Here’s Why You’re Not an Elite Athlete (Ep. 351)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Here’s Why You’re Not an Elite Athlete.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
There are a lot of factors that go into greatness, many of which are not obvious. A variety of Olympic and professional athletes tell us how they made it and what they sacrificed to get there. And if you can identify the sport most likely to get a kid into a top college — well then, touché!
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Maybe you’re an obsessive sports fan. Or maybe a more casual fan, and you follow just a couple sports or teams. Maybe you pay no attention to sports, and you only see it when the Olympics are on someone else’s TV. Whichever the case: when you do see those athletes, it’s easy to think of them as existing solely in that context. A full-grown adult. Wearing a uniform. Performing under extraordinary pressure. Focused on a highly specialized task that has zero to do with daily life, or at least your daily life. But is that who those people really are? And how did they get so good at this thing they do? When you see them on TV, all you’re seeing is the outcome. But what were the inputs? We understand that elite athletes represent some magical combination of talent and determination. But what about, say, luck?
Shawn JOHNSON: Oh my gosh. Yes, absolutely. I think a ton of luck is involved.
That’s Shawn Johnson, an American gymnast who’s won an Olympic gold medal and many other top honors.
JOHNSON: It’s like this miracle-math kind of equation that has to equal the perfect answer. I mean, you can’t get hurt. You have to be healthy. You can’t have the flu on the wrong day. You have to find the right coach in the right city. You have to be able to afford it. It’s all these random things and when you get all the people who fit that equation, you’re not left with many people. So I guess I was just the best of the very few who fit that equation.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: the third installment in a series we’re calling “The Hidden Side of Sports.” In the first episode, we looked at how sports have always mirrored society — from our historical penchant for war and colonizing to our more recent obsession with pushing the limits of human achievement:
NEWSREEL: Three minutes, 59.4 seconds, shattering the four-minute mile, the Everest of athletic achievement.
In episode two, we looked at the economics of a single NFL franchise, the San Francisco 49ers, and how they’ve begun to recover from a debilitating losing streak.
Kyle SHANAHAN: When you lose a game, a lot of noise happens. When you lose two, a ton happens. Usually three’s like Armageddon. Try nine.
In today’s episode: becoming an athlete. Time to step back and try to understand how these people rose to such heights. How scientific is the process; how predictable? We’ll look at a number of factors, including of course raw talent:
Kerri WALSH-JENNINGS: My parents are both super-studly athletes.
Mark TEIXEIRA: Yep, I think the gift is number one.
We’ll look at will and determination:
Domonique FOXWORTH: I did a bunch of pushups and sit ups that night, until I was throwing up.
And the mental aspect of this most physical pursuit:
J.J. REDICK: Well, I think the mind is as big of a separator for professional athletes as any physical tools.
Stories of opportunities gained — and lost.
David CANTON: In 1981, there was 18.7 percent African-American players in the major leagues. As of 2018, 7.8 percent.
And we’ll hear one story that’s almost too good to be true:
Andre INGRAM: They said, “Hey, you are blowing up on Twitter, you’re blowing up on Instagram.” You’re everywhere and you just have no idea.
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When you see an elite performer in any field — sports or music or surgery, whatever — it’s natural to ask yourself a question: how’d they get so good? How much of that ability were they born with? How much is attributable to hard work and practice? This is a debate that’s been going on probably forever: nature versus nurture; raw talent versus what’s called “deliberate practice.” We’ve had the debate on this program, most recently in an episode called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Too often, this debate ends up obscuring what strikes me as a pretty obvious fact: to become great at anything, you need both: talent and practice. Lots of each. But even that fact seems pretty narrow, don’t you think? Because athletic success — like any success in life, or any failure — is what you might call multifactorial. A lot of inputs, a lot of variables. Imagine you’ve got two athletes with identical talent levels and identical training methods: do you really want to make a big bet that their athletic careers also end up identical? As much as we might want to turn the pursuit of success into science, into a recipe, real life is more nuanced than that. Also, more interesting.
FOXWORTH: I mean, Jay Z sold drugs, grew up in Marcy Projects to a single mother.
That’s Domonique Foxworth, who played six seasons in the NFL.
FOXWORTH: Now he is a multi-multi-millionaire married to Beyoncé, the most amazing talent we have today. So why don’t we set it up so that all young men must sell drugs when they’re kids, and have only their mother, and grow up in Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York. I mean, he had a great talent and to be honest there’s probably a great deal of luck he happened to not be there when one of his friends got arrested, and his friend didn’t snitch on him — that is a lot of luck. And the same thing is true for me. I can go through the course of my life and look at all the things that happened that were just happenstance that led me to these positions, and I’m not going to say that it’s a model that should be followed. I understand that there are occasional outliers, but trying to build around that seems crazy.
So okay, we’re not going to arrive at some perfect model for turning an ordinary person into a world-class athlete. But we’ll do our best to describe some of the inputs that seem to be strong contributors. Let’s start with … physical ability. It may not surprise you to learn that a lot of elite athletes exhibited a pretty high baseline level of talent from an early age. Mark Teixeira, for instance, a three-time Major League Baseball All-Star.
Mark TEIXEIRA: Yes. And most kids grow up being — you know, if you’re an elite athlete, you’re going to be the best kid on your team. I played every sport as a kid.
DUBNER: Was baseball your best sport from the outset?
TEIXEIRA: It always was. And I actually enjoyed playing basketball more. I played backyard football. I played soccer, tennis, and — but I was always good at baseball. I knew baseball was going to be a sport for my future.
Athletic talent is considered one of the more heritable traits passed from parent to child. In SuperFreakonomics, one of the books I wrote with the economist Steve Levitt, we performed a rough calculation showing that if a Major League Baseball player has a son, that boy is about 800 times more likely than a random boy to also make the majors. So it may not surprise you that a lot of the athletes we’ve been interviewing for this series came from athletic families. Here’s Kerri Walsh-Jennings, who’s won three Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball:
WALSH-JENNINGS: Oh man. Well, my life has literally been family and sports like from day one, from birth. My parents are both super-studly athletes. They both come from very athletic families.
SHIFFRIN: My parents are both athletic.
And the alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who’s won two Olympic gold medals.
