Genetic Testing for Athletic Kids

It was only a matter of time before someone latched onto a study between genetics and athletic ability and developed some test to try and predict a child’s future athletic strengths. Sure enough, a company called Atlas Sports Genetics is offering a $150 DNA test that looks at a single gene to try and predict what type of sports your child may be good at. Who honestly thinks one single gene is a predictor of athletic success?

The New York Times recently reported on this test, and the feedback from the experts they spoke with was overwhelmingly negative:

Some experts say ACTN3 testing is in its infancy and virtually useless. Dr. Theodore Friedmann, the director of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center’s interdepartmental gene therapy program, called it “an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil.” “This may or may not be quite that venal, but I would like to see a lot more research done before it is offered to the general public,” he said. “I don’t deny that these genes have a role in athletic success, but it’s not that black and white.”

Dr. Stephen M. Roth, director of the functional genomics laboratory at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health who has studied ACTN3, said he thought the test would become popular. But he had reservations. “The idea that it will be one or two genes that are contributing to the Michael Phelpses or the Usain Bolts of the world I think is shortsighted because it’s much more complex than that,” he said, adding that athletic performance has been found to be affected by at least 200 genes.

Can you imagine how parents will react to stuff like this? Making demands of sports leagues for special treatment for their young 4 year old prodigy who happened to get a positive result back? Steering their kids into one sport instead of letting them try a variety when they are young, thus affecting their body development? Burn out? Most parents are often hard enough to keep grounded when their child shows some skill at a sport. Can you imagine if they also had a certificate leading them to believe that their child had a genetic advantage as well? As a league administrator and coach, I shudder to even contemplate it.

Even worse, the president of the company offering this test tries to speak to the expected misuse by parents, but you get the feeling it’s just lip service:

Kevin Reilly, the president of Atlas Sports Genetics and a former weight-lifting coach, expected the test to be controversial. He said some people were concerned that it would cause “a rebirth of eugenics, similar to what Hitler did in trying to create this race of perfect athletes.” Mr. Reilly said he feared what he called misuse by parents who go overboard with the results and specialize their children too quickly and fervently. “I’m nervous about people who get back results that don’t match their expectations,” he said. “What will they do if their son would not be good at football? How will they mentally and emotionally deal with that?” 

Mr. Reilly insisted that the test is one tool of many that can help children realize their athletic potential. It may even keep an overzealous father from pushing his son to be a quarterback if his genes indicate otherwise, Mr. Reilly said. If ACTN3 suggests a child may be a great athlete, he said, parents should take a step back and nurture that potential Olympian or N.F.L. star with careful nutrition, coaching and planning. He also said they should hold off on placing a child in a competitive environment until about the age of 8 to avoid burnout.

Wait, I’m confused. So only parents with supposed genetically gifted athletes should follow some of the most common sense approaches to youth athletics? Reduced competition at younger ages and not being over zealous in pushing your kids towards any one sport living out some vicarious fantasy? That’s what EVERY parent should be doing, regardless of any test result. 

Of course it doesn’t take long to see that there is a major profit motive at work here. Mr. Reilly has partnered with Boyd Eply to run a company called Epic Athletic Performance. The goal seems to be: draw in parents with ATLAS genetic tests and steer those with encouraging results towards Epic’s athletic development programs. Epic also sells all variety of tools and books so you can meticulously measure your child’s athletic development as they grow up. Can you imagine growing up in a household like that? Don’t get me wrong, Epic also focuses on strength and condition programs which can help elite athletes as they work to improve. But the partnership between these two companies with a focus on kids so young is very worrisome.

Also, the $150 test the article mentions is just the ‘introductory’ test. Their product page outlines a successive series of tests and ‘at home’ athletic metric charts/apparatus for kids that cost anywhere from $250 up to $999. Read some of the descriptions of these test kits, and you discover one of the experts praising them is, of course, Mr. Eply. It doesn’t take long to see how they have laid this out in an attempt to channel kids and parents with money to burn into a decade long series of tiny incremental steps showing their child might be the next superstar, only to find when they mature that they aren’t and the parents spent tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff hoping they were. Sure – families can spend tens of thousands of dollars of sports programs for kids during their lifetime, but at least then the kids are actually doing something and learning.

As someone deeply involved in youth sports, this whole setup is nothing short of nauseating. Parents want their kids ot succeed and many will do just about anything to give kids a special edge. The idea that some test might predict where they will do well so you can make early choices fits perfectly into many parents desires to see their kids excel at something. But this is nothing more than a way to extract money from parents over the course of a kid’s childhood simply because some genetic test said they might be good at a type of sport. Someone in the article mentioned snake oil and that does apply in a way, but the term I couldn’t shake when reading about this was ‘false hope’.

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