Note: I recently discussed genetic testing in Episode 229 of my podcast, The Dr. David Geier Show. I got a lot of feedback from listeners who thought the idea of genetic testing of kids was ridiculous. More than the question of whether it was useful, it seemed that some people were concerned that there were potential dangers. I’m concerned about some of the questions these tests could raise as well. That’s the reason I decided to discuss it again in my latest newspaper column.
Many parents will do whatever it takes to help their children become sports superstars. They might pay for private coaches. They could travel hours from home to play and practice with an elite team. They might even homeschool their children or enroll them in online schools to allow them to train 6 to 8 hours a day.
It should come as no surprise that many parents want to obtain genetic tests on their children. Is it really a good idea?
The growth of direct-to-consumer genetic testing
Clearly businesses targeting parents and coaches think so. The number of companies providing direct-to-consumer genetic tests has nearly doubled from 22 in 2013 to 39 in 2015, according to a consensus statement recently published by the International Federation of Sports Medicine’s Scientific Commission.
Claims made about the benefits of genetic tests in sports
These companies appeal to parents and coaches willing to spend big money. They claim that these tests can identify your genes and how they could contribute to your athletic potential. They can supposedly determine if your child is predisposed to succeed in power or endurance sports. These results could help parents and coaches identify a child’s theoretical strengths and weaknesses and personalize his or her sports training.
Scientific rationale for genetic tests
Many of the tests seek to identify the ACTN3 and ACE genes. Early evidence suggests that an ACTN3 genotype is associated with speed and power performance. ACEII genotypes could be associated with endurance performance.
Having an ACTN3 genotype could make a person 20% more likely to be an elite athlete in a speed or power sport. 20 million of the United Kingdom’s population of roughly 65 million people are believed to possess that ACTN3 gene profile. It’s hard to believe that 30% of the British population are elite athletes.
Does genetic testing have a role in identifying potential sports stars?
In that recent consensus statement, experts in the fields of genomics, sports performance and anti-doping concluded that these genetic tests have no role to play in athletic talent identification.
I’ll ignore the ethical issues of submitting minors to genetic testing for reasons other than disease treatment or prevention. I’ll also refrain from weighing in on whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should regulate these companies or allow direct-to-consumer genetic testing at all.
Also listen to these discussions from The Dr. David Geier Show:
Episode 229: Can genetic tests determine if your child will be a sports star?
Episode 112: Can genetics influence athletic performance?
The many factors that help a young athlete succeed
I’d rather appeal directly to the parents and coaches to whom these tests are being promoted. So much more than an athlete’s DNA factors into athletic performance, including training, coaching, neuropsychological factors like inner competitive drive, ability to avoid injuries and so much more. We just can’t predict which kids will have them.
Even if these tests could predict future sports success – which there is no proof that they can – they could threaten the benefits of sports for the kids who undergo them.
The potential risks of genetic testing for young athletes
First, by “predicting” the type of sport to which a child could be predisposed, the parents could push him or her to play only that sport starting as young as five or six years old. Study after study has shown higher injury risks in kids who specialize in a single sport early in life. Plus evidence has pointed out that athletes are more likely to play in college and make the pros by playing multiple sports growing up.
If a parent pushes the child to play only one sport and then that child doesn’t enjoy that sport, he or she could burnout and ultimately quit.
Finally, what if the test implies that the child won’t be a particularly skilled athlete? The parents might not sign their son or daughter up for sports. Then that child misses out on all of the terrific benefits of playing sports – not just physical health, but the emotional, mental and social benefits sports offer.
Sports medicine stats: Age of single-sport specialization
Sports medicine stats: Early sport specialization and burnout
Sports medicine stats: Early sport specialization and the risk for overuse injuries
Alternatives to genetic testing for parents and coaches
Instead of spending thousands of dollars on genetic testing, parents should let their kids play different sports. They can decide which one (or more) they like. As they get older, bigger and stronger, they can focus solely on their chosen sport.
If they ultimately succeed and earn college scholarships or play in the pros, that’s great. Even if they don’t, at least our kids will have fun and will most likely stay active for years to come.
Do you think these DNA tests are good ideas? Would you have your child undergo one? Please share your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the January 20, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
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Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, Micheli LJ. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health. 2015 Sep;7(5):437-42.
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