We like systems and predictability. Whether it’s financial freedom, weight loss, public speaking, or even parenting, we’re always looking for a surefire approach that will guarantee the outcome. In the world of athlete development, coaches and sport scientists generally seek the same.
But is it possible to identify winning athletes in any sport using standardized training and measurement? The new documentary In Search of Greatness examines this question by interviewing top athletes and experts in performance, and their revelations may disrupt your understanding of sport achievement.
Filmmaker Gabe Polsky was a U.S. college hockey player who experienced firsthand the stifling effects of regimented training and measurement in sport. Meanwhile, he observed that the greatest athletes at the professional level were often those who didn’t fit any of the standard metrics or developmental paths. They also frequently “trained” in unconventional ways.
How could these athletes be so successful when they didn’t tick the right boxes? Polsky decided to ask them directly. What follows is an enthralling exploration of sporting genius in all of its variegated and unpredictable majesty, and the revelation that creativity is essential to greatness.
Wayne Gretzky, still considered the greatest hockey player ever, recounts how he was considered too small to play hockey in the NHL, and he was even too small to play at the Bantam level as a teenager. His solution was to develop a unique style based on survival—avoiding hits through exquisite skating, masterful stick handling, and passing and moving into space. He also learned to shoot with pinpoint accuracy to compensate for the fact that he didn’t have a very hard shot for a professional player.
Jerry Rice, regarded as the greatest wide receiver in the history of the NFL, describes overcoming similar obstacles. While football receivers were expected to be the quickest runners on the field, Rice was far from fast. He didn’t have a good time for the 40-yard sprint, considered a key metric for his position. However, he developed an extraordinary talent for consistently finding space and receiving passes by running in unconventional and unpredictable patterns that deceived his opponents. He also developed an exceptional intuitive understanding with his quarterbacks so that he always arrived in the right place at the right time.
Pelé, still considered by many as the greatest soccer player of all time, also gets interview time in Polsky’s film, complemented with vintage game footage illustrating his creative genius on the field. There is also discussion of the unique qualities of tennis players Serena Williams and John McEnroe, heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano, skateboarder Tony Hawk, and basketball great Michael Jordan. All these segments are tied together with insightful commentaries by renowned educationalist Sir Ken Robinson and journalist David Epstein, author of the bestselling book The Sports Gene.
Sir Ken Robinson essentially frames the film’s theme when he points out that standardized systems of training and education are at odds with human nature. Standardization promotes conformity and uniformity, when in fact people are diverse in their talents and potential.
“It’s much more often the case that the people who achieve real greatness don’t fit the formula at all,” says Robinson. “In fact, they break the mold.”
Epstein provides another key insight regarding measurement.
“I love data—I love data analysis and sports data analytics—but I think there are cases in which we become too slavish to it,” says Epstein. “There’s almost this desire to validate everything by data and it’s backward. It’s making something important because we can measure it. It’s not measuring it because it’s important.”
In making this film, Polsky hopes to address the growing problem of professionalization in youth sports today, and the diminishment of creativity and unstructured play.
“As more kids join sports leagues and pursue the arts, the pressure to specialize comes at a younger age,” says Polsky. “My mission with this film is to inspire a nationwide movement that encourages creativity, freedom, and positivity as the foundations of greatness and positive mental health.”
In Search of Greatness has been listed as one of the Top 10 Docs to Watch by The Hollywood Reporter. The movie enters Canadian theatres this month and it’s a must-see for anyone interested in understanding genius in general and sport talent in particular. Check theatres near you for showtimes.