SHIFFIN: My mom is extremely athletic, and even now, she’s had knee surgeries and hand surgeries and neck surgeries and everything, but she’s still such an incredible athlete.
JOHNSON: Well, I mean my dad did every sport when he was growing up.
And the gold-medal gymnast Shawn Johnson.
JOHNSON: He was a hockey player, he wrestled, he did BMX, he raced Moto X. I mean, everything.
David EPSTEIN: Donald is about six-foot-two, a lean Bahamian guy.
Thomas played basketball at a small college in Missouri, but he was far from an elite player, and the college program was far from elite. One day in the gym, he was bragging about how high he could jump.
EPSTEIN: And the best jumper on the track team, a guy named Carlos, overheard him and said, “You know, you’re talking all that trash. You wouldn’t even clear a bar of six-foot-six in a real competition.” And Donald says, “Yes, I would.”
So they go out to the track and Carlos sets the high jump bar at six-feet, six inches. Donald — still wearing his basketball sneakers — runs up, jumps, clears it easily. Carlos moves the bar higher, and higher. Donald keeps clearing it.
EPSTEIN: We’re talking about the first high jumps of his life. He’s going over the bar backward of course, which he’d never done before. And Carlos gets the bar to seven feet, and Donald clears seven feet, at which point Carlos is worried he’s going to hurt himself.
Donald Thomas soon moved on to Auburn University, on a track scholarship. And, not long after, he competed in the World Track Championships.
ANNOUNCER: And this is Donald Thomas, very much an unknown quantity really.
Thomas was jumping against much more experienced and accomplished athletes.
ANNOUNCER: And he goes clear! Donald Thomas goes clear at 2 meters, 35. The man that started high jump only two years ago. That is an incredible jump.
EPSTEIN: And not only does he win but he records the highest center of mass jump ever in history. He doesn’t set the world record because his form is so bad. He looks like he’s riding an invisible deck chair through the air.
It turned out that Donald Thomas had a physiological trait — an abnormally long Achilles tendon — that gave him a big advantage.
EPSTEIN: So there aren’t that many Donald Thomases in terms of winning the World Championships. But this happens at lower levels all the time where somebody will step in with no or very little background and win some kind of regional or state championship and then those are the people who end up training and going on to become champions.
David Epstein also writes about the success of “talent-transfer programs” in the U.K., Australia, China, and elsewhere …
EPSTEIN: Where they’ll take people who maybe aren’t making the national team or making it to the top in a certain sport and say, “Hey, why don’t you go try this other stuff?”
Some converted athletes have done remarkably well. The U.K. won several gold medals in rowing and skeleton with athletes who began in other sports. In the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Australian Alisa Camplin, a converted sailor, won gold in aerial skiing.
EPSTEIN: She wins the Olympic gold medal and was still so poor at skiing that when she was invited to ski down the mountain to the gold-medal winners’ press conference, she fell and rolled down the mountain on the winner’s flowers because she still didn’t know how to ski. I heard she learned how to ski later, like on vacation. But not by the time she’d won the Olympic gold medal.
TEIXEIRA: Yep, the gift is number one.
Mark Teixeira again.
TEIXEIRA: Because without the gift, you can’t take a kid that has zero athletic ability and just happens to be a hard worker and he goes to the big leagues. But talent on its own, as we all know: it only gets you only so far.
But talent on its own, as we all know: it only gets you only so far.
TEIXEIRA: At any given time there’s 1,000 big leaguers out there. But there’s probably 10,000 players, whether in college or amateur baseball or low professional ranks, that are good enough to someday make it.
DUBNER: Talent-wise you’re saying.
TEIXEIRA: Yes, there’s 10,000 talented players with a gift. Of those 10,000 players, which are the ones that work hard enough? Which are the ones that figure it out? Which are the ones that get it? That make the right decisions and you know, train the right way, and eat the right way and do preparation for games. Those are the ones that make it. The most talented player that I ever saw as an amateur was Corey Patterson. And he had a decent big-league career. But talent-wise, I would kill for his talent. Talent-wise, there were a ton of guys that I thought had more talent than me, but I thought I figured it out.
REDICK: My brother was inherently more talented than I was.
That’s J.J. Redick, who’s played in the NBA since 2006.
REDICK: He could never shoot the basketball the way that I could, but he could hit a baseball a mile, he had a cannon for an arm. My best friend from high school was the same way certain kids are just — everything sort of comes easy to them, and it’s natural for them.
JOHNSON: I have seen some of the most physically gifted and talented gymnasts I think our sport has ever seen.
Shawn Johnson again. She now coaches young gymnasts.
JOHNSON: But they just do not have the mental capability to get themselves to that elite level. And it’s not a matter of training them or getting them to the right sports psychologist or getting the right people around them. It’s just, it’s not there. I think you have to be born with some sort of innate ability to push out all pain and emotion and push yourself past a boundary that 99 percent of the world kind of operates within.
FOXWORTH: I remember being in an apartment we lived in in Indianapolis …
Domonique Foxworth again.
FOXWORTH: … and I told my father I wanted to be a professional football player …
He was eight years old.
FOXWORTH: … and he told me, alright, well, you set a goal, you should do something to get you closer to that goal every day. And I took that to heart. So I did a bunch of pushups and situps that night, until I was throwing up — it’s ridiculous.
What was it that gave Foxworth such an intense drive for football
FOXWORTH: I was in love with the game, in part because of how violent it was. Honestly, whatever warped sense of masculinity I had at that age, that probably has not fully left me, was like, “Basketball is for the soft kids. Football is for the men. And I want to play football.”
ARMSTRONG: I just, I trained my ass off. I loved it. And then when I got in the race, I just didn’t want to lose.
That’s Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who was stripped of his titles when it was proved that he — along with many cyclists of his era — had been doping. I’d asked Armstrong what drove him when he was a kid.
ARMSTRONG: As a 46-year-old and I look back on it, and really really far removed from that part of my life, there are probably things. I mean, I didn’t have — I didn’t grow up on the street, but I didn’t grow up behind a white picket fence with 2.3 brothers and sisters and an S.U.V. and a mom and a dad. My mom and I were scrappers, and I never met my biological father and I’m not making excuses here but I’m just trying to — you know, there wasn’t — the only father figures in my life were my coaches.
