Measuring Perfection


We all wait for Super Bowl Sunday, March Madness, and The World Series. We have apps on our phones to follow every collegiate and professional game. We track every star athlete. There is no doubt that modern sports play a significant role in our daily lives, but where do these sports stem from? The most basic foundation of all sports, both modern and ancient, is the exhibition of a set of skills. If sports are, at their root, an exhibition of skills, and skill can be mastered, then comes a subsequent question: does perfection in the sport world exist? Comparing more modern sports to those that are much older can provide some insight towards the answer to this question and may provide some clarity to the origin, pursuit, and existence of perfection in sports.

The equestrian world has been established much longer than any modern sport today. It is an industry rooted in necessity. Every equestrian sport known today developed from two basic uses of the horse: ranch work and war. Horses were bred for certain characteristics, which would later become the markers of a breed, as well as trained to perform certain maneuvers corresponding to the ways in which the horse was used. Although there is a large commercial aspect to the sport, the modern equestrian sport world stems from mastering a set of practical skills.

In contrast, modern sports such as football, baseball, and basketball have a younger history and non-practical roots. Football, basketball, baseball; all of these sports and their corresponding leagues have been formed around competition and entertainment. As competitions between tribes, leagues, schools, and individuals, the main goal of modern sports is dominating over an opponent, often with a crowd watching. Modern sport competitions were, and are still, held for the purpose of establishing a hierarchy within a league or group, and entertaining a crowd.

            The English disciplines, dressage, showjumping, eventing, etc., are all rooted in the war horse. These horses needed to be agile, strong, and intimidating. They would carry their riders across the country through war while overcoming natural obstacles along the way. From this concept we derive showjumping, and the cross-country portion of eventing: jumping over a course of set fences or natural obstacles such as logs, rivers, and hills. Dressage judges the way a horse performs a set of specific movements. These movements are completely natural to the horse and were once used to intimidate the opponent on the battle field. Below are URL links to video of these events.

1.      Totilas & Edward Gal World Equestrian Games Grand Prix Freestyle to music-

2.      London 2012 Show Jumping Test-

      The Western disciplines derive from the characteristics and skills a horse would need to perform ranch work. The working cow horse competitions exhibit a horse’s ability to steer a calf without the rider roping it. Cutting horses show off their ability to separate one cow from the herd successfully for a certain amount of time. Reining, similar to dressage, is a set of movements that a horse may have used during ranch work. Below are URL links to videos of these events.

1.      2002 NRHA Futurity Open Championship- Wimpys Little Step-

2.       2010 AQHA World Show Working Cow Horse-

3.       2011 Houston Rodeo Professional Cutting Horse Competition-

The practical foundation and extensive history of equine sports has allowed the industry to develop ideals and ways to measure them. Each breed of horse has an ideal- a perfect look, conformation, and personality. Additionally, each discipline has specific judging criteria and possibly a points and penalties system. This allows for both subjective and objective ways to measure perfection.  Given this, we can believe that there is a possibility of finding a perfect horse for each discipline or breed.

The Quarter horse, for example, is a breed rooted in ranching and has an ideal conformation, or build of body, and personality. The ideal Quarter horse has a forty five degree angle of the hip and shoulder, a muscular body, thick girth, and a large, expressive head. They should be calm, obedient, and loyal.

Both Western and English disciplines have ideals or perfect scores. Reining, a Western discipline, has the horse and rider perform a set of movements that they are judged on. Each movement is judged individually and any deviation or error will accumulate penalty points. For example, in reining the horse is required to spin, crossing its front hooves and pivoting on one back hoof. Penalty points can be given if the horse spins even 1/8 of a circle over or under, or if the back hoof does not stay planted during the spins. Dressage, an English discipline, is similar in that the horse and rider must perform a set of movements. These movements are judged individually, and although there is not a specific penalty point system, a score is awarded for each movement and combined for an overall score out of 100.

Ideals in the equestrian world must have it all: the high scores, impeccable build, and desirable demeanor, but what about modern sports? Modern sports are still developing ideals for their athletes in both physical and personal characteristics, the latter being more historic and subjective.

