The World's Best Athlete Part Three

Welcome to the third and final installment of my best athlete in the world series. In this post I will actually name the winner. But first a quick review of my existing ground rules, and the addition of two additional criteria that will narrow things down to our winner pretty quickly. As I discussed in parts one and two, my best athlete must have strength, speed, stamina and skill, with skill being the most important quality. A better word for skill actually is dexterity, which means the ability to solve difficult motor problems as they arise unexpectedly. To determine which acts require the most dexterity, we can use the four "levels" of motor control developed by Bernstein, which I discussed in detail here, and which can be roughly broken down as follows:

  • Level A: Control of the trunk and neck. Basically, good posture.
  • Level B: Large, graceful limb movements. Often fluid, continuous, reciprocal, synchronized, and repetitive, as in running or swimming.
  • Level C: Targeted movements. Single direct movements requiring accuracy in relation to some external target.
  • Level D: Complex Actions. Whole sequences of movements that when linked together solve a motor problem. Constant corrections are required.

With these categories in mind, I will briefly analyze the dexterity demands in some of the sports mentioned by commenters on the previous posts.

Locomotion Athletes

Several commenters recommended distance or endurance sports such as marathon, swimming, cycling or rowing. Under Bernstein's analysis, these sports do not require much dexterity at all. Although they require excellence at levels A and B, there is very little demand at the higher levels of C and D. The only requirement for targeted accuracy is basically not running off the course, and there is almost no need for any complex actions. To use my car/driver analogy, these guys need to have great cars, but their driving skills are not tested at all.

According to Bernstein: "during a monotonous, unperturbed course of movement, free of any unexpected events, there is no demand for dexterity." Therefore:

a sprinter who runs with beautiful and perfect movements cannot be considered dextrous, because dexterity is not in the motor act itself but is revealed by its interaction with the changing external conditions, with uncontrolled and unpredicted influences from the environment.

So there you have it. Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are out. We can eliminate decathletes for similar reasons. Let’s move on.


Several commenters recommended gymnasts as exemplifying the highest level of movement skill. I agree that gymnasts are quite amazing and exhibit some of the best control of posture and large limb coordination (Levels A and B) that one might imagine. There is also significant demand at level C and D because they must move with precision and perform complex actions. They are amazing drivers of incredible cars.

However, gymnastics lacks a crucial element which greatly increases the demand for dexterity. And that is a changing environment. Finding solutions to motor problems is much more difficult in an environment where the circumstances constantly change, as opposed to one where the environment always remains the same. Here’s a good quote from Bernstein:

The capacity of dexterity appears to be, not in the movements themselves, but rather in their interaction with the environment. The more complex and unpredictable the interactions are, the more successfully a person overcomes them, the higher is the dexterity of those movements.

Therefore, if you are performing your skills in an environment that is static, no matter how difficult those skills are to execute, they will never require as much dexterity as the performance of skills in an environment that is changing. Here’s Bernstein again:

when a boxer or a fencer practices with the passive training device, their moves and hits may be beautiful, quick, and strong, but the movements will never be dextrous. This capacity will be fully revealed only during boxing or fencing with a real opponent, when each instant is full of the unexpected and when being late by 100th of a second may well mean losing a match.

Exactly and very well said.

With this in mind, here is my new criterium: my athlete must compete in a sport where the environment is subject to unpredictable change second by second.

As a practical matter, this requirement means one thing - there must be an opponent who is right there actively trying to mess with you. Have you ever practiced, all by yourself, some dribbling move, or martial arts tactic, to a degree where you thought you had it down pretty well, only to realize that it is complete garbage in the presence of an actual opponent?

I have. If you watched me shoot hoops and dribble a basketball around the court, I might convince you that I am an adequate (not good) basketball player. But put me on the court in a game situation and I would look like crap. Fancy ball handling skills are completely different when there is an actual defender there with his hand in your face. Now you need reversibility. True dexterity emerges in the face of an opponent.

With this in mind, I will exclude all sports that do not involve an opponent. This includes gymnastics, parkour, rock climbing, skateboarding, surfing, skiing and others. Sorry guys, you have amazing skills, but unless you perform them with an opponent in your face, one of the most interesting and vital aspects of dexterity will always be missing. Human movement skills did not evolve to show off, they evolved to match motor wits with a worthy foe. So let’s look at sports that involve that element.

A battle of motor wits

So now we are down to sports involving an actual opponent. These are the sports where people typically look to find the world’s best athletes. Many of my commenters recommended tennis, rugby, mixed martial arts, soccer, hockey, and basketball. I’m surprised that football and baseball didn't get any votes. Anyway, I agree that these are the sports that impose the highest demands for dexterity and athleticism. And I think it is no coincidence that these are also the most popular sports in the world. So how do we choose between them?

I can think of some ways to narrow it down. I might prefer team sports over individual ones because they involve more complexity. And I might also start eliminating sports which are more oriented towards fitness qualities than skill qualities, such as American football and rugby. But I have a better way to make the next cut, and it gives me an answer I find very satisfying on number of levels. It’s a criterium that no one ever seems to mention, that was hugely violated in many of the comments, and for me it is decisive. And that is the size of the competition pool for the sport.

Big fish, small ponds

Why do we care about the size of the talent pool that a sport draws from? Here is a quick example to illustrate.

Let’s compare squash and tennis. They are similar games in many ways, requiring similar skills sets. I have heard some argue that squash is a more demanding game than tennis, because it involves a wider selection of shots, more complex positions, quicker reaction times, and more aerobic fitness than tennis.

