In your typical American coming-of-age movie, whether it’s high school or college, the ‘jocks’ tend to be routinely parodied as idiots that can barely put a sentence together. I don’t think it could be argued they don’t exist, but it’s a stereotype that has been badly overplayed. And when you look at professional athletes of today, it’s pretty clear that they’re as sharp upstairs as they are physically exceptional.
Former England cricketer Ed Smith sums it up in a nicely worded column in Intelligent Life. Highlighting German football as an example, he talks about how the administration has put a premium on intelligence. They built their World Cup winning game plan around a team of quick thinkers who could assess risk and show finely tuned judgement to match their silky skills. Thomas Müller doesn’t think of himself as having a position, he calls himself ‘an interpreter of space’.
I can’t help but notice that the world’s greatest athletes are exceptionally smart off the field. Roger Federer can speak five languages. Marion Bartoli, a Wimbledon champ, has an IQ higher than Einstein. Her Russian rival Daniela Hantuchova is a classically trained pianist and speaks four languages. Just look at the All Blacks and their most influential players. Conrad Smith, the midfield rock, is a lawyer. Dan Carter is an accomplished businessman. Richie McCaw, their fearless leader, is a pilot.
Athletes often say that when you reach the top levels, 90% of sport is mental. They are spending a lot more time doing cognitive exercises and mental preparation, including meditation, to match the physical requirements. Because physicality only takes them so far, brilliance is in the brain.