The Great Mystery Of Athletic Greatness

By Ben Hamill - August 03 2015
The Great Mystery Of Athletic Greatness

The Pan Am games have finished, major league baseball teams are shopping for missing parts that can get them over the hump and into the World Series, NHL players have been re-signed or traded depending on the team’s salary cap and overall financial situation.  MLB inducted its 2015 Hall of Fame class.  The Canadian Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2015 has been announced and the athletes and builders will be inducted later this year.  Also in Canada, the summer sports camp season is underway.

All this athletic competition, player movement, recognition for careers played at the highest level, teaching and coaching makes me wonder what exactly is it that makes an average athlete better than average and takes a better than average athlete and makes him or her great.  This is the great unknown of athlete evaluation and athletic success.

Raw athletic ability is the obvious first consideration when evaluating players.  But raw talent cannot guarantee success at the highest levels.  Every team sport is replete with athletes who were destined for greatness but failed to achieve it big time.  So what do truly great athletes have that talented but lesser athletes don’t have?

After the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning exchanged handshakes following the Blackhawks victory in game six Jonathan Toews was heard saying this the Niklas Hjalmarsson ,”How did this happen?”  His teammate’s response was cliché: “It’s unbelievable.”  But the question struck me as being incredibly insightful without intending to be so.


We see the final result of greatness but not the hours upon hours of hard work.  Great athletes begin to become great when they invest hours upon hours of work practicing.  When Bill Bradley was in the prime of his great NBA career he was interviewed by a New York television station.  He said that the game is so fast you don’t have any time to think; you only have time to react.  He said part of being able to react to a given situation is to know where you are on the court at all times.  He then shot the ball backwards, without looking at the net, and the ball swished through.  The reporter said that it was a lucky shot so Bradley did it again.  This kind of court presence comes slowly after hours of practice.

I remember the look on Sarah Hughes’ face when she came off the ice after her gold-medal performance in the 2002 Olympics.  She had a look of genuine disbelief on her face.  She had no idea that the many hours of practice would lead her to perfectly land six triples amongst her jumps in the highest competition in the world.

Confidence and Perseverance

Few athletes can put in the hours when they’re young without suffering a period of lost confidence.  Perseverance means continuing despite their crisis of confidence and, in the best athletes, leads to enhanced confidence.

Confidence builds up over time.  If it’s there from the beginning it’s arrogance which usually leads to failure.


The top athletes stay calm and relaxed under pressure.  This is extraordinarily difficult to do.  As a writer, I have the pressure of deadlines but I rarely have the pressure of performing at the highest level NOW!  All athletes are taught to “repeat”, whether it’s a shot, a pass, a catch, a swing, a pitch, or a deliver in curling.  By repeating, athletes lessen the tension and are able to concentrate on something far smaller than the overall importance of their performance.

My favorite example of calm within the storm comes from baseball on that fateful day in October 1986 when the Mets trailed the Red Sox by two runs in the bottom of the ninth in game 6 with Boston one out away from winning the Series.  Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell had singled with two outs.  Ray Knight came to the plate.  The Mets still trailed by two runs and the Red Sox were still one out away from winning the World Series.  Suddenly, Ray Knight, an athlete who had spent many years in the minors before coming to the majors in his late twenties and becoming a star, had a chance to be a hero in the World Series with the deciding game on the line.  In an almost undetectable moment, he looked down at the catcher and behind him to the umpire and gave a slight close-lipped smile as if to say “Who woulda thunk it?”


Players talk about being in a zone.  Many people understand the importance of being in a zone: actors, singers, writers are obvious examples.  Lawyers arguing a big case in court must also be in a zone. 


It’s important to know when to shout and when to stay quiet.  Keeping your emotions under control is a vital aspect of “repeating”, letting the body control the action, seeing and reacting without thinking. When I see Tom Brady in the pocket, staying in the pocket an extra fraction of a second, seemingly oblivious to the thousands of pounds of muscle at war around him, I understand the concept of keeping one’s emotions at bay.  I can’t say the same for Jay Cutler in the pocket.


Fear is an emotion that can freeze an athlete.  You may fear disappointing your father, the fans, or your teammates.  Fear decreases to zero when a player knows that he’s done all he could.  Keeping your head in the game and staying within yourself overcome fear. 

Indispensable Attributes of Great Athletes

It would be a rarity indeed to find a great athlete who didn’t have these attributes. Many athletes strive to acquire these characteristics. Even if an athlete succeeds in acquiring them there is no guarantee of athletic success but I would like to hear of an athlete in any sport who achieved greatness without all of these attributes in abundance.