Even if these arguments are valid, it would be a huge mistake to conclude that Nick Matthew (the #1 ranked squash player in the world) is a better racquet athlete than Roger Federer. This is simply because way more people play tennis than squash, and therefore Roger had to jump over far more hurdles than Nick to get to the top. As such, he is far more likely to be the superior athlete.

Or to put it another way, the talent pool that tennis draws from is much larger than that for squash. Therefore the selection process for finding and honing the best athletes has been far more rigorous, so it is far more likely to generate truly exceptional ability.

Imagine you somehow invented the coolest most demanding sport in the world. If only five people compete at it, it would not make sense to crown the top ranked player as the best athlete in the world. (By the way, do you know that I am the world’s top ranked player in basement soccer?) This is why we have to exclude sports like squash, Aussie rules football, Irish hurling, and numerous other sports that have relatively low participation levels.

With this in mind, I will ask a simple question to choose amongst the remaining sports that have passed my initial hurdles: which one draws from the largest talent pool? Which sport employs the most rigorous and wide ranging selection process? In which sport is it toughest to get to the top of the heap?

And here the answer is clear. Soccer is the biggest pond, and it is therefore likely to have the biggest fish.

Look at it this way.

If you want to be a pro American football player, you need to be one of the best players in the USA. You don't need to compete against the rest of the world, they are off playing rugby. If you want to be a professional baseball player, you need to be one of the best players in the Americas and some parts of Asia. If you want to be in the NBA, you need to be one of the best players in the USA and Europe. But if you want to play in the English Premier League, you need to be one of the best players in the world. Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, the Americas. People are applying for this job from all over the place.

In almost every country besides the USA, boys grow up dreaming of becoming a professional soccer player. There is no competition from football, baseball, basketball. Soccer gets all the best athletes. And then these athletes are put through a rigorous selection and training process, where talent is identified, weeded out, and then honed to a sharp edge by the best coaches. This is where the most intense competition is, and therefore this is where we should look for the world’s best athletes. The guys who get to the top of soccer are true outliers, with an extraordinary combination of genetics, single minded focus, insane work ethic, and top quality coaching.

Here’s another point about soccer which distinguishes it from basketball, the sport I might consider number two on my list, and the source for some very credible claimants to the title of top athlete, such as Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. Although it is certainly not easy to get into the NBA, there is one thing that makes it easier than soccer, at least from the perspective of developing dexterity - you are basically only competing against other guys that are above six foot three. So right off the bat a significant percentage of your competition is eliminated.

In soccer, almost any size body can play, and therefore you have to compete against more people to get to the top. In fact, the best soccer player in the world right now is only five foot seven. Lionel Messi is my best athlete in the world, a true sporting genius.

Messi's Resume

Messi has a very solid claim to the title. Not only is he at the top of the most world’s most demanding sport, but he has been dominating it for years, to an extent where many are already calling him the greatest soccer player of all time. At the age of 24. I won’t go through all his statistics, awards and wins, but they are gaudy. Here is what some of his peers say about him.

Pep Guardioloa, Barcelona Team manager:

I think this genius is impossible to describe. That’s why he is a genius. He has instinct. He loves to live with pressure. He is one of the best ever created...There is no other like him. The numbers speak for themselves. One day he’ll score six. We’ll never see a player like him again.

Gary Lineker, former Barcelona striker:

The fella’s a genius! Best ever by a distance in my lifetime. . . .He plays a game with which we are not familiar.

Wayne Rooney, Manchester United striker:

Messi is a joke - for me the best ever.

Xavi, Barcelona midfielder:

Messi’s the best player in the world, and when his career ends, he’ll be the best in history. It is crazy what this guy does. No other player decides a game like him. If he doesn’t score, he is there to give the assist. He is a wonder. He’ll break all records and we should enjoy him.

I could go on with these quotes. There are at least four or five quotes from rival players who complain that he is better on the field than his virtual play station counterpart. I think these guys must play a lot of play station.

Messi in action

Below is a video of Messi solving difficult motor problems on the soccer field. As you watch, know that at the end of every possession, he is going to solve that problem and score a goal. Although he will make it look fairly easy most of the time, you can do the following to get an idea of how hard it actually is.

As soon as he touches the ball, ask yourself what is the pathway to the goal here? What is the motor solution to the problem of how to score? You have a much better view of the field than he does. You can even pause the video to stop and consider. Even with those advantages, chances are, you will have usually have no idea how to score in most cases. The situation is incredibly complex, with a million choices, and 99.9% of them do not result in a goal. And that is what most people feel when they touch a soccer ball on the field with twenty other people hovering around - confusion in the face of extreme complexity.

But not Lionel Messi. For a true movement genius with the highest levels of dexterity and movement intelligence, coupled with speed, quickness, power, stamina, strength, and vision, the answers come easily. Check it out.


Thanks for reading to the end of this monster series. So what do you think? Do you agree? Did i diss your athlete? Could LeBron James come out and score more goals than Messi next year? Which one would win at a neutral sport like tennis or baseball? What about multisport athletes like Bo Jackson, Allen Iverson, Deion Sanders. Or Danny Ainge? That guy played pro hoops and baseball, unlike Jordan. And Dave Winfield got drafted into the NBA, MLB and NFL! I didn’t address the multi sport issue all. Is that a problem? Let me know in the comments. Oh and congrats to commenter Augustin for guessing the winner! (Leave it to my only Argentinian reader.)