The underrated genius of great athletes

I’ve been a sports fan for as long as I can remember, but there are a handful of athletes I’ve manage to form deep admiration for despite never having the opportunity to watch them while they were still actively playing. The two at the very top are Bill Russell (basketball) and Johan Cruyff (soccer). Russell passed away last week at the age of 88. He was an important man whose deep committment to the Civil Rights Movement we are still growing in appreciation of, but I want to talk about his genius.

I mean genius in a far more literal sense than what we typically mean when referring to brilliant athletes or (ugh) “sports IQ”. What Bill Russell did on the basketball court was no less genius than what might be admired in chess or physics. I really believe that. There are a handful of team sports (basketball, soccer, hockey, etc) where the game involves enough independent agents interacting that real-time prediction elevates to a level of complexity that success within the game demands that a player either

  1. Dominate through one or more overwhelming attributes
  2. Wait for randomness to grant you an opportuntity to contribute
  3. Forecast events to maximally pursue opportunities to succeed

A teenager playing basketball with younger, smaller children can dominate absent any particular insight into the game. Similarly, someone who has practiced shooting 15 foot jumpshots or knows how to skate can contribute to a game simply by repeatedly going to a handful of positions and waiting for the game to presnt an opportunity. Neither, however, is remotely sufficient to come within a mile of sports played at the highest amateur levels, let alone sports played professionally. The very greatest athletes in professional sports come to dominate their respective games through their possession of both overwhelming attributes (both natural and acquired) and genius for pattern-recognition and real-time, within-game forecasting. We spend far too much time goggling over former and, in doing so, subtly denigrating the brilliance of the latter.

Bill Russell saw the patterns at play within a basketball game. When he played defense he knew where the ball was going, what the relevant player’s options would be, and how he could not only deny them the chance to score, but to deny them in a specific manner that would lead to his own team scoring in the subsequent transition. When Johan Cruyff played soccer, he could make as many as 6 or 7 consequent moves into open spaces, each creating different options for his teammates that would eventually lead to a goal scoring opportunity emergent from the series of micro-interactions created by the space and gravity of his own actions. These moments were neither clairovoyance or instinct. Their dominance was a product of intelligence in the purest sense.

Stop calling it “Sports IQ”

Instead of saying Lebron or Sidney Crosby is a genius, people instead often remark that they have a high basketball or hockey IQ. It drives me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’ve evolved from saying someone has great sport-specific “instincts”, which imply they are not even intellect-adjacent, but I don’t think we even need the sports-genre qualifiers. No one ever talks about a chemist or economist having field-specific intelligence, we just say they’re smart. You watch any fast-moving sport played at the highest level for a couple years, and you will come to appreciate that players are accomplishing feats of analysis under duress that are nothing short of incredible intellectual feats.

Funny enough, I think one of the contributors to our growing appreciation of the intellectual side of sports is video games. We knew chess players were really smart, but when we started programming computers to analyze millions of moves per second and it still took years for them to consistently beat the best humans, it probably raised our esteem for what chess players had achieved at the highest level.

Similarly, there is something about playing a game and controlling multiple players, transforming a team into a perfect hive mind of coordination granted by the top-down omniscience of their controlling deity that you appreciate what how perfect play might look. You participate in simulated perfection only to then subject yourself to the humbling limits of reality. Suddenly you are constrained by the information limitatons of a first-person view within the chaos of separate minds, moving at top speed (possibly on ice), while being hunted by an aggressive opposition (sometimes carrying lumber). And then it dawns on you that professionals produce an order within this caucophy of sweaty chaos that is only otherwise observable in a video game.

There are no doubt a host of reasons for this bias against crediting athletes with genius. First, racism. Nothing much more to say there other than, yeah, just straight-up racism and the penchant within sports commentary to de-intellectualize sports with the ascendancy of Black athletes in the 20th century.

Racism aside, I think there is also a particular bias against genius when it manifests in something hyper-specialized, particularly when the screening mechanisms are so intense that most of what gets observed is at the one in a million level (i.e. the 99.9999th percentile). At the highest level, professional sports are executed in a manner almost unrecognizable to how most observers might themselves have played or even observed first-hand, to the point of becoming unfamiliar, alien, and most importantly, unachievable. If something is intellectually unachievable, that may lower the relative estimation and status of the observer’s own intelligence. If, instead, what the athlete is demonstrating an innate proficiency for the specific physical task at hand, that’s just random, an anomaly made only relevant because of the peculiar game they play.

I’ll close with a manifestation of intelligence in sports that isn’t based in pattern-recognition or external complexity, but rather internal complexity. Simone Biles, in case you are not aware, is the greatest gymnast in history. To deny her standing in history is your prerogative, but even as a non-expert in gymnastics, allow me to assure you that you would be wrong. A moment that stuck with me in revealing her brilliance, ironically, was when she pulled herself from the previous Olympics. During the floor exercises and vault, Biles creates speed, vertical lift, shape, and multiple dimensions of body rotation. To organize a singular force diagram of her a physicist would require significant computational assistance or a whole bunch of math. Not only does Biles do this, she does it while her body is running, jumping, and rotating. She essentially tracks the problem in real time. What was amazing is that in the recent Olympics, still competing at an age considered well post-prime for gymnastics, she understood that she was not managing the physics problem with the reliablitiy and accuracy sufficient to perform her own routine. Could she have managed a set of simpler routines? Probably, but simpler ones had never been practiced. She confronted a dilemma: she had practiced routines that up until that moment no one else in the world could do but her, only now even she could not do them without presenting significant danger to herself and, in turn, no real help to her team. So what did she do on global television?

She withdrew from the Olympics. Which might be the single greatest moment of self-possession I’ve ever seen from an athlete. That probably counts as emotional intelligence, but I don’t actually know how that works and is a different post anyway.

There is real genius in professional sports. It’s time we started crediting them for it.

One thought on “The underrated genius of great athletes

  1. David August 17, 2022 / 2:22 pm

    Such a fascinating topic. I would also submit that perhaps the genius of athletes is so under appreciated in no small part due to the concept being difficult to put well defined parameters around, and therefore not well understood by most.

    Liked by 1 person

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