The Great Filter

In science, a cool and somewhat terrifying concept to think about is the Fermi Paradox or the great filter. Take a minute to watch the video on the link, if you don’t have the time the simple point is that maybe the reason we haven’t contacted any intelligent life in the universe it because at some point the other life forms disappeared (died off, killed each other, etc.) and so were filtered out.

Sport is like this in that at each level you filter out athletes of lower quality (hopefully you don’t kill them). This builds off of my previous post about genetics and hard work. Think about how many kids in this country (Merica) play basketball at some point growing up. Only fraction of them will play in high school, and a fraction of that will be the starters on their high school team. Only a small number will be selected and play AAU, much less lead their teams. From there the numbers split down by only a select number will play in college, specifically a small number at division one schools, and even smaller still when you get up to the professional ranks. At the end of the day you are left with less than a thousandth of a percent (.001%) play in the pros. Of those pros only a small number will be hall of fame members and a handful will go down as legends (think Michael Jordan).

bball graph
This is a bar graph of how many people play basketball in the world and then how many go up and play at the next level.
log bball graph
This is a logarithmic graph, so notice how the numbers rapidly decrease with how many people are involved each time you go up a level. Also, how you can now actually see taht some people do go up levels where before it looked like nearly no one

I’m sure none of this happens to be news to anyone reading this. Each level of sport where you have athletes try out for the team (or be recruited), there are only so many spots. So you cut down the numbers of athletes at each level. How many levels of the filter an athlete passes through depends on two things really at the end of the day; their genetics and their ability to work hard. When you watch the Olympics in a few weeks, notice how the faces of the athletes change, but the bodies of the athletes in any one sport closely resemble each other (all the swimmers are tall with long arms, all the gymnasts are short, all the sprints are jacked and lean, etc.).

Gaming the system

In order to progress to the top of any sport it is important to look at the variables that are common in success and how many people compete in that area. So now take a look at yourself, due to your body type there might be one sport or another that you are genetically gifted for, or is not that competitive.

Genetic gifts

If you happen to have some variance from what average people are like (height, weight, etc.) this is where you find your sport. Say you are incredibly small, things like being a jockey, gymnast, diver, coxen, etc. are good options. If you are really tall sports like basketball, volleyball, and reaching the tallest shelf are now open to you. Say you have long limbs and a short torso if your frame is narrow this is a good build for a distance runner. If you have a wide frame you are more predisposed to be a thrower, goalie (especially if tall), or deadlifter. If you have a long torso and short limbs sports like wrestling, Olympic lifting, and bench pressing you’ll have an advantage. This is an incredibly short list of the possible combinations you might have, but it gives you an idea that maybe you have something you are meant to be great at, you just need to search it out.

Speaking of genetic gifts and hard work, here are some of our athletes at EKU that I’m lucky to work with.

Go hipster on your sport

Sports like sprinting, basketball, soccer are super competitive, pretty much every healthy human being in this planet has tried to race another person so after a while only those who are successful early (often due to genetics) make it to the top. In basketball and soccer there are so many people in the world that are exposed to those sports, those that are successful truly are the cream of the crop. However, sports like tennis aren’t as competitive from a sheer numbers approach (not saying tennis isn’t a challenging sport, just that not as many people are exposed to it). Heck, I played water polo in high school in the Midwest which is pretty obscure there.

So find a sport that not as many people play. It is easy to be the world’s best when only 100 people in the world play it, compared to the sprinting analogy where you figure you are stacked up against just under 10 billion people. Now you might not have any gifts or want to go obscure, so I’ll write the rest in a form that assumes you have your sport (or someone you know has theirs).

Working hard in your area

If you have the potential to play in the pro ranks, but never work hard enough you might not even make it to the point where you play in high school. This is where coaches like to use the “Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team” cliché, which turns out with his genetics when you then start working hard the rest is history. On the other side you might have the work ethic of a champion, but if you don’t have the genetics then you won’t be playing in college much less possibly in high school.

