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‘In Search of Greatness’: How do athletes become great? They play.

Wayne Gretzky, Pele, and Jerry Rice talk about what made them great in 'In Search of Greatness.'

Wayne Gretzky
Wayne GretzkyRead moreFile

Most of us baby boomers grew up in ultra-creative, self-designed learning environments, otherwise known as Saturdays.

Here you had to decide on your own, for instance, how to play baseball with seven people. So you put your heads together and figured it out – no hitting to right field, invisible runners who advanced only as far as the batter, etc. You played in three-out increments, a score you tallied but didn't really care about, because the game went on all day, with constantly shifting roster of players, as kids came and went for lunch and dinner. You covered the math of score-keeping, the physics of vectors, and the sociology and psychology of individual and group dynamics.

So why, when we grew up and had kids of your own, did we turn them over at age 4 to sports bureaucracies, where they are drilled by adults in how to do things within a regimented system?

And what good has it done?

The latter question is examined in In Search of Greatness, by documentary filmmaker Gabe Polsky (Red Army), who consults with experts including Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, and Pele, all of whom are vexed at the current state of things and advocate for a less-structured system that promotes initiative and creativity.

Wait, you say. Didn't Gretzky grow up playing organized youth hockey, and isn't that about as regimented as it gets? Yeah, but as Gretzky tells it, he played for a marginal team where players were encouraged to invent, to create, to have fun, which they did, often losing in the process to "better coached" teams.

He also organized his own play. Gretzky said he gets buttonholed all the time by parents who want him to tell their children how much he practiced. To which he responds: "I didn't. I played, and I played because I loved it."

Psychologists quoted in the film have a scary-sounding term for one of the ingredients found in most exceptional athletes. It's called a "rage to master." In exceptional players, this drive to engage in the sport combines with an innate ability to learn quickly to create prowess (Gretzky watched every hockey game he could get his eyes on, and remembered every play).

Unstructured, self-motivated play, Gretzky says, fosters true creativity, which is the attribute that separates great players from others. He flowered under coaches who let him create, suffered under those who did not. His favorite was Edmonton Oilers coach Glen Sather, who said he never tampered with Gretzky's offensive zone wizardry.

Polsky also quotes sources who say that analytics are of little help in spotting creative traits, or an individual's special genius for a game or a sport – statisticians fall into the trap of "making something important because we can measure it."

What's most important cannot be measured. Gretzky "couldn't bench 195 once." And Rice was far from the fastest player, but he literally dreamed about catching passes. Same with Pele.

No one taught them any of it. It can't be taught.


In Search of Greatness

  1. Directed by Gabe Polsky. Featuring Wayne Gretzky, Pele, and Jerry Rice. Distributed by ISOG.

  2. Running time: 85 minutes

  3. Playing at: AMC Neshaminy

Parents' guide: Not rated