Athleticism vs. Skill: Which is Better?

When it comes to fitness, there are two important concepts to discuss that are often at odds with one another. The first is the concept of athleticism and general physical preparedness (GPP), and the second is skill and specific physical preparedness (SPP).

Athleticism encompasses the broad spectrum of movement capacity, hand-eye coordination, and proprioception necessary to succeed in both sports and life in general. Skill exists on a narrow band in this spectrum; it is hyper-focused for greater success in just one or only a few disciplines. Instead of going an inch deep and a mile wide, skill goes a mile deep and an inch wide.

The continuum from athleticism/GPP to skill/SPP is akin to the continuum from a liberal arts college education to PhD level study. As you go through higher education, your academic resources become increasingly more committed to the study of a very specific topic. Eventually, you achieve a level of knowledge that’s so narrowly focused on a particular field that you’re considered an expert in that narrow focus.

In this case, the term “athlete” can actually be a little bit of a misnomer. Athletes are actually experts with very specific skill sets that are fine-tuned for success in their sport, especially at an elite level. They are also performance freaks who can run, throw, kick, move, and endure better than the rest of us–at least when it comes to their sport.

To this point, Alex Viada said it best in this Facebook post. Michael Jordan is very good when it comes to “basketball-ing,” Serena Williams when it comes to “tennis-ing,” and CrossFitters at “crossfit-ing.” These athletes have hyper-adapted their athleticism and skill for elite success at their sport. Very rarely do we see people excel and become great in multiple professional sports.

Sports performance is the combination of athleticism and skill. Every sports requires both to different degrees. For example, I would consider baseball and golf to be sports that require a higher level of skill than most others, but let’s face it. You can get away with not looking physically fit or “athletic” in these disciplines and still be successful. Furthermore, you can also get away with being proficient in just a few narrow bands of overall movement capacity to be good at baseball and golf. Typically, these athletes exhibit much more mobility and rotational ability than other athletes, which helps them swing, hit, and throw hard.

This isn’t to say that baseball players and golfers aren’t athletic; they just express their athleticism in different ways. If I had to elaborate, I’d simply differentiate between athleticism and skill and say that they are much more skilled in those narrow bands of overall movement capacity.

I also spoke about the interplay between athleticism and skill in my opinion piece yesterday about McGregor vs. Mayweather. Even with a great fighting base, it is hard and very rare that someone can overcome superior skill in the subset of boxing.

So when it comes to fitness, is it better to be athletic or skilled?

In almost all instances you HAVE to have good GPP before anything else. Think about CrossFit athletes. They are good at CrossFit, but likely not elite-level at gymnastics, weightlifting, swimming, or the many other disciplines it incorporates. Arguably though, they have a high level of general physical preparedness that most of us in the general population should aspire to. It’s common for people to mock them and say that they’re very good at just “working out,” but is that really a bad thing?

Rich Froning does CrossFit…and his body is proof of that.

Fitness almost always moves from general to specific; it is rare for it to move the other way around. This study from O’Keefe et al. confirms this. It shows that practicing the broad skill of overarm throwing transfers to badminton and the javelin throw, but that there’s no transfer between the latter two skills .

When we see people take up specific athletic disciplines without acquiring a broad base in GPP and movement capacity first, we see a higher likelihood of injury.

Therein lies the problem. When it comes to fitness, most people don’t have a base in GPP to begin with!

Without a base in GPP, it is actually harder to get fit and stay fit. Trying to be physically active without a good base in GPP is like starting a 100m dash 10 meters behind the starting line. This scientific perspective from Stodden et al. explains how motor skill competence is a primary underlying mechanism that promotes engagement in physical activity. If you build your movement base while you’re young, it’s much easier to access this movement capacity to stay physically active in your later years.

So what does this mean? Even if you weren’t moving around and staying active in your youth, it’s never too late to get started. Learn to move well first and build your GPP before you even think about specializing and building skills in specific sports disciplines. Focus on primary movement patterns like the squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge, gait, and rotation. Learn to train and lift weights properly, and that athleticism will carry over whether you’re trying to build skills for weightlifting, powerlifting, tennis, golf, baseball, or whatever athletic pursuit you take up as a hobby!

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.