Ok, this once again isn’t really anything that ground breaking, but the key factor I want to touch on is you have to not only work hard, but you have to work smart. I’m lucky enough to work with college athletes and a number of them get a chance to play professionally. These are motivated, hard working individuals and I wish for the best for them, but what I really want to convey to them is simply this:

Each time you pass through a filter you know one thing; that you did enough to get to that level.

This doesn’t mean that you are doing what you need to do to get to the next level, or be successful on that one.

This means some of the athletes received their college scholarship from just having great potential, but that’s often not enough to make it to the next level. Maybe they never had to pay attention to what they ate before, but now the game is changing. This is where I want my athletes to take a moment and audit themselves, what are they not doing? Have they never taken the weight room seriously? Have they never tried to eat a good diet? Have they always drank and partied too hard? By just changing a few of these variables this might take them from being just on the team, to being one of the best players. Take them from being the best player, to playing in the pros. In order to pass each filter you have to be good enough to make it, and maintaining the status quo is frequently not what is going to make the difference.

Now those changes do require some type of work and discipline that some people just don’t want to do. That’s fine, but understand that if you truly want to be the best that you can be, you are going to have to keep looking for areas to improve. I recently was lucky enough to see some old friends who are PTs (physical therapists) and they were kind enough to point out how I’m jacked up. Not jacked, but jacked up. I need to work on my mobility in certain areas and muscle function so that I can be healthier and in turn be able to train and compete on the level I want.

So looking at your own (or your athlete’s) current performance level, take a quick inventory of all of the things that you are doing (not in order of importance):

1) Training optimally (which is different from maximally or minimally)

2) Recovering optimally

3) Fueling optimally

4) Skill optimization

5) Tactic optimization

So given the sport or activity that you are trying to succeed at, which of these are you doing well? Which of these have you not put any effort at all in to? Those that you haven’t done any work with are likely going to give you the greatest return on investment. Do keep in mind what elements of the sport are most important. Some sports like powerlifting, marathon running, or bodybuilding require little skill in comparison to sports like wrestling, golf, and tennis. Notice, I didn’t say what was easy to do, because the first group of sports require optimal training, recovery, and fueling. So athletes in those sports should make sure they are prioritizing what is really important. “Sports” like golf require huge levels of skill, but don’t require a great deal of physical training, recovery optimization, or fueling strategies so those athletes should emphasize what is the most important element for them. Noted are just a few sports graphically displayed for the importance of each part of their performance done in about five minutes by me. Don’t look at them and figure that they are hard and fast rules, but do try and understand the basic concept and think deeply about your sport.

bball pie chartpower lifting pie chart

marathon pie chart
All of these are meant to be simple examples, not a hard and fast structure to live and die by.

In the realm of nutrition my friend Mike Israetel has put together a great chart describing what elements are the most important for diet success (gaining or losing weight), it is important to apply the same logic to each area listed above as to what makes the biggest difference with improving in each area. Expensive devices like a Normatec are nice, but investing in a better bed and bedding will have a greater impact on your recovery. Buying some weight loss pill might help a bit, but tracking your calories and keeping yourself in a deficit will make a greater impact on weight loss.

At the end of the day getting a little bit more sleep, one more healthy meal, or a slightly better workout might only add another 2% to your performance, but at the highest level of sport that can make the difference between league minimum, or going home and giving up on the dream. Look at yourself and talk with your athletes about what they can do to optimize their performance with finding the holes in their performance.

Wrapping up

So depending on your genetics you might have a natural advantage in some sport, but nothing is guaranteed. You still need to work hard, and more importantly you need to work smart on the areas you are lacking. For the final post in this brief series I’ll get in to how you can apply this to your life. Please like, share, or comment on this and my other posts. As always thanks for taking the time to read this. This whole thing has been a lot of fun for me and I appreciate the feedback that I’ve been getting. If there is something you want me to write on late please let me know.


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