Millions of kids play sports. But are they playing the right ones? Forget fun; this is about — to borrow a catchphrase from Charlie Sheen — winning. Now, at least two companies are marketing DNA tests that purport to help uber-competitive parents gain insight into which sports their progeny may be genetically built to excel in playing.
The companies say their DNA scans can help families decide which sports individual kids are most likely to win and hence — with an eye toward the future — which would be most likely to yield possible college scholarships. The tests can also suss out children who may be prone to health problems, such as heart problems and concussions, for example, that can be exacerbated by athletics, the companies say.
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But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other critics of the tests are calling foul. In May, the FDA wrote to one company marketing a sports-gene test, the Sports X Factor Test Kit — featured in this recent Washington Post article about the trend — asking it to provide evidence that it should be allowed to sell its test without FDA clearance. Last year, similar FDA scrutiny prompted another direct-to-consumer DNA testing company to scuttle plans to sell its gene test in drugstores.
Some researchers are concerned that the information from sports-gene tests provide only a partial picture. Certainly, genes associated with energy, endurance, speed or strength — for which these companies test — play a role in athletic ability, but while they may be important, so are effort and drive.
“Genetic testing can’t measure the passion a young person has for an activity,” says Larry Lauer, director of coaching education and development at Michigan State’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “While someone might be predisposed to be successful in a certain sport, it doesn’t mean they’re going to enjoy it or want to work hard at it.”
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One of the biggest factors that influences how committed a child is to a particular sport over time isn’t genetic or even physiological. “It’s whether they develop a passion and an intrinsic motivation to train because this is what they enjoy versus doing it because their parents told them to,” says Lauer.
The gene-testing companies are also playing into fears parents may have about their children’s health. American International Biotechnology Services, which markets Sports X Factor, tells parents it’s a safety precaution. “We want to make sure [kids] are not out there blindly playing with one of these mutations and have a heart attack or a concussion,” CEO Bill Miller told the Post. “It gives parents peace of mind that their kid is not going to drop dead in the middle of a workout.”
And what about overzealous parents who may be wont to use test results to steer kids toward a sport they don’t love and away from one they do?
“This is really disturbing,” Lainie Friedman Ross, a pediatrician and bioethicist at the University of Chicago, told the Post. “Sports and physical activity should be fun for kids. It shouldn’t be, ‘You’re going to be the world’s greatest athlete’ or ‘Give up now, kid, because you won’t have a chance’ because of your genes.”
As Lauer notes, there’s a whole host of factors that go into developing a successful athlete. Timing, for one: you have to perform great at the right time, so that that the coach plucks you from junior varsity or the college scout spots you in a crowd. You also have to stay injury-free and work hard consistently.
But long before any of that comes picking the right sport, which happens largely through a process of trying different ones. And that’s where sports-gene tests can get in the way.
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“People like to think they can get around this whole process of sampling, but sampling allows for more holistic development,” says Lauer. “When we as parents begin to map out our children’s future at an early age, it leads down a road where I don’t like the consequences.”