My Definition of a “Great” Athlete

Heisman Trophy Winner Reggie Bush was renown in the sports performance world for his incredible natural movement.

By Rob Shaul

My definition has consistently been “excellent movement in space.” I believe this is a natural, God-given skill you can’t teach or coach.

This definition has many biases.

First – it’s not related to fitness. I’ve seen many people who naturally can move well in space, yet are not fit.

Second – it’s not related to achievement. It’s possible to be at the top level in a sport, yet not move especially well. I’ve coached a 2-time Free Ski World Champion who won on technique, aggressiveness, strength, and consistency, but whose movement doing squats, sprints, or agility drills was nothing special.

Third – this definition pretty much excludes all endurance athletes. High-level endurance athletes share a couple of traits: (1) Genetically-gifted big aerobic engine (lungs/heart), and; (2) A high ability to suffer.

You can train the aerobic engine somewhat, but not to get to the highest levels. This type of potential comes from genetics. High-level endurance athletes in every discipline begin with much larger than average VO2 max than the rest of us. Training can improve its capacity, but it’s nearly impossible to start with naturally lower aerobic capacity and consistently reach a high level of endurance performance.

As well, in terms of movement in space, not taking away from the speed gains that come with excellent running, cycling, swimming, and rowing technique, the “movement in space” demands of an endurance athlete pale in comparison to those of an NFL defensive back, NBA shooting point guard, Olympic Diver, MLB shortstop or pro-soccer goalie.

I’ve worked with many professional mountain athletes, but honestly, the best natural athletes end up in team sports – that’s where the money is. Many of the best mountain athletes I’ve worked with had average collegiate athletic careers – a lot of soccer players, nordic skiers, rowers, etc. Good athletic movement for sure – but not “excellent” movement – not at a pro-level.

The same is true for the tactical athletes I’ve worked with. A few have had collegiate athletic careers, and some I’ve seen have “good” natural movement in space. But none I’ve worked with could have made it to the NFL, NBA, or MLS. They just weren’t given the excellent movement in space required.

I’ve only coached one, professional, team sport athlete – a franchise NHL hockey player. The player I worked with was 6′ 5″ tall, 250 pounds, and moved like a cougar. He wasn’t an especially hard worker in the gym, and when it came to pushing weight, he always pulled back and never reached. His natural athleticism made up for any deficiencies in fitness. His natural movement, especially for a guy that big, was amazing. I only worked with him for a few weeks in the summer.

Years ago I attended a mentorship at Athletes’ Performance (now Exos), and one of the instructors had been a semi-pro hockey player. Asked how come he quit hockey and moved into strength and conditioning he answered that one day at a try out he looked around and noticed he was working a lot harder than everyone else there to get through the drills. He realized he simply did not have the natural talent to ever make it to the highest level and decided to change plans while he could.

I’m not alone in my definition of athleticism. I read a biography a couple years ago on Alabama Head Football Coach, Nick Saban, and the “system” he’s deployed with all his teams. The author describes how Saban will see a football recruit visiting his facility and on the spot ask the recruit to do a few bodyweight squats. Saban will watch closely for smooth movement, where the feet are pointed (straight ahead, ideally), how flat the back is and how upright the chest. He’ll also look for any “catches” or hitches in movement the way up and down. If he sees any issues, the recruit’s chances of landing a scholarship at Alabama are put in jeopardy – no matter the recruit’s performance coming out of high school.

Saban believes he can teach work ethic, but can’t teach movement. As a result, he’ll give a scholarship to an underachieving, lazy, but excellent natural athlete, over a hard-working, over-achieving average natural athlete.

Life’s simply not fair, is it!

I realized the limitations of my own athleticism in 5th grade during our end-of-school-year “Field Day” events – three-legged races, etc. On event was a 400m relay, and my slow performance lost the event for my team. It turns out that being small and slow, are not ingredients for much athletic success beyond middle school. I got cut from the 10th-grade basketball team …

My definition of a “great” athlete doesn’t mean I can’t be in awe of average natural athletes (movement in space) who have big aerobic engines, know how to suffer, and excel at endurance.

Though I am in “awe” of these endurance monsters, I don’t like them very much.

One of the guides I coached early on took me for a one-day trad climb of a cool tower in the Tetons. Brian had previously been a national cyclist runner-up. While I’m personally a very slow runner, I’m pretty good at hiking uphill – or I thought I was.

Brian and I were working up this steep approach and I felt pretty cocky because I was able to keep up with him. Then he turned, smiled, and kicked it in. I struggled to keep up for about 10 minutes until I blew up … there was no way. I was completely put in my place as a poser and humbled forever. When we compared VO2 maxes later, his was 40% greater than mine.

Brian was overall, the best athlete I’ve worked with. Not only an elite-level endurance athlete, but he was also a beast in the gym with great (not excellent) movement. His gym nickname was “mutant.” Once I saw him on a whim, at 48 years old, L-sit climb and 18-foot rope up and down 3 times, no sweat.

I hate-admire guys like that …

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