DUBNER: Did you — I was going to ask; did you ride angry? I don’t mean quite angry, but you were really cocky and confident.
ARMSTRONG: You can say “angry.”
DUBNER: All right. Angry, yeah.
ARMSTRONG: I didn’t walk around angry I just — I felt it, it served me best to be angry. The anger part, and I also know that this happens in every locker room of every sport. So, let’s just say, right, let’s just use Texas football and Oklahoma football as the biggest rivalry you have. The week leading up to the game, those coaches, every single day, guess what is posted on the board, in the University of Texas Longhorns locker room, meeting room, it is articles and quotes from the other team. “We’re going to kick their ass.” “That so-and-so player, he’s mediocre” And the coaches, they love that. “Hey Joey, did you see what number 82 said about you?” And so we — if I didn’t have that, if I didn’t have a rival speaking out in the press saying, “Oh I saw Armstrong last week, he looked average, he looked like he’s past his best.” If I didn’t have that, which I did plenty of times, then I’d make it up. I’d go read some article. And I’d say “That motherfucker. Can you believe that he said that?” And the next day I’d go out and train and I mean, it would be the only thing on my mind. Now, it sounds a little toxic, but it made me ride harder, made me train harder, made me hustle.
WALSH-JENNINGS: I think my insecurity drives me really really hard, you know?
Kerri Walsh-Jennings again:
WALSH-JENNINGS: At every kind of leveling up from eighth grade to high school, high school to college, college to the Olympic team — there was a moment, there were many moments of insecurity in the transition, many moments of, “Oh, S-H-I-T, can I do this? Am I good enough?” It’s exhausting. It’s really exhausting. I want to leave this sport being known as a bad motherfucker.
So yes, most of the athletes we’ve heard from were extraordinarily driven, and talented. But of course they’ve also had to work incredibly hard at perfecting their craft. Most of them, at least. Remember Donald Thomas, our high-jumping friend?
ANNOUNCER: And he goes clear! Donald Thomas goes clear at 2 meters, 35.
David Epstein interviewed Thomas’s college track coaches:
EPSTEIN: They said they would usually find him outside shooting free throws when he was supposed to be inside learning how to high jump.
Most athletes, however, do train incredibly hard. In part because they’re not allowed not to by their coaches, their teams, maybe their parents. But of course, they also push themselves.
Mike MCGLINCHEY: I think it’s about how much you want it, how much you love it, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for it.
Mike McGlinchey is a rookie offensive lineman on the San Francisco 49ers; he was the ninth player chosen in this year’s draft.
McGLINCHEY: I was never the best athlete on my team. I was — I’m still not the best athlete on my on my team here. But I’ve always wanted it more, I’ve always worked harder than everybody else. And just attention to detail and the things that — you need to know how to self-correct, you need to know how to learn.
“Knowing how to learn” is particularly valuable when the skills you’re trying to learn are unusual.
MCGLINCHEY: Playing offensive line is one of the more unnatural human movements on earth, in sport. You’re required to move other large men out of the way and when you’re trying to stop them in pass protection, you’re completely moving backwards. It’s a really, really different thing to have to learn how to do, and until your body can feel it, until you can watch it on film and self-diagnose when things happen, that’s where the separation comes in.
MANUEL: Swimming is like pretty difficult.
That’s Simone Manuel, who won two gold and two silver medals at the 2016 Olympics.
MANUEL Because you’re in the water, which is totally defying gravity. You have to work out every day because if you’re out the water for one day even — when I take my day off on Sunday when I come back Monday morning, I feel terrible. And you have to kind of practice all of those aspects of the sport on a regular basis, or else you’re not going to improve.
There’s also the fact that the training opportunities in some sports are inherently constrained.
SHIFFRIN: Ski racing is a really unique sport in many ways. When you think about it, the actual time that I spend, or any racer spends, on the hill actually skiing during a day of training — let’s say you get, one course length is about 60 seconds long, and you get seven runs in one training session. And that takes about somewhere between three to five hours, depending on how long the chairlift takes. So you’re adding up about seven minutes total of practice in your sport for the entire training session, which is comparative to, say, three to five hours of somebody playing tennis in a single session. Which makes me feel like the deliberate practice component is that much more essential. There’s skiers out there, teammates of mine in the past, who spend their time from the top of the chairlift to the top of the race course, it could be half of a train length, that they’re skiing down and they’re just flailing about and doing whatever. And I was doing drills to the top of the course, trying to make use of every square inch of space on the mountain. Every time I’m deliberately practicing skiing and my technique and everything, I’m kind of getting a one-up on everybody else who’s not.
Because it’s so demanding to master the skill set that accompanies each sport, whether it’s skiing or swimming or football, you can imagine an aspiring athlete would want to spend as much time as possible on that skill set. And not waste time on, say, other sports. This has become a huge debate in youth sports: at what age should an athlete stop playing other sports and commit to “theirs”? And once they do commit, is it definitively better to spend most of your time in deliberate, structured practice. Or what about a more free-flowing, unstructured environment, what’s sometimes called “deliberate play”?
REDICK: I totally agree with this this notion that there’s something to be gained from less structure.
That again is the NBA veteran J.J. Redick. As an example, he brings up his former teammate Jamal Crawford.
REDICK: Jamal is one of the best ball handlers in N.B.A. history. He’s had a fantastic career. Jamal will tell you he’s really never done a drill. He’s never done a ball-handling drill but he has incredible ball-handling skills. And he’s done that through just playing pickup or taking a basketball around his neighborhood when he was growing up and literally putting moves on bystanders he as he passed them in the street.
Redick’s own view on unstructured versus structured practice is still evolving.
REDICK: I had a teammate in Orlando. His name was Anthony Johnson, I played with him for two years. He was much older. This was early in my career. And I met up with him for lunch and I was telling him about all the workouts I was doing that summer. And he said to me, “Dude, don’t worry about being the best workout guy. Worry about being the best player.” And it kind of annoyed me when he said that, but I’ve thought about him saying that probably 50 times over the last five years. For me, part of it is I want structure. I feel like I thrive in structure. I like having a plan. I like going to a gym and saying, “This is what I’m going to work on today.” But then the other part of it is, it’s sport, right? There’s something organic about it. There’s something that has to flow naturally. And if your point of reference is only structure — well, the game is not really structured, right? You’re constantly reacting to things as they happen. There’s nine other players, there’s one ball. I think that’s actually been incredible advice for me over last five years of my career.
