Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 01/26/2011

Sports, Spelling, and Genes

Here's the apple. Where's the tree?

I walked into the spelling bee just as my daughter was at the microphone for her first word of the day. She saw me coming in, and for a moment I panicked, thinking that I would distract her and she’d miss an easy one.

Fortunately, the word was “exclusive,” and I suspect Meredith could spell the word before she could pronounce it. As a seventh grader, it was no challenge whatsoever.

That’s the way it is in our family. Kimberly and I are journalists, and we’re all avid readers. Spelling comes as naturally to us as breathing. I wasn’t surprised to learn that spelling and reading proficiency have a very strong genetic component:

According to John Stein, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University Medical School, both reading and spelling require a phenomenal amount of brain power. Deciphering a sentence and all forms of the written word is the most complex tasks your brain faces. The reason behind this is that the written word is a pretty recent invention.

Stein says, “It was invented only 5,000 years ago. It is piggybacked on to our linguistic ability, which was invented 30,000-40,000 years ago. The consequence is that many people fail to read or spell.”


“Around 60 percent of the variation in the ability to spell lies in our genes,” says Tony Monaco, a scientist at the Wellcome Centre Trust for Human Genetics at Oxford University. Monaco also says that genes dictate how our brains develop.

My son and older daughter have competed in the spelling bee at their middle school every year. Last year, when Harrison was in eighth grade and Meredith in sixth, they were both selected. We were delighted, but not completely surprised. True, only 50 kids make it to the bee each year, out of 1,130 students. (The entire student body takes a written test to determine the contestants.) Harrison was one of five kids to make it to the final round last year, on his third try, while Meredith went out in the second round.

I’ve been thinking a lot about genes this week, for reasons having nothing to do with my kids. As someone who writes about health and fitness for a living, I have to at least consider nature-vs.-nurture questions for just about every major project. It even arises on the minor ones.

Take my post about Jack LaLanne, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 96. He’s held up as a fitness icon, and deservedly so. No one worked longer or harder to make himself the embodiment of the benefits of exercise and good nutrition. He even refused to eat cake at his own birthday party.

But I didn’t know until after he’d died that his older brother had lived to 97. Norman LaLanne was an athlete in college — he played football and rugby at UC Berkeley — and was described in his obituary as an “avid golfer,” but he didn’t work out two hours a day or turn down a slice of his own birthday cake.

Here’s how Jack LaLanne’s son described his dad:

“The whole family gene is a very obsessive-compulsive one, and he applies that to health,” said Jon Allen LaLanne. “He practices what he preaches and you can’t dispute what he says.”

Which brings me back to the spelling bee, and my 12-year-old ringer.

She got “caterpillar” in the second round and “advantageous” in the third. Out of 50, she was one of just eight entering the fourth round, where she caught a break. While other kids tried and failed to spell “acculturation,” “surveillance,” “autonomous,” and “hallucinogen,” she got “carbohydrates.” I wouldn’t literally have put her up for adoption if she’d missed that one, but the thought would’ve crossed my mind.

There were four kids left for round five. To my surprise, the words were easier. But the pressure must’ve been enormous. Meredith rushed herself and missed “electrocution.” One kid missed “journalism” (we would’ve known the fix as in if my daughter had gotten “journalism” and “carbohydrates” in the same contest). Another missed “burgundy.” The winner, an eighth grader, spelled “residue” correctly.

Meredith tried her hardest not to break down, and almost succeeded. You could feel her pain from the other side of the auditorium. We made all the usual parental noises about how proud we were, but nothing could console her. She knew how close she’d come. She could spell every word in the fifth round, including the one she messed up. And, at some level, she probably realized, as I did when I was her age, that this is the one type of contest in which she has a genetic advantage over the competition.

Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever met an athlete or extraordinarily fit individual who didn’t attribute his success to his own hard work and fortitude. I remember having a long, painful conversation with an author who was both a pro athlete and a physique icon with an extraordinarily successful modeling career. He believed his success came from working out hours a day. I explained how rare it was to be able to work that long and that hard. Most of us would break down within weeks, if not days.

So I’ll throw the question out there: Where do you think the line is that divides nature and nurture? When you look at your successes and failures, do you see a familial pattern?


  • OK, I can’t resist being asked my opinion 🙂

    I’m a college professor in health and exercise science, and one of the courses I teach is on health behavior. We (my 20-something students and I) wrestle each semester with the question of why some people can change and maintain good habits, while the majority continue to fail time after time, and how much of this is really under our control, anyway. There are no quick answers to this (fortunately, or I would run out of material the second week of class), but I have a few thoughts:

    1. We can tend to think our successes are due to our own efforts, but are more likely to blame our failures on external factors. It takes maturity and humilty to do otherwise.

    2. Genetics seem to be more powerful contributors to health status the more we learn about it. I’m no expert, but I try to keep up on new research on the relationship between genes and their role in shaping our physical health (and our personalities – rather controversial). Most people are surprised to learn that well over half of heart disease, cancer and stroke are linked to genes and not simply the result of behavior.

    3. It’s a challenge to walk the fine line between empowering people to make choices and holding them accountable, versus blaming and judging them for things that are beyond their control.

    I am less likely to blame and judge now that I’ve had cancer. I am the healthiest-living person you will meet. I eat a VERY clean diet, exercise, relax and pray, and drink tiny amounts of alcohol. I don’t smoke, exhibit road rage, or even swear (ha!). Shortly after my diagnosis, someone gave me a classic Bernie Segal book on lifestyle and cancer. Segal meant well, but I wanted to throw the book against the wall after two chapters. In his effort to show the powerful link between lifestyle and cancer, he kept sharing one story after another of a person who got cancer and how it was related to their negative thinking and poor habits. As I read it, I felt lousy, like it was my fault that I had cancer. I knew this wasn’t true, and it really bothered me that the book implied this so strongly.

    4. With all of the above in mind, I will end by saying I have a few people close to me who work 12-Step programs for addictions. I am impressed by their willingness to own their actions and the resulting consequences, even while believing that their addictions may have genetic roots. They stay sober despite the odds. There’s a difference between “will-power” (which I think is a faulty concept) and “surrender”, but that’s for another blog.

    Lou, I probably wrote more than you did! I hope you don’t mind…

  • Of course I don’t mind! I pay the same price for the server no matter how much space we use.

    Plus, you can’t possibly have written more than me, because what I posted here is probably the fourth start-from-scratch version of the post. I’m sure I deleted at least four words for every one you see. (I used an earlier version in my newsletter, which you probably saw before you clicked through.)

    Interesting that you mention 12-step programs. I heard a report on NPR the other day about a controversy among those who want to keep 12-step programs strictly behavior-based and those who want to combine them with drug interventions that have been shown to be more effective.

    A few years back, my friend Steve Salerno wrote a book called SHAM, which set out to expose the self-help and actualization movement. In one of his chapters, he quotes research suggesting that people are more likely to recover from an addiction on their own than they are to kick it through AA.

    I don’t know what kind of selection bias is at work there, but that’s part of Steve’s point. The evidence is hard to fathom because the methodology varies so widely from one study to the next, and AA spent decades avoiding legit researchers who wanted to figure out if a belief-based program works better than the alternatives.

    Like you, I find it heinous that anyone would suggest a disease like cancer or a susceptibility to addiction is anyone’s fault. It may have some tough-love appeal to people who’re determined to fix the problem, but I have to think it messes up more people than it helps.

  • Bonnie

    This is always an interesting topic for me, because my family has a tendency for addictive behavior. However a lot of us hit a wall at some point and then kick the addiction. For example, I was 100 pounds overweight for years, and then finally got down to brass tacks and lost the weight. I’ve been maintaining for several years now. My mom quit cigarettes cold turkey one day. I have a couple of relatives who recovered from meth addictions and never looked back.

