Twofold

The singular world of twins and twin studies

Sports-Minded Twin Pairs

What do twins tell us about the origins of athletic performance?

Now, in the midst of March Madness and the upcoming Beijing Olympics it is hard to ignore the many elite athletes who come packaged as identical twins. These elite sets combine the best of human interest and great science. First, it is difficult to imagine two people so closely matched for rare talent. Second, just by acting naturally, these twins can tell us a great deal about the origins of athletic performance and sports interest. I came across a recent twin case that might truly make Olympic history. In early March 2008, one of the Molina twins from Commerce, California (Oscar) was in competition in Part-au-Spain, Trinidad, hoping to secure a place on Mexico’s Olympic boxing team. He did not qualify based on that event, after losing to a Cuban competitor; however, he can try again next month in the final regional qualifying boxing competition in Guatemala. Interestingly. Oscar has a twin brother, Javier.

It is difficult to know if they are identical or fraternal twins—pictures show them looking a lot alike, but just different enough so that they could be similar-looking fraternals, as well as slightly different-looking identicals. Javier will represent the United States at the 2008 Olympics. The bottom line is that if both twins succeed, this will be the first time that twin brothers will represent different nations in the same Olympic event.

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How did this all happen? The twins’ family does not believe in competition between family members. Consequently, at the Olympic trials, the slightly heavier twin (Oscar) entered a higher weight class, lost by a point and was dropped. However, Oscar can play for Mexico because his parents were born there; Olympic rules allow children to compete for the country of their parents’ birth. Should the Molina twins participate in the 2008 Olympics, they would enter into different weight classes so would not be competing against each other. (Note: A larger piece on these twins, and additional references from which the information was drawn will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal, Twin Research and Human Genetics.) Natural twin experiments in athletic skill are going on all the time, in neighborhoods, in recreational centers and on college campuses. I have discovered six identical twin sets on my campus, two in wrestling, two in soccer, one in gymnastics and one in track. How do these college twins explain their matched abilities? They say that they excel because they have had a “24-hour practice partner,” whereas their friends have not. I was not surprised to hear this because it is easy to link performance to practice. Practice and training are essential to excellence in sports, but they are only partly responsible. The other part of the story concerns the genetically influenced traits that athletes bring to their pursuits—muscle strength, running speed, reaction time--as well as the intellect to strategize and the motivation to succeed. However, neither behavioral nor physical traits alone make a great athlete. It may be that tiny disparities in training or in stamina--or in one’s sense of timing--make the difference between first and second place.

Performance differences between identical twins are actually more interesting to researchers than their similarities because they tell us what—and to what extent-- non-genetic factors (e.g., practice and training) are important for the rest of us. Coaches working with teams say that the rapport among the members is crucial for success. Five great basketball players may fail to accomplish what five less talented players can do if the latter are more sensitive to their teammates’ abilities, personalities and decision-making skills. Coaches who have worked with identical twins are impressed with the unspoken understandings that the twins display both on and off the field. Twins themselves say that their intimate knowledge of one another lets them easily anticipate what their co-twin is doing and thinking and, ultimately, whether he or she will pass the ball or attempt a shot. I have heard this from many twins, most recently from a California State University student who, along with his twin brother plays on the school’s soccer team.

Identical twins also have a unique sense of competition with one other--if one gets ahead, he or she eggs his sibling on (“If I can do it you can do it”), until they reach the same level. Identical twins are also surprisingly generous with their pride and happiness if one wins at a competition. When skiier Phil Mahre appeared to capture the Olympic gold medal on the slopes in 1984, he told his twin brother Steve, “Here’s what you have to do to beat me.” Maybe coaches and trainers should pay closer attention to what twins are doing in order to lift team spirit. (See Chapter 11:” Two-Base Hits and Triple Toe Loops: Physical Growth and Athletic Prowess”, in my recent book Entwined Lives for additional information and references on this topic.)

Nancy L. Segal, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Twin Studies Center, at California State University, Fullerton.

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