J.J. Redick grew up in rural Virginia, and his practice environment then was pretty unstructured.
REDICK: My dad put up a hoop and it was just — for me being in that backyard and shooting a basketball and seeing it go through the net became just an obsession and it’s something that I wanted to do over and over again.
Lately, Redick has tried to reconnect with that unstructured practice environment.
REDICK: You get a safe place to work on your weaknesses and improve those weaknesses. Look, if I go into a gym and I’ve got 30 people in the gym watching — even at 34, I’m going into my 13th year in the N.B.A it’s a little nerve-wracking to work on your weaknesses in front of people in a structured setting. But alone, away from any lights it’s a more calming experience and you can gain confidence from doing that.
So what does the research say about the relative benefits of structured versus unstructured practice, or what you might call deliberate practice versus deliberate play? One study, of 22 young Brazilian basketball players, tried to answer this question. The researchers put half the players in organized games, with referees and coaches; the other half played in “unstructured” games. After 18 sessions, the researchers measured the change in the players’ tactical intelligence and creativity. The kids in the unstructured practice showed significant gains on both dimensions; the kids who played in the structured games showed no improvement. It’s just one small study, but it would seem to offer some evidence, at least on the youth level, that less structure can be beneficial. And how about specialization? A lot of young athletes — and especially their parents — seem to think the best move is to pick your sport early and focus solely on that sport.
WALSH-JENNINGS: Man, it drives me nutty. It’s such a flawed place to come from, specialization in anything let alone when you’re a child and you’re 8 years old. You do not need to pick your sport that you’re going to maybe get a college scholarship for and play 365/24/7, which is mentally and spiritually and physically, just — it’ll crush you. I have a major problem with the way things are right now. I absolutely know that I am a great athlete because of I did everything growing up and I wanted to be a great athlete.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I was never that child that turned 10 years old and said, “Oh my gosh, I need to give up everything and everyone and just commit my life to the Olympics.” I had this blue-collar family, all-American, Midwest, parents that wanted me to be normal. And they pushed me to be in so many sports and so many activities and tried the oboe and clarinet and piano practice and mock trial and all these things that distracted me from this Olympic dream. But it always gave me this perspective of I love everything, but I love gymnastics more. Whenever I was at gymnastics practice, I focused more than any other activity and gave more effort there because I knew that was my favorite.
There’s some research to back up these stories from Johnson and Walsh-Jennings.
EPSTEIN: For example, after the last World Cup, a group of German scientists published a study where they had tracked the development of soccer players in Germany …
That’s David Epstein, and he’s talking about the 2014 World Cup.
EPSTEIN … and found that the athletes who went on to the national team — which by the way won that World Cup — had played more different sports when they were younger, spent more time in self-structured or unstructured soccer play when they were younger, but not more time in deliberately structured soccer training. Only by age 22 did they start playing fewer sports and spending more time in structured soccer than athletes who plateaued at lower levels. So this sort of less-structured development and turns out to be completely characteristic of athletes that go on to become elite.
Okay, but what if you’re a young athlete, or the parent of one, and your ultimate goal isn’t to become an elite professional athlete, but rather to get into an elite university? Like one of the top 10 schools in the country?
LEVITT: I’ve actually been thinking about that exact problem.
That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author; he’s an economist at the University of Chicago.
LEVITT: By my calculation, about .4 percent of kids, so about 1 in 250 kids, will make it to one of those top 10 schools. It’s a hard goal to do it. And I can’t say I thought about the universe of things you could do, but I thought about sports and I stumbled onto something that was pretty surprising to me. The answer I think is you want your kid to be a fencer. Okay, now you might say that sounds crazy college fencing even exists. And the answer is there turn out to be exactly 46 schools that have fencing. But the correlation between quality of school and having a fencing team is incredibly high. For instance, among the top 10-ranked schools in the country, 9 of those 10 have a fencing team. The only exception being my own university, University of Chicago.
And each fencing team has quite a few slots to fill:
LEVITT: There’s three different blades — there’s epee, there’s sabre, and there’s foil — and there’s male and there’s female fencing.
And, given that relatively few kids in the U.S. are serious youth fencers …
LEVITT: It’s something like six or seven percent of the kids who ever try to be fencers end up being college fencers. I’m not saying they get scholarships but they’re likely to be admitted to college based on their fencing.
Again, that’s a .4 percent chance of getting into the very top schools.
LEVITT: Fencing seems to raise that number holding everything else constant, something like 15-fold.
We should say here that, college admissions being what they are, fencing doesn’t necessarily increase your chances all that much. Your grades would still need to be very, very good to get into those top schools. That said, as an admissions sweetener, how does Levitt think fencing compare to other sports?
LEVITT: My God, if you want to go to an Ivy League school, forget about soccer and basketball and football. There’s something like 300,000 kids playing high school soccer. And presumably any of those kids would love to be college soccer players. But the chance of having soccer be your vehicle to get to college as opposed to fencing turns out to be about 75 or 80 times harder.
DUBNER: So how many of your kids have you turned into fencers, Levitt?
LEVITT: Exactly one. And so far so good. I couldn’t say I really turned him into a fencer. He strangely enough gravitated towards fencing when he was about nine years old and he fences at a really good club in Chicago and, I don’t know, his grades aren’t that good. He knows, and I know and everyone else knows, if he’s going to go to an Ivy League school, it’s going to be because of fencing.
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As we’ve been hearing, there are a lot of inputs that go into the production of an elite athlete: talent, drive, the right kind of practice, maybe a parent or two to get you to the rink or the gym or the track at 5 a.m. And, as Shawn Johnson told us earlier, you might need some luck.
JOHNSON: I mean, you can’t get hurt. You can’t have the flu on the wrong day. You have to find the right coach in the right city. I was incredibly lucky to end up with my coaches.
So how’d that happen?