Modern sports have been based on the desire for participation, entertainment, and competition, not necessity. People play sports because they love to. Through many stories and underdog games, we have seen personal characteristics play a large role in what makes a perfect athlete. One of the most famous coaches that exemplified what kind of personality is most desirable was Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi. Lombardi required “absolute dedication and effort from his players”. He coached players to give their hearts and souls to the game, to desire to win, and above all else, to strive for perfection. The legendary Packers coach demanded personality traits that are expected of star athletes: dedication, loyalty, and ambition. Although personality traits are very individualized and the need for them is subjective, they have carried weight in trying to determine a perfect player in the modern sport world. As seen with the equestrian world, both industries require certain traits from their participants, such as motivation and loyalty.

But the will of the player alone is not enough to make him perfect; he needs to have the stats and physical characteristics that set them apart from others, much like the competition criteria and body conformation ideals of the equestrian sport industry. Statistics are kept in all modern sports. The first box score in baseball appeared in the New York Herald in 1845. Statistics became our first measurement of tangible perfection in modern sports. Perfect players have mastered all the skills necessary to play their position. Whether they hold the highest batting average or throw the most touchdowns, modern athletes have a set of criteria that can be measured against and judged to be the best. The biggest difference between ideas of statistical perfection in modern and equine sports is that modern sports statistics compare athletes side by side, whereas equine sports compare athletes to a specific standard. Athletes change every year, even every game, so the best quarter back one week may not be the best the next week. This means that even with published statistics, perfection in modern sports is still not concrete.

Finally, although a very young concept in modern sports, physical characteristics can help measure the perfect athlete. These physical characteristics can include height, weight, and body type. More and more people are analyzing the physical characteristics of excellent players, such as arm strength and accuracy in the NFL, or speed and agility. Despite the new development of perfect physical characteristics in modern sports, the presence or lack of these traits do not guarantee the mastering of certain position skills. The same could be said for equine sports. Being ideally built for a certain discipline does not guarantee any talent or success. Although these ideals are present and important in modern and ancient sports, they are more underdeveloped when considering what makes a perfect athlete in the modern world.

These traits and attitudes have permeated even the youth sport world and are most accurately, and theatrically, stated in movie Friday Night Lights where Coach Gaines challenged his Permian Panthers football team: “Can you be perfect?”

So we know what it takes to be number one, but do any perfect athletes really exist? Are there athletes who really have it all? There may be no concrete answer to this question and would also depend on what sport you examine. For example, Wimpys Little Step could arguably be the best reining horse. He accumulated a high amount of competition earnings, has a desirable personality, and is also siring champion horses. One of only a handful of horses to be evaluated as being worth of five million dollars, and with the winnings to back it up, one could argue that he was the perfect reining horse. As discussed earlier, different disciplines have different ideals. While Wimpys Little Step could be the perfect reining horse, he certainly would not be the perfect race horse.

Likewise, we may say that Michael Jordan was the perfect basketball player. He demonstrated a mastery of skills, perhaps unmatched by any other player, complete plays with incredible leaping skills, score points from all over the floor, and make smart decisions for his team. Also known to be “ultra-demanding to his teammates, ruffling more than a few feathers with his critique”, he exemplified the personality traits historically established by Lombardi ( Seeming to have it all, it could be argued that Michael Jordan is an example of the perfect basketball player.

Perfect has so many meanings, yet it is something we strive for. With so many inputs that make up ‘perfection’ it is hard to believe that it exists in anything. Delving into the origins of certain sports has provided us with standards and traits that were required to complete the original purpose of the sport. As sports developed, certain ideals developed as well. Physical and personal characteristics must be met to be considered perfect in any one area. Through examining these physical and emotional aspects, we might be able to argue that perfection is attainable. Of course, this idea of perfection would change depending on what sport is being examined. There may be an athlete out there that has it all and is perfect at his or her sport; the development of standards, statistics, and ideal characteristics may one day allow us to measure the perfect athlete.




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More stories by Rebecca R.