The World's Best Athlete, Part Two


Welcome to part two of my argument for who is the world's greatest athlete. Here is a brief summary of part one. First, I concede there is no way to arrive at a truly objective answer here, because it necessarily calls into play subjective preferences. However, after starting with some admittedly arbitrary ground rules, I think I can logically proceed to a defensible conclusion. I know this sounds more like a legal argument than a bar room sports debate, but believe me, this analysis will go far beyond what you probably guessed!

Here are the starting assumptions. First, a great athlete is someone with a combination of strength, speed, stamina and skill. I decided to weight skill most heavily because I find this attribute far more interesting than the other three. Part of this is just my preference, but there are some objective facts underlying it, which are as follows.

Motor skill is a quality that is far more complex and "evolved" in terms of design and engineering than strength, speed, or stamina. It would be quite easy to build a machine (or imagine another animal) that could bike faster than Lance Armstrong, run faster that Usain Bolt, or lift more weight than Andy Bolton. But we are nowhere near building a robot (and there are no animals) that can play a skill sport with enough competency to beat a six year old human. That is because the ability to solve difficult motor problems as they arise, which I call dexterity, is a complex, highly nuanced human quality that is the culmination of billions of years of design and evolution. And that is why I find Greg Maddux's throwing skills to be more interesting than the guy who won the gold medal in the javelin. (Whoever that is.)

So again, dexterity is the primary trait I am looking for here, although the fitness qualities count as well. But many athletes display dexterity. In the comments section of the previous post, readers recommended several athletes as the most skillful - surfers, martial artists, jugglers, soccer players. How do we decide between them? I have a proposal for making distinctions, and it is again based on the work of Nicholai Bernstein.

Four Levels of Control

Bernstein distinguished between four "levels" of motor control, based on the tasks they facilitate, the nature of the neural processes that control them, and the time when such processes emerged on the evolutionary timescale. Some movements rely more on one level than others, and some people are more skilled in one level than another. I want my world's best athlete to compete in a sport where elite performance in all the levels is required, particularly the higher levels where dexterity primarily resides.

So let's look at the different types of motor control that Bernstein identified and their relationship to dexterity. I will point out that Bernstein's work was done many years ago, and I don't know how well his theories have been supported by the following years of scientific scrutiny. However, the guy was clearly a genius with a lot of insight, and his categories definitely have some common sense appeal. And they are based on a huge amount of physiology that I am leaving out here, so my discussion of them will be very cursory. Here's a rough outline.

Level A - Posture

Level A is the most basic and primitive, the deep foundation for all other movements. It involves the coordination of the trunk and neck. Level A movements evolved when we were fish in the ocean, and are some of the first movements an infant begins to master. The proper tone of the neck and trunk muscles is largely involuntary and unconscious, but provides the postural support that enables all the more complex activities. Bernstein observes: "when this function starts to be compromised the result is a stoop to the body, flabby muscle… try[ing] to exhibit dexterity with such an apparatus is like trying to write with a broken pencil.” (Quick shameless plug - my movement lessons are basically a refresher course in Level A movements.)

Level B - Large Limb Movements

Level B primarily involves large movements of the extremities in rhythmic, cyclical, locomotion type activities. In terms of evolution, this level developed after we moved from the sea to the ground. In terms of infant development, this would mean creeping and crawling.

Level B controls a huge amount of muscle in large synergies of harmonious, continuous, reciprocal movement. The most obvious example is running.

Levels A and B together create the beautiful, large amplitude movements we recognize as graceful, harmonious and coordinated. But the neural processes that govern these levels have a poor connection with the eyes and ears (the teleceptors), and are therefore in a poor position to respond to external changes in the environment. As such, level A and B movements acting without assistance from higher levels cannot exhibit a great deal of dexterity. But they provide the background or foundation for more dexterous movements in the higher levels.

Level C - Targeted Movements 

Level C is concerned with movements whose purpose is to apply force to an external object to achieve a particular effect. Unlike the cyclical repetitive movements in level B, level C movements are usually a singular event, with a clear beginning and end, such as a lift, throw or catch. They are characterized by businesslike accuracy and precision as opposed to the smooth, flowing gracefulness of level B. More John Stockton, less Dominique Wilkins.

Level C can be further distinguished from the previous two levels in that the latter are concerned only with movement of one body part relative to the others, while level C ensures that the body movements can affect some meaningful purpose in the external environment. Thus, level C implies a need for constant resourcefulness in making corrections in relation to externally perceived space. Here's an analogy - If levels A and B govern the proper inner mechanical workings of a car, then C is the driver at the wheel.