    So I wonder if I managed to beat the odds of rebound weight gain because there is some kind of advantage in my genetics that gave me an edge. Sure, I worked out and tracked my eating habits and all that good stuff, but a lot of people do that and still can’t maintain. I keeps me humble.

  • Mr. B

    Genetics play a HUGE role in life – especially at the elite levels. Take for example, a world-class gymnast. You simply will NEVER see a 6’5″ 275-lb Olympic champion on the rings. In the same way that you will never see a 5’2″ 125 lbs middle linebacker in the NFL. Physics dictate that these things simply will not happen.

    I started riding skateboard (standing up) when I was 3 years old. Since I was so young, I barely remembered the first time I hopped on a skateboard, but my brother told me that I never even attempted to sit or lay down on the skateboard. I simply stepped on it and started riding. In less than a week, I was riding on the street, doing the slalom between coffee cans that my brother set out on the street. It came natural to me. I never had to “work at it” or even think about it. I could simply “DO IT.” Fast forward to today. I’m 41 years old right now, and a few months ago, my 11-year-old nephew showed me his brand new “Rip Stick”. I stepped on the Rip Stick, and I could immediately ride it without any difficulty. I could also snowboard the first time I tried it. There was no need to “keep working at it”. Riding things like skateboards, snowboards, surfing, etc. just seems so natural to me.

    At other things, however, I SUCK!

  • Mr. B, I’m hugely jealous. I’ve always wished I had that kind of balance and coordination. I’ve never even been able to stand up straight on ice skates.

    My biggest regret in sports is not having better eyewear. That’s something, curiously enough, that seems to have no genetic roots at all. Neither of my parents needed glasses for distance vision, but I was a 4-eyes from the age of 8 or 9. I was 3rd of 7 kids in my family, but the first to need glasses.

    As a kid, trying to play sports in thick glasses was an endless trial. I had no peripheral vision, and if I looked up suddenly, my vision was cut in half by the edge of the glasses. All that’s compounded by the fact the glasses would fog up if there was a molecule of precipitation in the air.

    I got LASIK when I was 41, and it was amazing how much my coordination improved. I’d never realized how wearing glasses handicapped me. Of course, if I’d worn contacts, it would’ve been a different story. But when I was a kid my parents wouldn’t have paid for them, and as an adult my allergies made them seem impractical.

    Getting back to genetics, I think my vision problems were one of those things that made me feel separate from and, in a way, alienated from my parents. My dad was a very big guy who’d dropped out of high school to join the Marines, and who now sold insurance. I was this skinny, nerdy kid who wanted to go to college and be a writer. For most of my life, it felt like I’d been sent home from the hospital with the wrong family.

  • Of the folks I know who have become objectively successful and gone on to do great things, they all have shared some form of obsessive neurosis. Whether you could qualify these individuals as full-blown obsessive compulsives, it’s difficult to say–some are better at hiding their less socially-acceptable compulsions than others.

    My entire family shares this same obsessive affliction of frontal cortex overload. It takes a certain kind of mind to put in 10,000 hours of purposeful and mindful practice (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers), the loosely quantified greatness threshold. Ironically, the obsessions that drive greatness can also cause much discontent and unhappiness. Jim Collins talks about this in his book Good to Great when he describes Level V leadership, whereby the business world’s most exceptional leaders exhibit a deep concern over their success, fearful that they might lose their edge and decouple the linkages that brought them their success in the first place.

    But, not all obsessives are necessarily successful, thus correlation is not causality. However, the relationship is too consistent for me to discount. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors are certainly acquired through genetic inheritance, but the afflicted (or gifted) must make a choice as to how they channel those obsessions and compulsions. Wherever you find a professional athlete, a guitar virtuoso, or a world-class leader, it seems you’re certain to also find a little bit of crazy.