Genetic testing: The new way to identify and train elite athletes?

Genetic testing: The new way to identify and train elite athletes?

NCSA Recruiting

Genetic testing: The new way to identify and train elite athletes?


USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

Imagine if there was a scientific way to discover whether or not your child is destined to be an elite athlete. Sounds like pure science fiction, right? Some companies, however, believe that they have the secret. The answers are in your genes.

Genetic testing is one of the newer trends to sweep through the sports and fitness world. Companies claim that, with a simple genetic test, they can tell who has what it takes to be an elite soccer player, football player, sprinter, endurance athlete and more. They can also determine athletes who are more prone to certain injuries. And the tests can help trainers understand the type of workout plan an athlete’s body will respond to best.

You might be wondering if these genetic tests are too good to be true (so were we), and if you need to take them to stay competitive in your college athletic recruiting. We looked at the data to better understand the how, when, where and why behind genetic testing for athletes.

How does athletic genetic testing work?

Scientists have studied the genetic code of some elite and pro athletes, finding a few similar genes among these top competitors. To gauge aspiring athletes’ potential, companies look into their genetic code—using a saliva sample—to see if they also contain those performance-enhancing genes that are present in the code of elite athletes.

Some companies primarily look for one particular gene: ACTN3. This gene is associated with the presence of a specific protein that helps muscles powerfully contract at high speeds. They claim that, depending on the variation of a person’s ACTN3 gene, an individual is more genetically inclined to excel in either power or endurance sports. In fact, Atlas Sports Genetics’ president, Kevin Reilly, told Scientific American that the genetic tests are more useful than physical tests to determine a child’s athletic abilities before they turn 9.

Similarly, Soccer Genomics explains that with just one saliva sample, it can tell you if you have the genetic makeup required to excel in soccer. The Soccer Genomics website claims that their proprietary method checks an athlete’s speed, flexibility mobility, endurance, risk of injury, strength and nutrition. Soccer Genomics also provides athletes with a full report so they can understand their genetic strengths—and weaknesses.

Baylor University’s football team has joined the genetic testing bandwagon, using the technology to build personalized training programs for each athlete. To do so, Baylor University hired Athletigen, which claims it uses “cutting edge sports science” to help athletes “reach their highest levels of performance.”

“We’re all trying to climb a mountain, and there’s an infinite number of ways we can do so,” Dr. Jeremy Koenig, the CEO of Athletigen, told USA Today. “In knowing that information, you can optimize an athlete’s training plan or nutrition plan, based on their needs and also based on their goals.”

Does science back all of this up?

While all of this is amazing technology, scientists around the world are stepping up to say, “Not so fast!” Experts claim that we simply don’t know enough about the genetic code and how it affects athletic performance to be able to predict if an individual is predisposed to be an elite athlete.

Stephen Roth, an assistant professor of exercise physiology, aging, and genetics at the University of Maryland in College Park, pointed out in Scientific American that there are some 20,000 genes in the entire genome. So far, about 200 have been identified to have a positive association with fitness-related performance. However, we are only just scratching the surface on these 200, and there could be many more genes yet that play a critical role in athletic performance. He adds, “Most research suggests that genetics contribute significantly to sports performance, but’s very hard to put a number on it.”

Furthermore, researchers explain that genetic testing companies tend to pick out data that better supports their claim and use studies that are simply too small to be relevant. Harvard geneticist Dr. Robert Green told Stat News, “The notion that [athletic genetic testing companies] are somehow tailoring recommendations on the basis of your DNA is nonsense.”

Can genetic tests help your recruiting?

This new craze in fitness and sports will certainly continue to get refined over the years as we learn more about how genetics affect athletic ability. While the research isn’t there yet to make genetic testing for athletes foolproof, there might still be some merit in sending in your saliva for testing. Maybe you’re just interested in learning more about how your genetic code could affect your potential athletic performance. Perhaps a genetics-focused work out plan will benefit you in the long run.

As with all fitness and sports fads, however, it’s important to take it all with a grain of salt. Can you get genetically tested? Of course! Do you have to in order to get recruited? Definitely not.

Coaches don’t need to see your genetic makeup to know if you’re a good fit for their roster. They want to see your athletic ability, your potential, your work ethic and your character. There’s nothing wrong with using something like genetic testing to get an edge on the competition. But at the end of the day, you just need to be able to prove to coaches why you’re a great fit for their team.


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