Brains Over Brawn
To say physicality is the overwhelming decider in athletics and sport would seem to be fairly accurate to the typical spectator. However, this claim could not be farther from the truth. The truth is the mental aspect in athletic competition reigns supreme over the well perceived physical aspect of sport. Physical prowess does not make decisions after all.
According to David J. Handelsman, author of Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric, sport has four major dimensions. These four dimensions are skill, strength, endurance, and recovery. All four of these pertain directly to physical capabilities. Handelsman does believe concentration and strategy pertain to skill, but he did not say this was crucial in any physical sport. Rather, he connected skill being an important factor in board games, racing, and target shooting. Handelsman goes on to say that that there are minimum requirements within each of these four fields that must be met to reach a solid level. What he failed to mention was after these requirements are met, the level switches at an exponential rate. After the requirements are met, what truly strengthens an athlete’s performance lies in their composure and their emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman, from the Institute of Health and Human Potential, sees emotional intelligence as the catalyst in one’s abilities to control their emotions and take advantage of them. Those who are aware of their stress from situational pressure can take control of their emotions, using them to their advantage. Emotions precede thought, the faster the awareness of emotions is realized, the better one can control their emotions and create a better environment. A Harvard Business Review reported that 80% of competencies that differentiate top performers from others spawn from the domain of Emotional Intelligence. The mental aspect of sport is indispensable at a competitive level.
All this talk of the mental aspect of sport, let’s zone in on a real example. We will be looking at two NFL wide receivers who have unarguably reached the highest level a football player can. Football being the quintessential contact sport, physicality would seem to be the key element to success. On one side we have – weighing in at 5’10”, 186 pounds – Player A. On the other side, we have – weighing in at 5’11”, 188 pounds – Player B. To gather their physical capabilities we have to use some sort of standard test to garner their athletic potential. All info will be from the results of the player’s respective NFL Combine, an event that tests a players physical prowess before their draft day. During their NFL Combine, certain events are key depending on the position of the player. For these two players, who are both wide receivers, the tests that are vital in their evaluation are the: 40 yard dash, 3 cone, and vertical. Each of these tests cover salient physical aspects such as their speed, agility, and jumping. Looking at the 40 yard dash first, Player A ended with a 4.56 second run. This would be in the 48th percentile of all receivers. Player B ended with a 4.22 second run, the fastest ever officially recorded, 99.9th percentile. For vertical, Player A showed up with a 33.5″ jump, 36th percentile of receivers. Player B managed a 37″ vertical, 77th percentile of receivers. Unfortunately Player B did not compete in the 3 cone drill that tests agility due to a muscle strain, however Player A did. Player A achieved a 6.98 second 3 cone drill, 54th percentile of all receivers.
After looking at these numbers, it is not opinion but fact to say Player B is the better physical athlete by a wide margin. Although they both stand at a very similar stature, Player B dominated in each category, presumably would have dominated in the 3 cone as well. Not only did Player B dominate Player A, Player B was reaching all-time levels of athletic measures. Recording the fastest 40 yard dash time in combine history, an event that has seen Olympic level sprinters run slower. Since Player B is the ultimate athlete, unveiling Player A will leave more suspense. Player A is none other than Antonio Brown. Brown is a very well-known athlete. Playing wide receiver for numerous teams since his introduction to the league in 2010, he has been exceptional in every roster. Some even consider him to be the greatest NFL receiver of his era. 4-time first team all-pro (top 2 receiver in the league that season), has topped the century mark in yards per game 3 times in his career, and has led the league in receiving yards twice in his career. One of the greatest to ever play. If these accolades were all accomplished by a mediocre receiver, athletically speaking, Player B must be the greatest football player to walk this earth. Well, that would be the case if physical ability meant that much at the top flight. Player B is John Ross III. In his 33 career games, Ross has managed to put up 933 receiving yards (as of November 15th, 2021). For context, his career numbers would be a bad season for Brown. With zero noticeable accolades, Ross does not have near the resume that Brown has accrued.
The major difference in the two, outside of physical ability, is Antonio Brown’s intelligence and emotional intelligence advantage. Brown himself is an outspoken athlete who portrays definition-esque confidence. Brown has taken his confidence and shown it on Twitter numerous times; Even once claiming his then teammate, JuJu Smith-Schuster, only seemed like he played well because of him. This addition of self-confidence is no stranger to success. In The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance: A Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective, self-confidence not only correlates to a higher level of emotional comprehension. Alongside the emotional comprehension, confidence directly leads to better performances. Although there are other factors that relate to performance, the minimum physical requirements are already met when playing at a high level. Leaving little room for physical improvement, the true deciding factor rests in the mental fortitude and strength of the athlete.
Goleman, Daniel What is emotional intelligence? IHHP.
Handelsman, David J. Endocrinology: Adult and pediatric (Seventh) Volume 1. Elsevier Saunders.
Humara, Miguel The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance: A Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective Athletic Insight.
NFL Combine Results