Published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
February 6, 2019
By Joshua Miner
Throughout history, people have wondered just what it is that makes certain people great. From Alexander to Napoleon, Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, every once in a while someone comes along who shatters the mold. In so doing, they redefine what people thought they knew, putting the world on its head and a setting a new standard for those who follow.
Director Gabe Polsky explores this concept in his most personal film to date, In Search of Greatness, screening at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts February 15th and 16th. With interviews from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice and soccer superstar Pelé, the film is a journey inside that unquantifiable concept of greatness.
In Search of Greatness is a result of Polsky’s own journey, which once saw him playing Division 1 college hockey in Yale. Practicing under a coach who was often closed minded about his style of play, Polsky was unable to live up to his true potential as a player. By the time he became a senior, he had shifted focus away from his major in political science and began to study filmmaking. In the years that followed, he has directed several films including the critically acclaimed Red Army, a look inside the Russian Olympic hockey team. He also directs the popular National Geographic series Genius, which touches on many of the same ideas explored in the film.
“[These are] things I’ve been thinking about my entire life, growing up as an athlete and thinking about what separates the greatest athletes from other people,” Polksy explains about the origins of the film. “You think that other people would be talking about this stuff all the time. But what I realized is that no one really [does]. They sort of miss the point, even though we spend billions of dollars on sports media and analysts. But they never talk about creativity or these types of things. I always felt there was some sort of vacuum.”
By exploring this void in human understanding, Polsky discusses with experts just what sets certain individuals apart. What he finds is that no amount of practice and no amount of work truly translates to greatness. Without that X-Factor, that “something extra”, an individual will never reach those heights. And while you can spend a lifetime trying to define this quality, the only certainty is that it’s not anything you can teach. So just what is that unknown quality that creates the best and the brightest?
Alan Watts, whose philosophy ties the themes of the movie together, is quoted in the movie as saying any truly great individual has an aspect of the spiritual, or mystical, in their approach in life.
This joie de vivre, or joy of life, is what set Gretzky apart from his brothers. Growing up, they all played hockey with the same opportunity to succeed. Both their nature and nurture should have been nearly identical. However, as Gretzky explains in the movie, hockey practice was never a chore for him growing up. He truly loved the game. While his brothers were off at the theater having fun, he stayed home playing hockey. Not because he had to, but because he was infinitely happier practicing his shots than he ever would have been sitting through a movie. What made him stand apart from his brothers was not doing anything particularly different than they were, Gretzky says, but that he was doing it more and doing it because it brought him joy.
In the film, Polsky investigates the lack of unstructured free time for children. One expert cites a study claiming those in a maximum security prison, in some instances, may have more of this unstructured time than some students today. Children whose schedule from sun up to sun down is so meticulously regulated in today’s culture. With this being true for some kids, the harsh reality remains that no amount of structure can teach a child creativity. It’s this creativity, Polsky says, which is the key to greatness.
As Gretzky points out about his own childhood, he and his friends could be dropped off at a pond and their imagination would run wild, the world was in the palms of their hands. They would truly be playing, for the most part using only their imagination. And there was no shortage of playmates. Today, he says, a child may be hard-pressed to know what a parent expects of them when told to “play” on a frozen pond, separated from the smartphones and computers that have captivated the attention of so much of the population today.
Gretzky was taught the importance of creativity at a young age. When his youth hockey team faced a well-coached and superior team, his father told him a lesson that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Their opponents may have been better as a team, but the way in which their coach regulated and taught those kids meant they would never truly be great as individual players. His coaching technique wouldn’t allow for the personal growth needed for players to make it to the next level. His words would be prophetic, as the team ultimately had no players which made it to professional hockey. Gretzky, however, saw himself and 4 of his teammates reach the pros.
“Because people have a misunderstanding about it, they do unhealthy things. Whether it’s coaches or parents, I personally went through that in college,” Polsky relates. “I had a coach that wasn’t very open minded, wasn’t creative. And that was basically the end of my career. I felt that it’s not just me, most other people have similar experiences.”
In professional athletes today, there is a focus on the combine. College athletes are tested under incredible pressure on a number of attributes including speed, strength and jumping ability. While teams look at these numbers to clue them in to the top prospects of the draft, those numbers do little to quantify greatness. The results, however, can be the difference of millions of dollars for players. In some instances, their performance may decide if they ever see the field at all. Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky and Jerry Rice may not have had the fastest 40-yard dash. What they did have, however, far surpassed anything numbers could tell you.
