Who's the best Athlete?


random trip report

My friend and Ultimate Boot teammate Ray Weschler is not overly competitive. He strives for excellence in athletic endeavors, but his yardstick is internal (figuratively speaking, thank goodness). He doesn't think to himself 'I'll bet they walk me to get to Mark', 'Dave can't touch my spike', or 'In your face, loser'.

And yet, Ray is obsessed with competitive comparisons. Can a hungry grizzly bear bring down an irate bull elephant? Should race car drivers be considered athletes? Are basketball players better athletes than golfers? On this last point, Ray is adamant: great basketball players are better athletes than great golfers. To him it's obvious, and he's got lots of impassioned (but flawed) rhetoric to back it up.

I disagree with Ray on this point. I don't think one athlete can necessarily be considered better than the other. The ways in which athletes are great are largely distinct. Is Shaquille O'Neal a 'better athlete' than Akebono? Than jockey Russell Baize? To me, these are meaningless questions; an answer reveals only the limitations and prejudices of the answerer.

Ray becomes a bit obstreperous when these issues are raised. He and I have discussed at length both the fine points and the overarching issues. I believe I have won each argument thus far. But be that as it may. Jedediah Webster defines 'athlete' as

A person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.
My fundamental claims are as follows. First, this list of attributes (strength, agility, and stamina) must be expanded to include mental attributes. Second, the resulting attributes are largely independent: an individual may possess some and not others. Third, the attributes should have more or less equal weight in comparing athletes.

From these assumptions various conclusions follow. Some pairs of individuals are incomparable - neither can be fairly called 'more athletic' than the other. In particular, there is no 'world's best athlete' unless one athlete dominates in all the attributes. And this is highly unlikely.

Here, then, is my proposed list of athletic attributes, and a table showing the importance (in my opinion) of the attributes in various sports. Please email me if you want to propose changes or additions to the table.

Note: Ray has written his own essay on the subject. My only comment: he clearly hasn't played much golf.

Mental attributes

Note: the division into 'mental' and 'physical' is a bit arbitrary; e.g., where does balance belong?
  • Intimidation. Ability to make an opponent feel overmatched, and resistance to such tactics by the opponent.
  • Mental endurance. Ability to maintain mental activities and attitudes over a long period (hours or days).
  • Strategy. Ability to plan ahead, including anticipation of opponent's responses.
  • Adaptation. Ability to modify techniques or plans in response to changing conditions (e.g. injury) or unexpected actions by opponent.
  • Body coordination. Ability to smoothly combine many movements into a single whole-body action.
  • Eye/hand coordination. Ability to quickly and accurately translate visual (or other sensory) input into actions.
  • Teamwork. Ability to function well as part of a team, in either improvised or pre-planned actions.
  • Team attitude. Ability to improve the mental attributes of teammates (e.g. by motivating them in some way).
  • Coachability. Ability to absort and effectively apply instruction (on mental or physical topics). Ability to learn and master non-intuitive techniques.
  • Concentration. Ability to block out distractions, including stray thoughts.

Physical attributes

  • Top running speed.
  • Running acceleration.
  • Quickness. Speed of short translations of extremities or body.
  • Balance.
  • Slow-twitch (sustained) strength.
  • Fast-twitch (instantaneous) strength.
  • Physical endurance.
  • Flexibility.

Sport comparison

This table is my effort at assigning an importance level (0=irrelevant, 10=crucial) of attributes to various sports. Note: subtotals and totals are supplied, but I don't think that we should say that sport X is 'harder' than sport Y if its total is higher. If just means that the requirements of sport Y are more concentrated in a few areas.

Attributes Sports
Baseball position player Football quarterback Football offensive lineman Basketball Table tennis Chess (master level) Golf Race car driving Rock Climbing (indoor) Professional bicycle racer
Intimidation 3 4 8 7 8 9 5 5 0 6
Mental endurance 5 4 2 4 7 10 8 9 5 4
Strategy 2 7 3 7 4 9 7 6 9 6
Adaptation 7 8 7 8 6 9 8 8 6 1
Body coordination 9 7 3 8 6 0 10 4 4 3
Eye/hand coordination 10 1 0 9 10 0 0 8 0 0
Teamwork 5 10 3 10 0 0 0 2 0 4
Team attitude 7 10 3 7 0 0 0 7 0 4
Coachability 10 10 8 9 9 8 10 7 6 2
Mental attributes subtotal 58 61 37 69 50 45 48 56 30 30
Top running speed 8 7 3 8 0 0 0 0 0 7 (pedalling)
Running acceleration 8 8 4 9 3 0 0 0 0 5 (pedalling)
Quickness 8 8 7 8 10 0 0 0 4 1
Balance 9 9 8 9 9 0 10 6 10 8
Slow-twitch strength 2 4 9 2 0 0 0 4 6 8
Fast-twitch strength 9 9 7 9 3 0 8 5 7 5
Physical endurance 3 4 7 7 3 5 4 9 2 10
Flexibility 7 7 5 7 6 0 7 0 8 0
Physical attributes subtotal 54 56 50 59 34 5 29 24 37 44
Grand total 112 117 87 128 84 50 77 80 67 74

Copyright 2020 © David P. Anderson