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Genetic testing for child athletes

  • Blog Post by: Jeremy Olson
  • March 9, 2011 - 11:16 AM

Today's story on genetic testing of child athletes got me thinking: would it be worth $200 to know if my children possessed the genes that are slightly more common in elite athletes?

Doctors Alison Brooks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Beth Tarini of the University of Michigan wrote a commentary in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association to prepare doctors for parents' questions about these tests. While the doctors conclude that parents should "nurture their child’s interests in sports regardless of any genetic test," they believe some parents will see it differently.

"In the 'winning is everything' sports culture, societal pressure to use these tests in children may increasingly present a challenge to unsuspecting physicians," they wrote.

The New York Times covered this issue well when genetic sports tests first emerged in the U.S. market two years ago. The article mentioned the studies finding that certain genetic variations are more common in top athletes. But it also quoted a La Crosse, Wisc., expert, Carl Foster, who studied long jumpers in Spain and found that none had a genetic variant that is thought to predict athletic prowess.

“Just think if that Spanish kid’s parents had done the test and said, ‘No, your genes show that you are going to be a bad long jumper, so we are going to make you a golfer,’ ” said Foster, director of the human performance lab at UW-LaCrosse. “Now look at him. He’s the springiest guy in Spain. He’s Tigger. We don’t yet understand what combination of genes creates that kind of explosiveness.”

Dr. Foster suggested another way to determine if a child will be good at sprint and power sports. “Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest,” he said.

I wouldn't begrudge parents who have the means and interest in the test. But are parents ready for the psychological consequences? I've talked with experts at HealthEast about the emotions that surface from the results of genetic testing for breast cancer. Guilt runs strong among parents who learn they have passed a breast cancer gene to children. HealthEast counselors spend a lot of time pre and post testing to ready people for these emotions.

Parents with out-of-the-box genetic tests might not have that support when they gain the results regarding the athletic potential of their children. What if the results show their kids don't have the desired genes? Would parents even tell the results to their kids? And what if their kids have the genetic potential, but then don't succeed at their chosen sports? It seems like the genetic information could put a lot of extra pressure on kids.

So the story goes, my grandpa Bud was a dynamo at baseball when he played in the town ball leagues of southwestern Minnesota. Me? I was cut in high school tryouts because my fastball was slow and nowhere near the strike zone. So what does that portend for my son as he approaches youth baseball tryouts? No clue. But in the unknown, there is that sense of anticipation that -- with practice and focus -- he can achieve his dreams. I'm not sure that genetic tests results, one way or another, would ever change that.

 

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