JOHNSON: It was this freak occurrence. My coach was Chinese, born and raised Chinese. When he was three years old, he was taken away from his family and raised to be an Olympic gymnast. This career that I would say almost traumatized him. He lost his childhood. He lost his family. This crazy career. So when he was 21 years old he actually left China, came to the United States, opened a gym in West Des Moines, Iowa, of all places. And had this dream, this American dream, to raise an Olympian or Olympians that were also children, and how to balance in life and were fun-loving and had a true childhood.
Johnson had started her training at a different gym.
JOHNSON: And I loved it. It was awesome. But Chow, my coach that took me to the Olympics, opened up a gym about five minutes from my parents’ house and my parents ended up switching because it saved gas money. And I was really, really blessed to fall under his guidance and his coaching. I mean, I was a very, very fortunate child within the gymnastics community to have very loving, very very protective people around me. And he, I mean, given today’s society, I can thankfully say that he kept me safe and I am forever grateful for that.
Shawn Johnson’s good luck created good opportunities, which she worked hard to parley into an Olympic gold medal. But what about the young athletes who don’t get the right opportunities, whether through bad luck — or through something much more concrete like lack of money? Over the past decade, the youth sports economy has doubled, to more than $15 billion a year. And a lot of youth sports involve some sort of pay-to-play model.
Brandon MCCARTHY: Pay-to-play is something that just — it just scares me because it’s become so much of a business in and of itself, and less about true, true, true development.
That’s Brandon McCarthy. He’s been a pitcher in Major League Baseball for 13 seasons.
MCCARTHY: It’s a tournament in California this weekend, the next weekend you go to Nevada, and after that it’s Texas, and I don’t understand how two working parents could ever afford to put their kids through that and take the time to travel with them.
DUBNER: The theme of economics the last 10 or 15 years has been income inequality and connected to that, the rich getting richer. It sounds like what you’re saying with youth sports is, that’s being mirrored all the way down the line, yes?
MCCARTHY: I would think so. I mean, there’s two players on your team and one player at the age-13 level can make all the tournaments in the summer, and one kid can only make two of the tournaments. Well, how much playing time is the player whose family can’t afford for him to go on those trips — and the coach doesn’t favor him and play him. I think there’s that trickle-down effect from there. There’s less access to top coaching, lessons, equipment, you name it. Over time, it’s starting to bear itself out as some income inequality just creates better baseball players and worse baseball players.
Or, in one noteworthy instance, a huge drop in baseball players.
David CANTON: In 1981, there was 18.7 percent black, African-American players in the major leagues. As of 2018, 7.8 percent. So the question is, why the decline?
David Canton is a history professor and director of the Africana Studies Program at Connecticut College. The huge drop of black players in baseball, he argues, has a number of historical causes — including the relative rise of black football and basketball players. But he puts most of the blame on deeper structural issues.
CANTON: I look at these factors: deindustrialisation, mass incarceration, and suburbanization. With deindustrialisation — lack of tax base — we know there’s no funds to what? Construct and maintain ball fields. You see the rapid decline of the physical space in the Bronx, in Chicago, in these other urban areas, which leads to what? Lack of participation.
Suburbanization, Canton says, had a similar effect, drawing resources away from cities with large African-American populations.
CANTON: What’s left in the cities: abandoned fields, lack of resources, decrease in tax base.
And then there’s incarceration, Canton says, which has a disproportionately high impact on African-Americans.
CANTON: I can imagine in 1980, if you were 18-year-old black man in L.A., Chicago, New York, all of a sudden, you’re getting locked up for nonviolent offenses. I’m going to assume that you played baseball. I’m arguing that those men — if you did a survey, and go to prison today, federal and state, I bet you a nice percentage of these guys played baseball. Now some were not old enough to have children. And the ones that did weren’t there to teach their son to play baseball, to volunteer in Little League because they were in jail for nonviolent offenses.
Add it all up, David Canton says, and this explains the huge decline of African-Americans in baseball — which, by the way, has been countered by a huge rise in players from Latin America. That said, Major League Baseball is well aware of, and concerned by, the drop-off in African-American players.
Kim NG: We have a league called the RBI League, which is reviving baseball in inner cities.
That’s Kim Ng, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of international baseball development.
NG: We’ve seen academies develop in Kansas City, in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Washington D.C. These academies are really providing opportunity for young kids, particularly of color, to come and train with us and really hone their skills. Free of charge, of course.
CANTON: The RBI program, people like C.C. Sabathia, the Yankees, he went through it. They do have some success stories, but most of those players are not successful. The reality is that baseball is for people with resources. Most major league players who are African-American come from middle-class backgrounds. They have the resources for travel baseball, which is expensive, personal training — and I think there’s a cultural thing. That if you’re middle-class African-American, you are comfortable being in predominantly white spaces. If you’re a black middle-class kid who grew up in the suburbs, you are comfortable being the only black in an all-white space all summer. They’re the ones that are more likely to be in the major leagues.
You could argue that sports are among the most meritocratic endeavors that humans do. After all, when you’re measuring outcomes with a stopwatch or a yardstick, by whether the ball goes in the net or doesn’t, you’d think an athlete’s background — where they come from, what they look like — that it wouldn’t matter much. But sometimes it does. Professional sports teams in particular often have a very conservative mindset; they tend to go looking for players who look a lot like their previous players. Which means they might overlook someone who absolutely shouldn’t have been overlooked.
ANNOUNCER: Jeremy Lin knocks it down! Career high 15, and the Knicks take the lead!
In 2012, the New York Knicks went on a 9-and-3 winning streak, sparked by an obscure young point guard named Jeremy Lin.
ANNOUNCER: Pops it in, and a foul! Wow! Jeremy Lin does it again! Even it looks like his teammate done believe what they’re seeing!
During this twelve-game stretch, Lin averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists. If you don’t know basketball numbers — well, those are good ones. Lin’s success was so dramatic, so unpredicted, that it produced a movement.
DOCUMENTARY: Linsanity takes New York by storm!
