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Beating the Odds

Where Do Great Athletes Come From?

Where do great athletes come from?

The question comes up because of a passage in the book, “Munson — The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain” by Marty Appel. In it, former Yankee broadcaster Bill White described Thurman Munson’s birthplace and how it shaped him.

“I think there is something about growing up in that industrial valley between, say, Steubenville and Cleveland, that just toughens you,” White said. “We were all kids from the wrong side of the tracks, or at least no better than in the middle. You had to fight for what you wanted; it made you tougher…”

This a common way to look at success, especially in the field of athletics. You hear so much about a “gritty” background. According to this point of view, someone from a poor background will invariably beat someone who comes from privilege.

But is this point of view valid?

After all, skill comes from repetitions. And sometimes — oftentimes — it takes money to produce repetitions. You can gain skill in the poor side of Brazilian towns, where boys with a soccer ball can have a game. But you can also develop skill in the affluent suburbs of the United States, when your parents can afford to send you to camp after camp.

So where do great players come from?

Lots of baseball players come from the Dominican Republic, where the weather is warm, the game is popular, and there is a strong economic incentive to “play your way off the island.”

Lots of hockey players come from Russia, where cold weather is a defining part of life.

Lots of basketball players come from the urban centers of America, where players can go to the playground and play “I’ve got winner” four hours.

Then again, tennis players and soccer players and softball players and golfers come from situations where they paid for camps or even private coaches.

Are these players any less tough than the ones who grew up in “gritty” areas?

I have no data, and would be interested in hearing about any studies that are out there.


One comment for “Where Do Great Athletes Come From?”

  1. Hey Mike
    Your article is right on
    Just take a look at the pro boxing game. In the early to mid 1900’s
    who was at the top of the game ?
    (Jews, Irish) who were in the lower economic classes then.
    Recently African-American and Hispanics have dominated boxing.
    Something for the fact of being a bit on the hungry side ?

    Posted by Kevin Reilly | June 29, 2009, 11:53 am

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