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Erin Mirabella
Erin Mirabella
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DNA Testing To Determine Your Child's Potential

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This week I saw a news story about Atlas Sports Genetics.  The Boulder based company does DNA testing on kids to determine their genetic predisposition as an endurance or sprint athlete.

 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having your child tested, I just think in 99.9% of the cases the money is best spent elsewhere. The company claims that the information derived from the test will help kids select their ideal sport, and may increase their chances of a college scholarship.  While this may be a true, it is also a fantastic marketing scheme that plays on the emotions of loving, well intentioned parents, who want to give their child every advantage.  The truth is, you don’t need a fancy test to tell you what your child is predisposed to, all you have to do is watch him. 

The Tests 

The Atlas First basic test, priced at $169, tests both copies of the ACTN3 gene for the presence of the R577X variant.  It’s been a long time since I’ve studied genetics, but according to their website, if both genes have the R577X variant, then your child is predisposed to endurance events.  If only one gene has the variant, your child may do well at both endurance and sprint events, and if neither gene contains the variant your child is predisposed to sprint and power events.  In addition to the basic test, they offer the Atlas Pro test for a measly $999, which in addition to the DNA test, includes a vertical and broad jump assessment chart, electronic timer and EPIC Talent Identification Ratings based on your results.

 

 How To Determine Your Child's Strength, For Free! 

The Atlas Sports Genetics tests don’t tell you exactly what sport your child should play, only the type of sport he may excel at.  While I don’t doubt that the results would be accurate and informative, I find them unnecessary.  There is a much simpler and free way to determine what your child is predisposed to. 

  • All you have to do is enroll your child in a variety of activities, or just watch him play.  If he’s a swimmer and excels at the long events, but is not as good at the short events, then he’s probably predisposed to do well at endurance events.  If he plays basketball and has a great vertical and can sprint faster than most of his teammates, but lags behind on your family’s 10 mile bike ride, then he is probably predisposed to do well at sprint and power events.  If he seems pretty good at both, then he probably can go either way and should try to find a sport that requires both endurance and speed and power.

 

Encourage your child to try a wide variety of sports and activities that utilize whichever area he is predisposed to.  He will find the sport he loves and wants to pursue.  If it happens to be a sport that doesn’t fit into the category he’s predisposed to, I wouldn’t worry too much.  You can always introduce him to new sports you feel he’d be better at, while he is playing the one he chose.  The important thing is that he loves it.  

  •  Even the most talented kid on the field won’t have any success if he doesn’t want to be there.  The reality is that kids, like adults, like to do what they are good at and will naturally gravitate towards sports that suit them. There is certainly nothing wrong with encouraging your child to try something new, just make sure not to take away what he already loves.

 

I found my strength simply by trying a wide variety of events within cycling.  When I was fourteen I set a national record in a 200 meter time trial, a sprint power event.  For years I thought I was destined to be a track sprinter.  A few years later, I remember doing very well on a long, hilly road ride while at a training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. At the end of the camp they encouraged me to road race and I insisted that I wanted to be a track sprinter.  Thankfully, I continued to compete in the endurance events as well, and in 1996 I was invited to move to the Olympic Training Center as part of the endurance track program.  I am a combination athlete, I can go either way.  What I found was that I excelled at events that combined both endurance and speed and power.  While I was a good sprinter, I was not as strong and fast as an elite sprinter.  Similarly, while I had good endurance and loved to climb, I did not have the endurance and stamina of an elite endurance rider.  I was perfectly suited for events, like the points race, that combined the two.  

 

There is great value in determining what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are, but there is so much more that goes into it. Drive, determination and work ethic often out weigh raw talent.

  

Other Tests 

Atlas Sports Genetics offers additional testing in its Atlas Pro package, the vertical jump, 10 meter dash and Pro agility run.  There is no doubt that these are good tests to gauge improvement.  However, you and your child can do them, or something similar, at home for much less than $999. While their testing equipment may be fancier and their rating system may give you some insight, I’m not convinced they’re necessary.  I don’t think having a rating would really help you or your child.  A high rating doesn’t guarantee success, and a low one doesn’t guarantee failure.  

  • As your child moves through the levels of his sport: local, state, regional, national, and international, you’ll see each step of the way how he rates.  

Potential Problems 

One of my hesitations about the test is the potential for the information to be used carelessly, either inflating egos unnecessarily, or discouraging kids prematurely and damaging their self confidence. As much as we all want our kids to be great athletes, every child has their own special and unique talents, and not all of them are going to be Elite athletes.

I’d hate to see your child hang his worth and potential on a rating, when so much more is involved in being a successful athlete.  Throughout my career I was told by a handful of people that I was no good.   After finishing fourth at the Olympics I certainly felt vindicated, but some of their wounds left scars. 

 

I think, in this case, the best bet is to skip the fancy expensive testing, and instead, offer your child a lot of different experiences and opportunities.  I don’t think Atlas Sports Genetics’ tests are going to make or break your child’s chances of getting a college scholarship; if your child is talented and has work ethic and discipline, his accomplishments will speak for themselves.

 

Please visit my website, www.erinmirabella.com, for more information on my Olympic cycling career and my children's books.


Genetic testing

Really great advice, Erin, that all sports parents can benefit from. Thanks!  In the movie "Gattica" genetic testing was used to disqualify people from the most desirable jobs. One hopes we are not headed in the same direction in youth sports.

Great article

I agree with your assessments of this genetic testing. Additionally, so much of what one becomes happens because of intangibles, attitudes, and efforts that come from within, things difficult to measure, the predispositions and pigeon holing these tests would support is not a good thing. The reverse would also hold true, parents and others putting pressure on young athletes to participate in activities they may not really like. Lets just let the kids find out what they enjoy and excel at on their own.

Simple guidance rather than forced participation based on some test will be key.

Kirk Mango
Becoming a True Champion

The Myth of Predisposition

Erin,

Great article. You got me thinking yesterday so I interviewed some of my colleagues (PhD professors) in the field of human performance (one is an expert on genetics and the other on youth development). Based on their expertise, I wrote up a supporting article about the role genes play in athletic performance: http://exactsports.com/blog/the-genetics-of-performance/2010/04/22/.

 I don't know much about Atlas or its test, but can assure you, fellow athletes, parents and coaches that hard work, dedication, and commitment play a much greater role in performance than genetics.

Thanks for beginning the dialogue!

Barry Tarter
EXACT Sports