Musings on Athleticism

When the mariner was young (a long time ago – Merlin was an acquaintance), he enjoyed sports and physical activity. At age eleven he favored American football and joined a recreation league for ages 11-13. The games provided an immense amount of emotional release for the mariner.

He moved on to the 13-15 league where experience and technique was insignificant but having played in the 11-13 league, the structure of football offense and defense was not strange to him and he did not have to go through the learning curve required for first time players. Playing on the team and being in the games became a linchpin of his identity. Consequently, the mariner played with desire if not with savoir faire.

In high school, he played on the varsity and simultaneously played in a 16-19 recreation league, which was against school policy but many school players played both anyway. Solely through experience, technique became an advantage. Intuition about the intricacies of game situations was often correct.

To make an already long story shorter, the mariner went on to play in a semi-pro league and at a liberal arts college. The need to reveal this history is to demonstrate that technique, experience and playing with an attitude of zealous vigor – especially zealous vigor – was enough to be a starter on the various teams.

However, as the mariner played in the older leagues, athleticism emerged as a noticeable advantage. More players had the same zeal; more players had acumen. Some, however, seemed a cut above the rest. Their advantage was athleticism – a combination of well proportioned bodies, faster reflexes, and an ability to flawlessly execute physical movement without thinking about it.

A quarterback on the semi-pro team had never played golf but when we showed him how to use a few clubs, he was able, albeit in an unpracticed way, to be within a few strokes of the rest of us even though we had played for several years. John Unitas, quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, liked to eat in seafood restaurants. With great fanfare, he would catch his own fish barehanded in one lightning quick strike with a grip the slippery fish could not escape. He had an air of physical assuredness.

Athleticism is genetic superiority. It is the final factor that allows a few to go on to greater achievement. Television brings us only the best and the most athletic. Every sport that has professional teams or national competitions is made up of individuals who can achieve physical performance most humans cannot.

All of this came to mind as the mariner watched the tennis US Open in New York. With some practice, a viewer could discern those who had zeal, who had mastered the mental aspects of play, but did not perform with the ease, physical pre-consciousness and physical skill of natural athletes. If the mariner played tennis instead of football, he would never be capable of hitting a tennis ball 135 miles per hour and with dependable accuracy place the ball within an inch or two of the sideline. Nor could he do it effortlessly. A reader may take issue, citing players in the top ten rank that seem not to be natural athletes. That may be true but the proof in the pudding is effortlessness, relative lack of concern within the physical act and reflexes that respond quickly enough to catch a fish barehanded. Non-athletes may achieve parity, even persistence, only by working twice as hard as a natural athlete. However, they will never surpass the performance of those with natural athleticism.

Oh – a postscript: the mariner played outside linebacker and retired from football at age 29.

Ancient Mariner

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