Lin grew up in California to parents who’d immigrated from Taiwan. Even though he put up great numbers in high school, he received no athletic scholarship offers to college. He wound up playing at Harvard, while studying economics. Once again, he put up great basketball numbers. But when it came time for the NBA draft, Jeremy Lin’s name was not called. The Golden State Warriors signed him as an undrafted free agent, making him the first American of Taiwanese or Chinese descent to play in the NBA. But he barely played, and three times that year, the Warriors sent him down to their minor-league club. During the NBA off-season, he played a few games in China; then the Knicks signed him, and Linsanity broke out.
ANNOUNCER: Beautiful pass from Lin! And Jeremy Lin continues to excite this crowd!
Lin is now in his 9th year in the NBA; he’s in the final season of a three-year deal worth $38.3 million. How could someone worth nearly $13 million a year have been assigned a value of, essentially, zero? Let’s ask one of the people who did take an early look at Lin.
Daryl MOREY: Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets have been one of the winningest teams in basketball during Morey’s tenure, and he was just named NBA executive of the year. Morey was also one of the first executives in basketball to make extensive use of analytics to choose players. So I asked him why Jeremy Lin’s college numbers hadn’t lit up his model.
MOREY: Well, one thing that was tough about Jeremy — because he did actually, produce in college at a level that looked insanely well, meaning if he had played at say Kentucky or Duke or whatever for sure he would have been a top pick in the draft. I have no doubt of that. The problem was he played at Harvard, and actually most of the models that are used from an analytics perspective to forecast draft picks, they’re built on people who are drafted. And Jeremy didn’t look like anyone who was drafted. The number of Ivy League players that have become NBA players is extremely small. So one of the things you have to be careful about with analytics is when to not use things. And I incorrectly chose to not weight his time in the Ivy League high enough, and he ended up going undrafted.
Morey and the Rockets did, however, bring Lin into training camp as an undrafted rookie.
MOREY: And he actually did look quite good in our training camp but unfortunately at that time we had four point guards. So yeah, I then incorrectly let him go.
DUBNER: What about his being Asian? How much did that just the fact that he did not, quote, look like what most basketball people think a good basketball player looks like, and how much that may have actually obscured the real data?
MOREY: It’s sort of an unknowable question. But the founders of behavioral science a lot of their research was on, yeah how people mostly unconsciously, sometimes overtly put people into basically buckets or categories and use those for making decisions. And often those heuristics really serve you well in life — i.e., I’ve categorized that animal as dangerous and so I’m going to avoid them, so they don’t eat me. Right? But many times they don’t serve you well. And what you’re asking is a question that’s impossible to answer, it’s basically how did Jeremy’s heritage change how he was viewed by NBA talent evaluators. I don’t know — how much was it Ivy League, how much it was it — yeah, nobody knows. The reality was it happened to him not just in the NBA. It happened to him consistently. He was a top player in high school. He then got literally almost no interest from college head coaches. But he should have been recruited by the Dukes and the Kentuckys and then again he was overlooked in the NBA. No one can really know why, but there’s obviously a bunch of factors that probably played a role.
The more you talk to athletes and the people around them, the more you realize the path to elite status isn’t nearly as predictable as you might imagine. There are cognitive biases involved; there’s personality, and politics; and, remember, luck. Plainly, there’s no guarantee that a given athlete will get the right opportunity to make it to the top. But if you do — well, if you do get the opportunity, that’s when the real challenge begins. Now you’ve got to work even harder, devote yourself even more completely. And that comes with a cost — it’s the flipside of opportunity, and it’s what economists call, yes, opportunity cost. Meaning for every hour you spend on your sport, you surrender an hour of something else. For every opportunity the sport gives you, there’s another opportunity you have to sacrifice.
Lauren MURPHY: So fighting takes up a lot of time and fighters, they have to diet pretty hard.
Lauren Murphy is a professional mixed-martial arts fighter, in the flyweight division of the UFC.
MURPHY: They have to work out all the time and they also need to rest, a lot of us work. So there’s just not a lot of time in the day, and a lot of times the first thing that gets taken off the plate is time with family. I remember missing a couple Thanksgiving dinners, not being able to drive out to my sister’s house for Christmas. And I remember my family being like, “What the hell? Why are you suddenly neglecting us so much?” And I didn’t really have a good answer for them at the time. I just thought, this is something that I want to do and I want to be really good at it while I do it. I need to make these sacrifices now so I can have a good performance later.
TEIXEIRA: In high school, by the time I was a sophomore and I knew I had a chance, I started preparing.
The former baseball All-Star Marx Teixeira:
TEIXEIRA: I didn’t go to my high school homecoming for three straight years because I was playing full baseball. I didn’t do a lot of stuff in the summertime. I played 70 games every summer. My friends are going to concerts, my friends are having a good time at the beach and all these kinds of things.
FOXWORTH: For me, I sacrificed from the time I was, I don’t know, probably in high school, is when I started to forgo other opportunities to focus more on football.
That again is Domonique Foxworth, who overdid his pushups and sit-ups at age 8 in order to make the NFL.
FOXWORTH: In college I wanted to be a computer science major, at University of Maryland. And my academic adviser was like, though, that course load is going to make it very difficult for you to make our practices, there are labs and blah, blah, blah, blah. So I was like, no, not going to do that.
DUBNER: So instead, you did — was it American Studies?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, I did American Studies.
DUBNER: And journalism, right?
DUBNER: Which just shows how easy what I do is, that you could do it and another major while playing football.
FOXWORTH: No, I enjoyed those. And it was good, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. And in the summers when people were getting internships or whatever, I was working out and getting ready for football. And I say all that to say, once I got to the league, then I got drafted and I was in the third round, so that’s — it’s money, it’s good money, but it’s not life-changing money. It doesn’t make up for all the things that you have given up, through the course of your life.
You shouldn’t feel too sorry for Foxworth. He played long enough to enter free agency; his final NFL contract paid him about $27 million. But now, out of football for a few years, he’s still feeling the aftereffects of his single-mindedness.
FOXWORTH: My whole life since I was a kid, I had a very clear goal and I worked towards that goal. And I made lots of decisions that would get me closer to that goal. But get me further away from other important and interesting things, including friends, including family. And I was like, I’m done playing. So I will be in this state of transition.
His transition included getting an MBA from Harvard and working at the NBA players union; now he’s doing some writing and sportscasting.
