The science behind sporting success

Having heard fellow columnist Derval O’Rourke sing the praises of David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, nothing would do me but to track the man down for a chat, and we made contact last week.

The science behind sporting success

You can read the ensuing interview in the near future on these pages, but I can’t let the day pass without alerting you to the treasure trove that is The Sports Gene.

A subtitle of Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success should alert you to the subject matter, and Epstein certainly comes through on the what, where and how of elite sports performance. He specialises in writing about sports science for Sports Illustrated, and one of the top compliments I can pay the book is that he doesn’t spare the science, yet it remains engrossing from start to finish.

Take the level of detail. It won’t come as any surprise to you to learn that being tall is a benefit to basketball players, or being strong helps you succeed in American football: however, the forest of statistics about US professional sports players can be crunched to such specificity, however, that the value of a couple of inches, or pounds in weight, can be quantified to a precise dollar value.

In the NFL, Epstein tells us, an extra centimetre in height or another 6.5lbs can mean $45,000 (€32,842) extra in income per year.

However, it’s the minutiae beyond the height/weight stats that caught my eye. Take wingspan, the distance between the fingertips on each hand when you extend your arms to their fullest.

Epstein points out that this is a much-neglected statistic in basketball, where it has obvious ramifications when it comes to blocking shots. Most people’s wingspan is the same as their standing height, but Epstein gives the example of many players who are unremarkable in the NBA in terms of being 6’ 8“, for instance, but who have remarkably bigger wingspans — up to 7’ 5” — which clearly improves their chances of getting a block in against opponents. (In terms of pure height, he also found that of the men genuinely 7 ft tall in the US male population, almost one-fifth of them were in the NBA).

I could go on about this book: he includes a killer line from Br Colm O’Connell, the legendary Irish trainer of many middle distance stars in Kenya, about the supposed advantages of altitude in training those runners.

“If it’s just the altitude,” asked O’Connell, “Where are the runners from Nepal?”

I’ll give you advance notice before the interview appears. You’ll enjoy it when it does.

New York flash meets Steel City’s bold Blade

And now it comes again, like a ravening beast out of the North, scourge of the Skarlings and the Domestos in the savage quest for power between the...

Admit it, you were wondering. Game of Thrones comes back soon, as if you didn’t know by the vast surge of advertising, but I’ll put you out of your misery: I made those names up on the spur of the moment.

Neither of them figure in the TV show, except perhaps as a household cleanser.

I can’t say it inspires me to go out and pick up a subscription to Sky specifically in order to watch the leather jerkined cast sweat their way through the shrubbery of a standard sword and sorcery plot.

The few episodes I’ve seen didn’t have much going for them apart from putting in the parts that George RR Martin left out.

The naughty bits, that is.

The last time I saw so much sweaty flesh I was defrosting a turkey.

The imminent return of Mad Men appeals to me a lot more, and not just because it heralds the approach of one of the greatest TV characters of all time, advertising company boss Roger Sterling

(Best line? At the moment I’m torn between: “My wife likes fur, but you don’t see me wearing a tail,” and “I told him to be himself. Pretty cruel, I guess.”).

Mad Men intersects with sport the odd time — there was a pretty funny interlude when one of the firm’s clients wanted to launch a jai alai league, and on one occasion Don and Peggy, two of the central characters, have to spend the night working on a project together while everybody else is following the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay world heavyweight title bout.

In the end, Don solved the challenge by basing their new advertising campaign on Clay’s victory over Liston.

I mention all this because the actor who plays Don Draper is soon to feature in Million Dollar Arm, a feelgood Disney movie about baseball.

By contrast, the actor who played a major role in Game of Thrones once appeared in a feelgood movie about Sheffield United.

Game over.

A naive expectation placed on Thomond

I’m aware that the World Cup takes place this summer. Yes, even I have clocked that the tournament breaks out in Brazil in a few weeks’ time, like a unsightly rash.

I hope the organisers have better luck than those trying to sort out the Cork City-Limerick tie this week in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division, a game which had to be postponed because of the damage done to the Thomond Park surface by the Munster-Toulouse Heineken Cup game on Saturday.

This seems a pretty odd oversight: two of the top rugby sides in Europe — translation: heaviest — clash on a pitch softened by an Irish spring, and it’s expected to be fit for purpose for an elite soccer clash a couple of days later?

When the domestic game is going to struggle for attention while the Fifa festival of Blatterdom is blazing in Brazil, it could do with fewer self-inflicted wounds.

Raising the bar after ‘amateur night’ antics

Thanks to all those who texted and tweeted me after I appeared on the television last week, talking about the Sky-GAA deal on Prime Time. As advertised on Twitter, I promise next time I pop up on the gogglebox to wear a dazzling paisley design from top to toe, not the sober blue stripes I sported last week.

I was going to revisit the Sky-GAA deal again today in some detail, but then I collided with the coverage over the weekend and decided not to.

This is why: Toots Shor, the famous Manhattan bar owner, wasn’t a man to pass up a drink — he once comfortably beat Jackie Gleason in an all-day boozing competition that left Gleason comatose — but on one night in the year, Shor refrained.

He never imbibed on New Year’s Eve, and when he was asked, he snorted dismissively: “Amateur night.”

The screeds of nonsense on offer about Sky and the GAA was dispiriting, to say the least, and about three parishes away from the relevant point in almost every instance.

I’ll revisit this at a later stage. There are at least three significant points I counted that nobody has addressed.

I’ll wait until the amateurs have stopped shouting at the bar counter first.

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