Recently, I was included in an exchange on Twitter that spurred some personal thought on what it meant to be athletic.
What is an athlete? How does one define athleticism? Are there great athletes that do not posses great athleticism? And is there a direct correlation between fitness and athleticism?
The Greeks held the ancient Olympics for hundreds of years to find the person who most represented what it meant to be athletic. Athletes competed in ancient sporting events such as wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, discus and javelin throws. They competed naked, showing off their physique proudly and the hard work they put into improving themselves.
What about a superior athlete? I believe this is an individual with excellent physical skills (strength, agility, and endurance), honed over a lifetime, tested and proven victorious in their chosen area in competition. By my definition, this means an individual who has risen to the top in their respective field in strength, agility, speed and sport. They have cultivated what is needed and risen above everyone else.
But what about athleticism?
Is Tiger Woods athletic because he can hit a ball a long ways? Does it take athleticism to hit a golf ball?
Is Michael Phelps athletic because he can swim faster than his competition? Would you take Phelps in a game of 1 on 1 versus Tony Gonzalez?
Is there a correlation between fitness and athleticism? Just because someone can run farther or endure more, are they necessarily a better athlete?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Fortunately, we know greatness when we see it. And from this, we can deduce what athleticism is and is not.
Athleticism only really becomes glaring apparent when you force an athlete to move in space as it relates to another competitor, task or obstacle. As the speed of an athlete and the competition increases, their ability and proficiency to move in space and among those multiple planes of motion becomes very evident. Think of an Olympic gymnast during a high bar routine, an NFL running back making a cut in the open field against a defender, a pole-vaulter sprinting down the track with a long flexible pole, hitting a mark, catapulting her body into the air and manipulating herself over the bar to set a new world record
I believe one needs to demonstrate athleticism. An athlete will need to show proficiency as it relates to moving in space and among multiple planes of motion. Like a receiver running down the sideline, turning his upper body to catch a ball while his legs work to keep himself in bounds, a goal keeper reading the eyes of a defender and making the proper break to deflect a goal. Or an Olympic weightlifter pulling him under a bar, receiving in the bottom of the squat, standing up and jerking it overhead.
While many people can move in space, how many can do it in a way that is pleasing to the eye?
We know athleticism when we see them. I can go watch my 5-year-old nephew's soccer game and see who is more athletic on the field. Not to say all great athletes are born and those kids who were not great athletes today cannot develop the skills and control needed to be a great athlete one day.
I was not a great baseball player, and a half way decent basketball player as a kid. I was a solid hitter but my reaction time did not allow me to do what I wanted at the plate. I can say I was not great at sports up until the age of 15, I just seemed a step slow. It was until I got older and my coordination caught up with my body, my athleticism grew. Once I was able to train and focus on the craft of playing football, I was considered athletic in the realm of my sport. I credit this to learning the demands of the game. This translated into little wasted movement, great technique and movement that was pleasing to the eye.
How did I do this? As I reflect back, the ability to maintain proper posture and position through the dynamic nature of my sport was a huge advantage. I learned leverages, foot and hand position and how to most utilize my power by bending my knees and moving my feet in space and in relation to other athletes. As a result, I was able to utilize my strength and power and use my explosiveness to my advantage, thus looking athletic.
The true test came when I played against gifted athletes who possessed speed and body control. These were the days, I had to be perfect or I would end up looking foolish. I knew going into many games, I had to eliminate mistakes or I would be exposed. Because my margin of error was small, I was fortunate to have made great athletes look un-athletic on more than a few occasions. As I told my brother after each game, "I caught the guy on his off day." My brother would laugh as guys always seemed to be having off days.
Running in a straight line does not make someone athletic. Not to say the person running the straight line is not a great athlete or extremely athletic, it just measures their linear speed. Change of direction, body control and the ability to match your skills against another of equal or greater skill allows one to prove who is the better athlete and thus demonstrate athleticism. The NFL combine is a great example. While the 40 yard sprint gatherers the crowd, the NFL short shuttle separates the good for the great. Speed in the NFL short shuttle, or 5-10-5, tells the most accurate account of a players ability to play the game.
Being able to work longer and harder than the next athlete does not make you athletic. But being able to out work an opponent is a component of great athletes and demonstrates certain intangibles that go into the making of great athletes. "Having heart" as it is most commonly referred, is just one element.
Is the world record holder in the 1500 meters run athletic?
I don't know, lets see what else he can do.
Lets start some dialogue on this topic and let me know what you think.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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