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HEREDITY HAS RAINED ON MANY OF DESIRE'S PARADES: PART 2

Dante Dettamanti BS, MS
Coached Stanford University to Eight NCAA Championships

Volume 3 Number 5 January 1, 2015
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.
 

In last's month's article, I talked about the importance of inherited physical characteristics in determining success in a particular sport. There are two books that everyone who is interested in the subject of heredity and athletic endeavor will want to read. The Sports Gene by David Epstein, and Faster, Higher, Stronger by Mark McClusky both cover this subject extensively.

Both authors give numerous examples of athletes in a particular sport that are born with the necessary characteristics to succeed in that sport. Besides espousing inherited physical factors, they both ask the question---- "What about environmental factors such as hard work, practice, effort, coaching, experience, etc. How much influence are these factors in the success of a particular athlete in a particular sport"? The answer is that both heredity and environmental factors are important. There has to be an interaction between the two. One cannot succeed without the other.

The conclusion of the authors is that every great athlete is the product of the interaction between genetics and effort----the raw materials they were given as athletes, and how much they've developed them. Sport skill acquisition does not happen without specific genes and a specific environment, and often the genes and the environment must coincide at a specific time.

Besides physical and environmental factors, putting in the time and being in the right place at the right time are also factors that determine success in a particular sport. In general, environmental factors that take time to develop, like learning game tactics and strategies, coordinating with teammates, and reacting to opponents, are more of a factor in team sports than in individual sports. Experience is the best teacher in learning to handle environmental factors; and that takes time to develop. Physical factors like speed or endurance can be developed in less time because of an athlete's inherited physical attributes that contribute to speed or endurance.

For instance, it has been shown that a high maxV02, a measure of oxygen consumption for endurance athletes, is an inherited characteristic that can be improved in a fairly short period of time with training. These kinds of physical characteristics are more prevalent among individual sports like running or swimming, partly because there are not as many time-consuming team tactics and strategies in these individual sports, as there are in team sports.

There are certain environmental factors that are necessary to possess in order to play water polo. Learning the techniques, tactics and strategies of the game come from practice. The time spent and the effort involved in practice is the key to learning how to play the game of water polo.

There are also physical characteristics that are important for an athlete to possess in order to be successful in water polo. Some factors such as height and muscle, bone and joint structure cannot be changed. An athlete either has these characteristics, or he doesn't. Other characteristics like speed or endurance can be improved with training; but with limitations imposed by genetics.

For instance, the limitation on the maximum performance of sprinters or marathoners depends on the percentage of white fast-twitch (FT) or red slow-twitch (ST) muscle fibers that an athlete is born with. Muscle biopsies of athletes show that sprinters have a much higher percentage of FT fibers, while marathon runners have a much higher percentage of ST fibers. The characteristics of these fibers can be changed slightly with training; but the number that you are born with cannot be changed. The V02max that was mentioned above as a measure of endurance probably has a lot to do with the number of slow-twitch (ST) fibers in the muscles.

While both environmental and physical factors are important in athletic performance, it is the genetic factors that end up putting a ceiling on just how much an athlete can achieve in a sport. An athlete can only go so far as the body that he or she is born with will allow them to go. For instance, if there are two athletes competing against each other in a certain sport, and all of the environmental factors are the same; they both practice the same, put in the same time and effort, train the same, have the same experiences, and receive the same coaching, the athlete with the necessary inherited physical characteristics for that sport will out-perform the athlete who doesn't possess those characteristics.

THE EGGBEATER- THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR OF SUCCESS IN WATER POLO

The importance of height (length) in water polo, especially at the higher levels of the sport, has already been covered in the last article. The rest of this article will focus on what I consider to be the most important physical factor in the sport of water polo, leg power derived from the eggbeater kick. The eggbeater is used in just about every phase of the game, including shooting, zone blocking, 6 on 5 offense and defense, changing directions, going from horizontal to vertical, pressing, guarding a driver, driving, playing two meter offense and defense, and finally playing in the goal. It is unquestionably the most important factor of success in water polo.

Again, the same questions that were asked at the beginning of the article also come up when talking about leg power in water polo. Is leg power the result of inherited characteristics and structure of the legs; or is it a characteristic that can be trained? In order to answer these questions, we have to examine exactly what leg power entails. By definition, power comes from strength and speed as represented in the following equation:

P (power) = F (force) x V (velocity).

The force F that is applied by the legs and feet in the eggbeater kick come from several different factors. It is not as simple as contracting a muscle and pushing off the solid ground. In the water, when a force is exerted by the legs and the bottom of the feet when pushing down on the water, the water gives way; because it is not a solid object. Consequently, much of the force (energy) from the contracting muscles is dissipated into the water. The more efficient the kick is, the more force that is generated by the legs; and the less force is dissipated into the water. In order to get the most force, the total surface area of the bottom of the foot has to push against the water for the longest period of time throughout the range of the kick.

This is where genetics comes into play. A person has to have the ankle, knee and hip joint and bone structures that allows for maximum surface area of the bottom of the foot to be pushing down for the full range of motion of the kick. This ability to bend and rotate the legs in just the right position is an inherited quality that has to do with your joint and leg structures.

This quality is very similar to the kick of the great breaststroke swimmers. I always use the example of swimmers that race in the 200-meter individual medley. There are two kinds of IMers, the breaststrokers and the fly, back and freestylers. You can always spot the breaststrokers in the race; because they are usually in last place after the first two legs of the butterfly and backstroke. Then in the third 50, they came charging from behind and pass or catch all of the other swimmers in the race; hoping to hang in the last 50 freestyle and win the race. The breaststrokers are really a breed of their own.

It is my contention that it is the leg structure that they have inherited from their parents that gives them the advantage in that stroke. The same goes for water polo. Heredity plays a big role in performing the eggbeater; because the structure of the knee and ankle joints that one inherits from his/her parents is what allows the water polo player to properly position the feet and legs for maximum power. In my many years of experience of coaching both swimming and water polo, I have found a strong correlation between the breaststroke (kick) and the eggbeater kick.

Can the eggbeater be improved by training? Certainly! Correct technique can go a long way in improving the eggbeater kick. However, there are limitations. Technique alone cannot help make maximum improvement without the necessary leg and joint structures that are inherited from ones parents.

Another way to improve the power of the eggbeater is to increase the V (velocity) component of the power equation. Increasing the speed (velocity) of the foot and leg as they move through the water can also contribute to the power of the eggbeater kick. This is a quality that can be improved by training. However, in order to create faster movement of the legs and feet, the eggbeater kick has to be practiced with enough intensity to overload the systems that supply energy to the leg muscles used in the kick. Training by performing the kick at fast speeds (i.e. explosive jumps) is absolutely necessary for improved power.

Again, there are limitations imposed by the leg and joint configuration that we have inherited. I could practice for hours a day, and have perfect eggbeater technique; but I will never have the leg power, or get as high out of the water as Tony Azevedo. If you want to be successful in this sport, you will need power in your legs. When we say "someone has good legs" in water polo, we don't mean "good looking" legs (most players have skinny legs anyway). We mean someone who has the ability to jump high out of the water by using the power in their legs to propel themselves upward. This has to do with factors like efficiency, technique, strength, and training; but a lot of it has to do with genetics and the leg structure that you have inherited from your parents.

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]