Playing a sport isn’t hard. Some are harder than others, but the fact remains, stepping out onto a field and playing is very easy to do. Playing a sport well is difficult. Even mediocre high school athletes need to devote hundreds of hours of practice to be able to compete, and even then, there’s no guarantee that they will be able to keep up with their competition. Performing at the professional level is something that only a tiny fraction of the very best athletes in the world will ever get to do though. To outperform the competition at this level, only a select few will ever be recognized. The bottom line is, great athletes are few and far between, and when you see an exceptional athlete at the highest level of play, you are seeing something very special.
It takes years to become a top performer in any sport. No one picks up a golf club and makes the PGA Tour the next week. Tiger Woods spent years practicing his game before he was even mentioned in conversation as a potential for the PGA. LeBron James had played basketball for several years before ESPN started coming to his high school games out in Akron, Ohio. Bryce Harper had played baseball since he was in Little League before he was picked up as the number one draft pick in the MLB draft right out of high school. These are a few of the top athletes in their respective sports at one time or another, but the point is that it took them a very long time to reach the top.
This is why we love watching professionals play. This is why pro athletes are heroes to us when we are children. It’s why, as adults, we watch and read news stories about the lives of our favorite sports figure, why we spend so much time researching statistics for our fantasy leagues, and why we have so much fun going to a stadium to watch someone play a game from the top row of the stands. They are exceptional samples of a very rare type of person. Not everyone can be a great athlete, especially in a culture like ours where exercise is not stressed enough. Not every great athlete can go on to become a legend. It’s been said before, but it’s worth mentioning again: being a star athlete is not a job or a decision that was made. It is a completely different way of living than what most people are used to.
There was a story published a while ago about the boxer Manny Pacquiao. He had spent all day at the gym training, and then went out to a restaurant with a group of people where it looked like he ate without discretion for a very long time. An estimate said he ate about 8,000 calories of food that night. However, the writer went on to reveal that everything Pacquiao ate had been precisely measured for serving size, calories, and nutritional content before he had made it to the restaurant to ensure that he had exactly what he needed for top performance go into his body. How many of us are capable of that kind of decision making? We might worry about our weight, but do we put the same effort into fueling our bodies in just the right way for what we are doing? Probably not. It takes a special sort of person to do this, and it’s lots of little things like this that make the best athletes in the world what they are. And it makes our enjoyment of watching them that much more intense.