Parents Use Genetic Test to Identify Athletic Ability in Children

December 17, 2008 10:32 AM
by Denis Cummings
A genetics company is marketing a $149 test for children that may identify what sports they will excel in, as parents increasingly push young children to athletic success.

Saliva Test May Identify ‘Speed and Power’ in Children

Atlas Sports Genetics offers a saliva test that analyzes ACTN3, a gene that may identify which sports a person is best suited for. The $149 test is being marketed to parents of children ages 1–8 as a way to help groom their children for athletic achievement.

A 2003 study in Australia found that the R variant of ACTN3 produces a protein beneficial for quick-twitch muscles, whereas the X variant prohibited production of the protein. Therefore, subjects with two R variants are more likely to excel in speed and power sports than subjects with two X variants or one of each.

The study found that, though only 30 percent of the control group carried two copies of the R variants, 50 percent of sprinters tested carried two. Conversely, just six percent of sprinters carried two copies of the X variant, compared to 18 percent of the control group. Endurance athletes also tended to carry two copies of the X variant, though the correlation was weaker.

The link between the R variant and sprinting success was made stronger by the domination of Jamaican sprinters in the 2008 Summer Olympics. An estimated 70 percent of the Jamaican population has two copies of the R variant, much higher than in other populations.
However, scientists are quick to point out that the ACTN3 gene is just a small part of what makes a gifted athlete.

“Most studies performed so far suggest that ACTN3 explains just 2–3% of the variation in muscle function in the general population,” writes Daniel MacArthur, an author of the 2003 study, on ScienceBlogs. “The rest of the variation is determined by a wide range of genetic and environmental factors, most of which (particularly the genetic factors) are very poorly understood.”

Kevin Reilly, president of Atlas, acknowledges that the ACTN3 test will not clearly identify elite athletes. “Based on the test of a 5-year-old or a newborn, you are not going to see if you have the next Michael Johnson; that’s just not going to happen,” he told The New York Times. “But if you wait until high school or college to find out if you have a good athlete on your hands, by then it will be too late. We need to identify these kids from 1 and up, so we can give the parents some guidelines on where to go from there.”

The allure of the ACTN3 test for parents is due in large part to the increasing specialization in youth sports. Parents often restrict their child to just one sport at an early age, hoping that the increased focus on that sport will help the child excel and earn college scholarships or play professionally.

The ACTN3 test helps parents choose the best sport for their child’s talent before it becomes apparent. However, many experts believe that specialization at an early age is harmful to a child’s physical and psychological development, advising parents to allow their children to play multiple sports.

Background: Youth sports specialization

Many scientists and child psychologists question whether it is helpful for a child to specialize in just one sport. Children who specialize in a single sport may miss out on the chance to excel in or simply enjoy other sports or activities.

Furthermore, sports specialization affects a child’s psychological and physical development, and may actually hinder their ability to become elite athletes. By focusing on a single sport, a child develops only the muscles and skills needed for that sport, neglecting other skills and muscles that he or she will need later.

“Participating in a variety of sports will help a child develop other athletic skills that they would not develop if they specialized in one sport too early,” says sport management professor Jennifer VanSickle. “Athletic skills such as speed, balance, mental focus, jumping and reacting are all stressed differently in different sports. These athletic skills will later transfer to the child’s primary activity, so everything a child does to become a better all-around athlete will make the child a better soccer player, for instance.”

These children are also at risk for injury or emotional “burnout” after years of focusing on just one sport. “When you participate in only one activity, you repeatedly stress the same joints, muscles, and bones over and over again,” explains Educated Sports Parent blogger Juliet Cassell, who holds a master’s degree in health and kinesiology. “When the body does not have adequate time to heal from the stress put on it from practice or games, it begins to break down and get injured.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in 2000 advising parents not to push their kids into one sport. They warned, according to CNN, of “‘overuse’ injuries, including stress fractures, to delayed menstruation, eating disorders, emotional turmoil and burnout.”

Most experts advise that parents wait until a child is a teenager before specializing in a sport. “Waiting to specialize until age 12 or 13, when the child is more physically and emotionally mature, helps ensure that he or she is participating in that sport because he or she wants to, rather than trying to fulfill a parent or coach’s dream,” advises VanSickle in Medical News Today.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines