes for sensory cells in the retina to confirm that a baseball is in view and for information about the flight path and velocity of the ball to be relayed to the brain. The entire flight of the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to the plate takes just 400¬†milliseconds. And because it takes half that time merely to initiate muscular action, a major league batter has to know where he is swinging shortly after the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand — well before it’s even halfway to the plate.

How’s that for detail?

I can’t wait to dig into the entire book. Epstein, a former distance runner at Columbia, takes on the delicate subject of race and athletic performance, and was admittedly a bit nervous doing so.

But his general findings are wide-ranging and should interest anyone eager to understand how the body responds to high-level athletic challenges (he does think it helps to have the right genes, and puts a dent in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory of mastery).

More here on “The Sports Gene” (official book website) from:

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