FOXWORTH: I mean, I think it’s a feeling of loneliness, honestly, which — and it’s not like — I have three kids and my wife, and I’m not alone, obviously. And I love them and have fun with them. But throughout my life, I have been almost myopically focused on a goal, which, being focused on that goal gave me purpose. People I was close with in college, like, not really my friends anymore. And at 35, I’m in D.C., where my wife has a bunch of family and friends, friends that she’s been close with since they were in the second grade, and — and I’m like, I don’t really have that. And I was making these choices, which I thought were choices to get me —
DUBNER: What you wanted.
FOXWORTH: Right. And I didn’t realize at the time that I was foregoing long-lasting relationships. And while you’re a professional athlete, you walk around with this skepticism, frankly, of all new people in your life. So even if there was the potential of some great friendships, I wasn’t open to them. I’d go to these places, people like, “Oh, football player.” And I’d pretend and be nice to them because that’s what you do, and they pretend or whatever to be into me, because that’s what you do, and you move on. And you’re 35, and you’re like, “Hey, you haven’t talked to your best friend from high school in 10 years.” I mean, I’m in a perpetual state of transition, which is interesting and uncomfortable at the same time.
It’s one thing if all the sacrifices, all the opportunities foregone, translate into a successful athletic career, as it did for Domonique Foxworth, and Mark Teixeira and Lauren Murphy. But what about the athletes who make the sacrifices but don’t make the big time? Just look at the numbers: there are only about 1,700 players in the NFL; in Major League Baseball, fewer than 900; in the NBA, just about 500. In baseball, roughly 90 percent of the players drafted by major-league clubs don’t ever make it to the majors. One of those 90 percent was Justin Humphries.
Justin HUMPHRIES: You get a phone call that says, “How’s it feel to be the next member of the Houston Astros?” It’s a dream come true. So I ended up signing.
He started playing minor-league baseball at 18. Which meant skipping college — although he did start taking some courses later on. In 2009, he retired, at age 27, without ever making the majors. He enrolled at Columbia University, and took a sociology class with a professor named Sudhir Venkatesh.
HUMPHRIES: So, as I was sitting in his classroom, I started thinking about all the issues that I had seen in independent baseball and affiliated baseball: guys living check-to-check, struggling with whether they should go back to school, family life, issues at home. And I thought if I could use some of the things that we were learning in class, talk to some of these guys, and find out whether the stories and things that I was seeing, and hearing would be reflected in the numbers.
Sudhir VENKATESH: We followed a sample of the draft class of 2001. That’s about 10 years.
And that is Sudhir Venkatesh.
VENKATESH: And so we thought that would help us understand what happens to these folks. I think one of the most curious things that we find is how much ten years matter. If you take two people who grew up in the same circumstances, let’s say one played baseball and one didn’t, the person who plays baseball is making about forty percent less on average ten years after they enter the game than the person who decides not to play baseball and who just wanted a regular career.
DUBNER: All right, so what kind of background is typical for these players that you’re tracking?
VENKATESH: The average player probably looks like an upper-middle-class kid who comes out of college or comes out of high school. And when you follow an upper-middle-class kid for about seven to ten years, they’re probably going to make higher than the median average income. They’re probably going to live in a neighborhood that’s relatively safe. They’re going to have a career. Now, when you take the counterpart among the pool that was drafted, that median kid, that kid looks likes he’s making about twenty to twenty-four thousand dollars a year, which is not a lot of money. He’s working probably five to seven months playing baseball, and then struggling to find part-time work in the off-season. Might be coaching, might be doing some training, might be working on a construction site, might be working in fast food.
HUMPHRIES: “Well, when you’re 25, playing in independent ball, making less than $2,000 a month. Living off your parents because you can’t financially sustain yourself like that. At some point you have to say to yourself — look, with no degree, I had less than an associate degree at that point. So, at some point, you have to tell yourself, “I can’t do this to myself. I can’t do this to my parents. And I can’t continue when I know that there’s untapped potential to do other things.”
Knowing when to quit anything is hard. Especially if it means abandoning a lifelong dream. Quitting an athletic dream is especially hard, because baked into the ethos of sport is the idea you should never quit, never give up, never back down. But think about it: if you’d been playing in the minor leagues, or some equivalent, for a decade, would you really think your moment was ever going to come? Would you really think there was any chance at all? Before you answer, I’d like to introduce you to someone named Andre Ingram.
Andre INGRAM: Hey, Stephen. How are you doing, man? Sorry I’m late.
DUBNER: No no no, no worries, no worries. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. I believe you grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where you still live, is that right?
INGRAM: That’s correct.
DUBNER: I’m curious, is your family the same Ingram family of the gospel group, the Ingramettes?
INGRAM: That’s very good. Yeah, that’s exactly correct. That’s on my father’s side.
DUBNER: And tell me about you. Are you musical? Are you talented?
INGRAM: No. My brother and I are the athletes, and it’s funny because everyone else in our family is musically gifted in some way. My brother and I, we got none of that. So yeah we got the athletics.
Ingram was a good basketball player in high school and then played his college ball at American University — a solid basketball program, but hardly elite. It had produced only one NBA player in its history. Ingram was a three-point-shot specialist, and left American as its fifth-leading all-time scorer. But that wasn’t enough to get drafted into the NBA. So he entered the NBA’s minor league, which at that time was called the D-League, the D standing for “development.” It’s since changed its name, in a sponsorship deal, to the G-League, the “G” standing for “Gatorade.”Anyway, Andre Ingram entered the D-League with the hopes of being called up to the NBA. He wound up staying for 10 years. Almost nobody stays in the D-League for 10 years. It pays so poorly — roughly $25,000 a season — that most young players give it a year or two before going to play pro in Europe or elsewhere. Ingram tried Australia, briefly, didn’t like it. Plus he wanted to stay nearby, just in case the NBA finally came calling.
INGRAM: There were many times where I was ready just to turn the other way and do something else. Just you know, wife and kids, family. The D-League or G-League is not paying you much. You need to do something. I came to that point so many times and something kept me going every time.
