Sporting Genius

A quick and dirty guide to why we love the best athletes in the world

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

You know it when you see it.

It's the fadeaway jumper from Jordan or LeBron.

The putt from Tiger.

The last lap from Katie Ledecky.

Serena in motion.

It's "sporting genius."

In the research I'm doing for an upcoming podcast episode (more on the development of the podcast soon), I stumbled upon an article attempting to define "sporting genius." What I found was fascinating.

I've had the chance to see glimpses of genius up close and personal. I remember interviewing for the Raptors, watching an undersized guard in Fred VanVleet dribbling under the net avoiding bigs but looking like he was hardly exerting any effort. It was like he had a completely different sense of the game and what was possible than the other guys, moving 2x his speed but delivering 1/2 the impact. 

What you learn when you spend time in these environments is that, as the fans know, hours and hours of training allow you to hit the big shot. But that's not ALL it takes. Practice and skill are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for genius.

Genius is more than being an expert.

Breaking Down Genius

Sporting genius is a combination of having the right physical abilities for a specific sport + knowing what skills to use in the varying contexts of the sport itself. The research breaks that down into 3 components.


If you want to go beyond the average to elite and exceptional, you've got to be creative. In the case of genius, creativity is about seeing options when others don't, taking a more flexible approach to performance, implementing new moves, and seeing more into the future about what is possible than your peers.

It's Jordan taking off from the free-throw line when nobody thought it was possible. The Fosbury Flop. 

At the highest levels of sport, everyone has the physical and tactical ability to perform. People emerge as the best because they surface new ways to succeed, and in some cases, redefine the norms of the game.

Take a look at Steph Curry's influence over NBA shooting patterns, for example:

Creativity, in the case of genius, is just the consequence of being an excellent performer in an environment uniquely suited to you as a performer. Defined this way, everyone has the potential to be a creative genius - if they can find the right environment and role to play. This is one reason why the best coaches seek to put players in their best positions, not necessarily the position the athlete is supposed to play.


Constructive risk-taking is a hallmark of genius. It means being able to try a new shot, deploy a new technique, or otherwise try something unconventional in service of winning - and having the right fit between your skills and the sports environment to make those risks pay off.

In a sport like tennis, that risk might be coming and playing at the net. In basketball, it might be attempting a new move or taking on an opponent in a way that wasn't in the game plan. In soccer, it's the long run that puts a player out of position to defend but just might put them in position to score.

We see this part of the genius equation from coaches, too. It's the Philly Special, extra point behind the back flip, new side out-of-bounds play that leads to a score nobody expected. 

Risk-taking fits as part of the genius equation because it's where the small margins for victory, at the highest level, can be exploited. It's hard to win constantly playing it safe. If you want to have a chance at reaching an uncommon level, you have to be comfortable trying unconventional moves (within the bounds of the game, obviously) to get there. 


What makes that comfort with the unconventional possible is an unparalleled level of self-belief. For sporting genius to emerge, you have to believe that you can do nearly anything on the playing field. You have to believe in your ability to innovate, be creative, succeed when taking risks, and execute at a level that others simply can't match.

For geniuses, this self-belief is grounded in the reality of their experience. This isn't about having delusions about what's possible or what you're capable of. Instead, it's about recognizing how your gifts, when acted on consistently, can lead to the results you want. As a result, sporting geniuses don't waver in their confidence after a failure or mistake. Instead, they persist. They get up and try again.

The Foundation of Genius: Performative Fit

These three elements - risk-taking, self-belief, and creativity - manifest in genius only when the athlete's capabilities are realized in an ideal way in the context of their specific sport. In other words, genius is the ability to maximize your chances of winning, by finding the sport where your specific skills best match the competitive demands of the game.

What's cool about this view is that genius can be developed. If you work hard, develop a broad and flexible range of tools you can use to win, and find novel ways to apply them that give you the best odds, you can be a genius. Genius is all about simply knowing what skills to deploy in what context gives you the best chance to win.

That level of knowledge requires intense practice and hard work, self-reflection, and feedback from a great support system - but it's possible, for all of us. You just have to find the environment where you're best suited and work as hard as you can to get the most out of yourself in that space.

If you've done that, genius is on the table for you.

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