“Gretzky was so different than everybody else, the way he played the game,” Polsky explains. “Instead of trying to be like everybody else, he really embraced his differences. And there’s probably a lot of coaches who would say: ‘Hey, no no. What are you doing? You can’t do that.’”
An over-reliance on quantifying everything, Polsky says, increasingly makes these sports more boring for viewers.
“It just makes the sport less interesting to watch, and homogenizes it,” he says of coaches focusing only on the stats. “There’s people that have no taste, they’ve got a lot of fear, they’ve got no confidence in their own ability to find those people. To use their intuition and intelligence and wisdom to select them. A guy like [football coaches] Bill Walsh, or [Bill] Belichick, or other coaches that see greatness in the atypical person or player. And even teachers. Just because a guy aces his test, does that mean he’s going to be a great writer?”
While Polsky’s film laments the reality of sports standardization, he admits it is a somewhat necessary evil. With so many people trying to be the next Michael Jordan or Tom Brady, coaches need to have some way of separating the wheat from the chaff. As there is no test for greatness, Polsky says that by necessity they need something to point at in order to reassure themselves when choosing one player over another.
With some parents striving to produce hyper-competitive athletes out of their children, the stress is often too great for them to bear. As Polsky examines in the film, constant pressure is fundamentally unhealthy for children. Not only will they be unable to learn the creativity necessary to truly make them great, they will also be sacrificing mental health in exchange for an unshakable notion that just one more hour of practice will be the deciding factor in their greatness.
“There [are] people who buy into this sort of ‘rat-race’ thing, but it just creates unhealthy people, and not well-rounded. They know nothing, they’re machines,” Polsky laments, pointing to this as the source for so many mental health issues today. “This film is about life and mental health just as much as it’s about sports and greatness. You see in society these trends which create unhealthy kinds of lifestyles. When you look at the greatest athletes, when you’re allowed to be open and sort of free and just experiment, you can grow and understand yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. You can try things out, you’re more healthy. You’re free. You’re not stressing yourself to death.”
And while this intangible aspect of creativity unites the greats together, there is also an element of circumstance, or luck, which propels many to the next level. The stars all align, and people happen to be at the right place at the right time. While this may be a somewhat smaller aspect of greatness, oftentimes those at the forefront of their fields will admit to a confluence of events proceeding those moments of greatness which later defined them to the world.
This question of nature versus nurture has been debated fiercely through the years, with philosophers and psychologists no closer to choosing sides in their quest for an answer. When attempting to solve this dilemma, it tends to be a bit of both which define the successes or failures of many.
A common theme for icons in science such as Albert Einstein or soccer legends like Garrincha, was the embrace of their differences. They saw their unique circumstances as an advantage rather than succumbing to it as a weakness. A poor boy in Brazil, Garrincha was born with a crooked spine, one leg shorter than the other and knees which bent in opposite ways. While this would have made even mundane tasks like walking difficult for many, he not only became one of the best soccer players in history, he used his deformity as a source of strength. In so doing, he introduced a brand-new style of dribbling years ahead of its time that left the soccer world stunned.
As the film explores, when a generation produces someone truly great, they aren’t replicating whoever was the best before they came along. Only matching their achievements and being just a little bit better than they were. On the contrary, they smash the mold and redefine what people thought they knew. They are not simply setting the bar higher, they are producing a whole new set of parameters which will then define a new standard for all who follow. A standard which will be set on its head again as one day someone even greater comes along.
Alan Watts believed it was imperative not to do something for a reward or for a certain result, for instance a gold medal in the Olympics. Those who are doing only for the sake of some sort of prize, aren’t truly doing it at all. Only by losing yourself in your actions, what is known in Eastern philosophy as karma yoga, can you tap into the mystical part of greatness. One must strive to do what they are doing for its own sake, without thought for the ultimate fruits of their labor. Wayne Gretzky didn’t play hockey as a child only because he wanted the Stanley Cup. He played hockey because he loved the game. While everyone may have their own motivation for excelling in their field, one simple thing separates the mediocre from the truly great. The ones who become legends and icons aren’t doing it because a parent or a coach forced them to, they do it because they could never imagine doing anything else. They do it because it is their destiny to be great.
In Search of Greatness premiers 7 pm Friday, February 15th at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. There will also be a showing at the same time on Saturday, and a Q & A with director Gabe Polsky will be held following one of the screenings, to be determined. For more information contact the Lake Placid Center for the Arts at (518)-523-2512. Tickets are $10.