Last year, he played for a team called the South Bay Lakers. They’re owned by the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, which you’ve probably heard of. Ingram led the G-League in 3-point shooting percentage. But still, he was 32 years old by now. And still in the G-League. For extra money, he tutored kids in math. At the end of the season, he was called in for his regular exit interview.
INGRAM: I’m thinking, all right, this is the same old thing. But then we get upstairs we get in this big conference room and not only is the GM and head coach there, our president is there and I’m like, “OK, this is a bit different. I’ve done this before.” Usually, our president’s not here.
The president he’s talking about is the president of basketball operations not for the South Bay Lakers but for the Los Angeles Lakers: Magic Johnson. You’ve probably heard of him too.
INGRAM: My heart is kind of racing at that moment and then they tell me the news.
The news was that the L.A. Lakers, with just two games left in their season, were calling Andre Ingram up to play. He’d make his NBA debut at age 32.
INGRAM: It’s just everything that I was feeling is exactly what you thought. Or would anybody would think knowing my story, knowing my situation. I just didn’t let it out like my wife did. And my mom did when I told them the news. They let it out. They just let it be raw and the real emotion that people love to see. I was a little bit more subdued but was feeling it all inside. And immediately after that though my first thought goes to, “Ok, who do we play again tomorrow?”
They were playing the Houston Rockets. Late in the first quarter, Ingram finally got his chance to play in the NBA.
ANNOUNCER: Eleven years, 384 games after his professional career begins, Andre Ingram getting called up by the Lakers.
INGRAM: I think before I got there in the night before was when all the emotions were running wild and I’m not sure how to feel that you’re so excited yet nervous and all these other things. But when it came time for the actual game it really turned into basketball very quickly for me and made things a whole lot easier.
How easy was it?
ANNOUNCER: Down it goes! Welcome to the NBA, Andre Ingram!
ANNOUNCER: Makes his first try! That is awesome!
Ingram scored 19 points that night, including four three-point shots. It was one of the best debuts in Lakers history. If was one of the most amazing debuts ever — the 32-year-old rookie.
ANNOUNCER: Ingram, on its way again!
The crowd began chanting “M-V-P, M-V-P!”
ANNOUNCER: Ingram, over Capella! And one. Count it!
INGRAM: We had no idea the reach of this until my brother and my niece called, told me, they said, “Hey, you are blowing up on Twitter, you’re blowing up on Instagram, you’re everywhere, and you just have no idea.”
DUBNER: So I know that you’re a great three-point shooter. Historically great. Forgive me for saying thi,s but your shot looks a little bit ugly. If I’m being honest with you, Andre. It’s a little off-balance and I know it works, but I’m really curious to ask you, I don’t mean to insult you. It’s an insult with a question. Do you think that maybe is part of what’s kept teams in the past from giving you a shot at the NBA? And I ask this thinking about the story about Jeremy Lin, who many teams overlooked. And they later admitted they overlooked him because he was an Asian guy and he didn’t fit the template of what an NBA player was. And I’m curious if whether you think that your untraditional shot may have hurt you in some way even if just like perception wise.
INGRAM: You know what, I mean it’s a good question. I don’t think so. I would say the gray hair probably has more to do with it but if I had to guess. Maybe the awkwardness of the shot or not so much the awkwardness of it but the release point of it, because it’s a bit lower than most guys. I’m already not the tallest guy. So maybe there is worry about, “Well hey, this shot is going to get blocked in our league. The guys are too athletic for him to get that off.” So maybe that was the thought. To be honest with you.
DUBNER: All right, so here’s the big question. What’s your future?
INGRAM: Yeah, so right now, my agent is in talks with different teams. We’re trying to get into a training camp right now. That’s the goal. And hopefully there will be some news soon of where I’ll be. But nowhere yet.
DUBNER: What happens if you don’t get in a training camp. You don’t get to play for an N.B.A. team. What do you do this coming season?
INGRAM: Yeah, it could definitely be the G-league again.
INGRAM: It could be another season of it, I mean the job for me is simple: just stay ready. But the goal is we will be continuing to play, that much I can tell you.
DUBNER: It’s interesting. As a sports fan, I’ve been my whole life seeing people trying to squeeze meaning out of sports beyond the game itself and a lot of times it feels kind of forced. But it strikes me that your story is really different. What is the lesson that we maybe should take from your story?
INGRAM: What I would like for people to get out of it the most is that it wasn’t just that I stuck with it all the way through and was happy about it all the time. I definitely had doubts. I had disbelief, I had discouragement. You don’t get to something or any dream or anything worth having just scot-free. I think that part about it is is the realest part that.
Please join me in wishing Andre Ingram the best of luck, whatever happens next. To play us out today, here’s his family’s gospel group: Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes. This song is called, appropriately enough, “Work Until I Die.”
Thanks to Ingram and all the athletes who spoke to us for today’s show. We’ll be back with more episodes from our “Hidden Side of Sports” series in a couple months.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Anders Kelto and Derek John, with help from Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rosalsky, Greg Rippin, Alvin Melathe, Zack Lapinski, and Andy Meisenheimer. The music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Lance Armstrong, former cyclist and host of The Forward and The Move.
- David Canton, associate professor of history at Connecticut College.
- David Epstein, science journalist and author.
- Domonique Foxworth, retired N.F.L. cornerback.
- Justin Humphries, former M.L.B. player.
- Andre Ingram, professional basketball player.
- Shawn Johnson, professional gymnast and American Olympian.
- Steve Levitt, economist at the University of Chicago.
- Simone Manuel, professional swimmer and American Olympian.
- Brandon McCarthy, pitcher for the Atlanta Braves.
- Mike McGlinchey, offensive tackle for the San Fransisco 49ers.
- Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets.
- Lauren Murphy, professional mixed martial artist.
- Kim Ng, senior vice-president of baseball operations for M.L.B.
- J.J. Redick, professional basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers.
- Mikaela Shiffrin, professional alpine ski racer and American Olympian.
- Mark Teixeira, ESPN analyst, former professional baseball player.
- Sudhir Venkatesh, professor of sociology at Columbia University.
- Kerri Walsh-Jennings, professional beach volleyball player and American Olympian.
- SuperFreakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (William Morrow, 2009).
- The Sports Gene by David Epstein (Portfolio, 2014).