What's in a Word: Athleticism
Issue   |   Tue, 04/08/2014 - 23:20

Athleticism. It’s a word that means so much in the world of sports, yet it is often hard to identify what exactly it means to be athletic. The assumption is that the most athletic people are the ones who reach the highest levels of their respective games. In the NBA, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Michael Jordan immediately come to mind. In the NFL, we think of Michael Vick and Calvin Johnson. In the MLB, names like Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano come into conversation.

However, because sports can be so different from one another, how can we use the same word, “athletic,” to describe all elite athletes? Is it fair to compare athletes across sports? Or is this comparison impossible?

The beauty of competitive sports is that every athlete who plays at a high level has found his or her own way to be successful. Personally, I played a unique combination of sports in high school: tennis and football. Eventually, I decided to pursue football at the college level, so when I tell people now that I was a tennis player, they often act surprised. This reaction has made me think more about the concept of athleticism across sports.

Naturally, I feel like I know the most about the athleticism of a football player, which is often more natural than technical. When I say natural, I mean that football players at the professional level are sought after for their ability to run, jump and lift weights as well as for their general size and stature. Teams look for guys who are genetically gifted.

When I blew out my knee on the second day of football practice this past fall, I knew immediately the remainder of my football career would not be the same. Half of a football player’s success comes from simply taking care of his body in order to stay on the field, and it is hard to believe that a surgically repaired knee with metal screws in it will ever be as healthy as a normal knee.

Well, as it turns out, the genetic freaks in the NFL do not seem to follow this logic. Running back Adrian Peterson was not only back on the field just nine months after tearing his whole knee up, but he also was closing in on the NFL single season rushing record, which left doctors everywhere dumbfounded. The human body is not designed to simply brush off such a traumatic injury, which just goes to show that many professional football players are blessed with natural athleticism. Adrian Peterson’s body fat has been measured at a mindboggling four-percent. The man is the epitome of raw power and explosiveness. I can only hope that my body responds half as well as Peterson’s in attempting to come back from my surgery next season.

The athletic mold of a football player is one of blunt power, force and durability, but it does not define all athletic molds.
Let’s shift gears and think about a sport based on finesse and mental toughness. Take a solo sport like tennis for instance. The dynamic of success becomes completely different than that in an eleven-man team sport like football. The best tennis players have the ability to keep cool under the tremendous pressure of a single shot. It’s the mental toughness that separates the good from the great.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are two of the best tennis players of this era and of all time. Most of their memorable clashes are not decided by who hits the harder shots or who puts better spin on the ball, but rather who can last longer without giving in to physical or mental exhaustion.

The 2012 Australian Open final between these two men lasted over six hours in temperatures upwards of ninety degrees at times. Marathons like that are not won because one player is more talented, but rather because one player has that much more mental and physical dexterity. After the match, both players could not stand up at the trophy session due to cramping, and Djokovic’s toes were bleeding. It is interesting to think about athletes like Peterson, Nadal and Djokovic because although they are the same in that they are all top tier athletes, the required physical skillsets for their sports are so different. You have Peterson with the body of a bull, crafted to be able to absorb hit after hit in exerting short bursts of energy. On the other hand, you have Nadal and Djokovic with the stamina and conditioning of a marathon runner, just hoping to be the last man standing when the match is over.

I am a firm believer that different kinds of sports require different intangibles to reach the highest levels. The intangibles make me wonder whether LeBron James could really be a great football player or if he possesses only the basketball intangibles.

Now I do not play basketball, but I do know that one of the most important intangible qualities of football is to not fear contact and the force of a collision. By intangible qualities, I am talking about qualities of success in sports that a coach cannot teach. Of course, as more rule changes take place every year in the NFL to protect players against violent collisions, and rightly so, flashy wide receivers like Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green make their money off of elegant athleticism and sheer physical ability to go up and grab a ball out of the air.

However, when you see the small players in the league who don’t seem to be the fastest, strongest or most athletic, you know that those are the guys that make their living of simply being tough and unafraid of the physicality of football. Look at Danny Woodhead, generously listed at 5’8” and 200 pounds. He went unnoticed at first and was not drafted into the league, but the fact that he is now a featured running back for the San Diego Chargers shows that he is doing something better than others. That something is the intangible quality of toughness. LeBron James may lift more weight, jump higher and run faster than Danny Woodhead, but can he run straight into a 240-pound linebacker without flinching? I’m not so sure.

Let’s take a look at the intangibles in tennis again just because it is the other sport I have the most experience in. While toughness certainly plays a role, it is not the “X-factor” intangible quality for tennis like it is in football. As I mentioned before, tennis is a solitary sport, and there are no teammates out there to pick you up when you’re down. As a result, one of the most important intangible qualities tennis players must possess is self-confidence. It sounds simple, but more often than not tennis matches are lost because one side gives in to the defeat rather than the other side actually winning the match. Going back to the six-hour Nadal-Djokovic Australian Open match, it’s easy to see that those guys are the best at not relenting, otherwise they wouldn’t have been in the final nor would the match have lasted six hours.

Sports are intriguing in the way that they require some skills that simply cannot be taught. You either get it or you don’t. Those who have that “it” factor will tend to make it to the top often in spite of other shortcomings. When you combine the “it” factor with physical gifts, you get the blends of great players like Adrian Peterson, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.