There are a wide variety of C level movements, and Bernstein divides them into various subgroups that I won't get into. Some examples would be skiing, running in a particular direction, gymnastics, archery, targeted throwing or striking, or weightlifting.

Level D - Complex Actions 

Level D differs from the earlier three levels in that it is significantly more advanced. While Levels A-C are present in almost any vertebrate animal, the rudiments of level D can only be found in the higher mammals, and are significantly undeveloped even in human children. Bernstein calls this the human level.

Level D "actions" are defined as whole sequences of movements that when linked together solve a motor problem. If any link in the chain is omitted, the goal is not accomplished. To perform an action, one must be able to constantly monitor the performance of each movement in the chain to ensure it has been done properly, and to make corrections or variations in the chain on the fly as needed.

Bernstein uses the example of taking a cigarette and lighter from your pocket, shielding it from the wind and lighting it. This is composed of thirty to forty separate movements, each of which need to be performed properly to achieve nicotine delivery. If we saw an alien do this, we would immediately recognize its high intelligence. In fact, most kids under eight would struggle with the dexterity required by this seemly simple action. Bernstein notes that a child of five to seven moves mostly on levels A-C, and will become very quickly fatigued or bored when forced to do something on the D level, such as practicing a musical instrument or handwriting.

Level D actions are frequently performed with an object and enjoy a close relationship with the hand, because of its extreme adaptability. Another distinguishing feature of level D is that, unlike levels A-C, which are bilateral and symmetrical, D level actions are usually performed far better on one side than the other.

In the context of sport, level D actions are best exemplified by manipulation of a ball or racquet. These are examples of techniques that take thousands and thousands of hours of conscious practice with coaching to learn at the highest level. Compare this to a level B activity such as running, an activity where many top coaches debate whether it is useful to devote any conscious attention at all to technique.

Coordination of the four levels 

Physical activities have varying contributions from each level, some of which play a dominant or "leading" role, while others play a subservient or "background" function. For example, running is dominated by levels A and B, with just a little bit of level C to keep running on course, and a little level D to decide how fast to run and when. In activities such as putting a golf ball, or shooting a gun, the higher levels are very active, while the lower levels do basically just allow you to hold a stable posture. Shooting two guns while flying through the air and doing the splits to avoid bullets involves lots of work from all four levels, and that is why we like to watch this type of thing in slow motion. 

It is interesting to note that a person might be quite skilled at one level and relatively incompetent at another. Bernstein observes:

Some people easily master accurate, targeted movements from the upper sub level of space (C2) but have problems with anything based on the level of muscular-articular links (B), that is, any movement requiring large, high amplitude synergies. Others are very strong in locomotions that are controlled from the lower sub level of space (C1) but are not very apt with hand movements. In still others, everything that is above level B may be retarded as compared to this level: They are graceful, elegant, and carry the body beautifully, based on level A. One may expect from them quite impressive achievements in coordination, but they fail at virtually any motor enterprise.

This is why we might see a skilled sculptor with poor posture, a wonderful dancer who cannot throw a ball, or a sprinter with poor hand eye coordination. It's why Shaq can't hit a free throw. Many top athletes are gifted in one area, but incompetent in others. So here is a key criteria for the best athlete in the world - he or she must participate in a sport which, when played at the highest level, requires elite level performance in all the levels.

Here is how Bernstein describes cooperation of all four levels:

the leading level of a dexterous movement or action displays outstanding features of switchability, resourcefulness, and maneuverability, whereas the supporting background levels display similarly outstanding features of harmony, obedience and precision of work.

Bernstein compares this relationship between the lower and higher levels as akin to a rider on a horse. I like it. My best athlete must have a great horse and be a great rider. Car and driver, periphery and core, hardware and software, fitness and skill, body and mind, fine motor and large motor, the whole package. In the end, he or she must have supreme skill at solving a wide variety of difficult motor problems as they arise unexpectedly. Based on this criteria, we can to start to identify which sports are most demanding in terms of dexterity. And we can eliminate several sports from consideration, because they are basically all horse no rider, or all rider no horse.

I'll do that in the next post. And then I'll add some new criteria, because Bernstein can only take us so far.

Any guesses on which sports will be favored and which will be tossed aside in the next post? Let me know in the comments.

Hint: (Lance Armstrong doesn't make the first cut. GSP does.)