Is football stardom in your DNA?

05 June 2018

Interview with

Ian Varley, Nottingham Trent University

Is there anything in your genetic code that can reveal whether you’re destined to play for your country? Is there a football, a rugby or a running gene? Offering tests for this is becoming big business, but it’s not based on sound science. Georgia Mills spoke to Dr Ian Varley, a lecturer in sport and exercise science at Nottingham Trent University...

Ian - There are lots of companies, and it has become in vogue in the last maybe five or six years, so very recent, that will test your genetics by sending you a saliva collection device through the post. You will simply spit into the capsule, send it back, and they will send you back some information, maybe not on whether you’re going to be a footballer or not, but whether you have the particular genetic profile which makes you susceptible to being maybe a more power-based athlete. In football, that might be a centre forward or something like that, or maybe a more endurance-based athlete, maybe more midfield player you could say.

Georgia - Is there evidence that there can be a ‘midfielder’ gene?

Ian - Unfortunately not. As you can probably imagine, genetics is very complex so being able to identify a particular gene which says that you are a midfield player, or you’re going to be a good footballer in any position is very very complex. To put this into perspective, it was recently identified maybe about five or six years ago there is about just under 300 thousand genes or genetic variants which can allude to 45 percent of the difference in height. So something as simple as height that everyone takes for granted that is a hereditary trait, there’s 300 thousand different variants.

If you consider it being something as complex as football with all the different things that put into being an elite footballer, obviously it’s seems an oversimplification of that one or even ten, or maybe a hundred different genetic variants can almost predict that.

There’s not been a study I know of in the recent published literature that has shown an predictive quality of genetic test. So, there is no study that has genotyped a load of children and then shown that these children are going to be footballers and these children aren’t going so there’s no predictive quality in sporting settings. There have been association studies; however, the utility of those association studies is lacking unfortunately.

Georgia - Is there then a problem with these tests and could they do any damage?

Ian - Potentially yes. The problem that could arise from these things is that people who maybe aren’t experts in science. Looking at the marketing material released by these companies showing that maybe if they train a certain way they could be better or how they can predict sporting prowess. They take those particular tests and they’re normally aimed at coaches and parents really, and they give their child or their team a particular avenue to go down in terms of training or sport that is maybe not ideal for that participant. Maybe they don’t like that particular sport but they’ve got the supposed genetic profile which makes them susceptible to, or in theory susceptible to being an expert in that particular sport. So this can lead, I suppose, to a lack of choice for that child. It restricts the child’s lack to an open future which brings in human rights issues, and there’s also moral issues within it as well. We’re going on some science that is by no means concrete in the way that it’s being conducted.

Georgia - I suppose there might be an element of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re told that you are genetically not cut out to be good at this sport, you’re not going to put your heart and soul into it are you?

Ian - Of course. And if you’re told you’re never going to be any good at this because you’ve got this particular genetic profile that obviously brings, like you say, this self fulfillingprophecy. I’m not good at that because I was told as a young child that I didn’t have the gene to be a midfield player, I should be a goalkeeper or whatever it might be. Which, when we say it like that it sounds a bit ridiculous to say you’ve got the gene for a goalkeeper.

Georgia - I guess with any sport you’ve got your genetics, but then there’s also your life you’ve had since you were born is going to have a big impact, and your training and the environment and all those kinds of things?

Ian - Of course. There’s obviously been an age old debate going on since before I was born on whether someone is an elite sportsperson due to nature or whether it’s due to nurture? And I suppose the boring answer is that it’s probably a bit of both and people don’t like that answer - a bit of both - because it’s sort of sitting on the fence. But, if you look at the science, it seems to suggest that there is some element of training. You need to train obviously hard to be good, but there is also an element of genetics as well. And in some cases, I’ll take myself as a perfect example, I’m sure I could train all I wanted to and I would never have been an elite footballer. Even with the best coaches in the world I didn’t have the genetics, if you like, to excel in that particular sport.

Georgia - And we all know that person, that infuriating person, who tries something for the the first time and they’re amazing at it and you want to throttle them?

Ian - Of course, yes. There’s one of those in every school I think who picks up a cricket bat and is excellent, and they can do the same with a football, a rugby ball. Are excellent so a multi talented sports person because they’ve got what it takes - whatever that thing is - that enables them to be good at those things.

There’s also examples of that person that tries really hard. So the person that comes to your sports club every week and tries their best, with all the best coaching to try and be elite and, unfortunately, they’re never any good.

Georgia - I think that’s me you’re describing there. I always got the medal for turning up I think.

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