Competitive Polymaths

Competitive Polymaths

May 19, 2021Fred

Topics in this Week’s Blog: Competitive Polymaths


  • What is a Polymath?

  • The Worst Competitive Nightmare You Will Ever Face

  • The Antidote: Adaptability with Purpose 

  • The Art of Plasticity

  • The First Step


What is a Polymath?

In Western Europe, the first work to use polymathy was published in 1603 by Johann Von Wowern. Von Wowern defined polymathy as "knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies ... ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them". Polymaths include the great scholars and thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. The category includes those who excelled at several fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts – all at the same time.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was considered a polymath. Leibniz, a German philosopher, mathematician, scientist, diplomat, and polymathis a prominent figure in both the history of philosophy and the history of mathematics. Leibniz embodies the basic tenet of Renaissance humanism: Humans are limitless in their capacity for development and should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. You’ve likely heard the phrase “Renaissance man.” It is often applied to people who seek to develop their abilities in many areas of accomplishment (i.e., intellectual, artistic, social, physical, spiritual, etc.).

You will quickly know when you come up against a polymath in almost any endeavor. These people are conversant in multiple topics. They seem to draw from many of their resources -- without “Googling”. A polymath relies on intrinsic and complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

competitive polymaths

Let me bring this definition into our sports world…

The Worst Competitive Nightmare You Will Ever Face

Today is competition day. You believe you are ready, and off you go. You may be participating in an individual sport or a team event. It could be CrossFit, Track & Field, Jujitsu, Archery, Tennis, Poker, Chess, Rugby, Marbles, etc. It doesn’t matter – any sport will do.

You square off against your challenger. As you begin probing to look for weakness, a wave of desperation washes over you like a Tsunami – a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. “Holy Mackerel Batman!” Your opponent has no flaws. You have no vulnerabilities to attack – nothing. You realize your opponent seems tactically smarter, physically stronger, and has a mental fortitude forged like tempered steel. Your absolute best game is rendered completely ineffective. Your weaknesses have been easily identified. You fear this predator is going to cruelly play with his food – you.

Your opponent is a competitive polymath within your sport. This person has an arsenal of talent, preparation, work ethic, training, nutrition, and more. The polymath is shored up in all areas. Your opponent realizes that in an individual sport, the responsibility for success rests solely on his/her shoulders. And, if the polymath is part of a team, he/she will shoulder the responsibilities of holding a position on that team.

What can you do against a competitive polymath? You have a few choices:

  1. Allow the predator to play with his/her food – you. It will be painful.

  2. Run away from the polymath as fast as you can – if you can. Not helpful for your future development.

  3. Hope that your opponent thinks you are boring and lets you off the hook. Long shot.

  4. Compete at your highest level, even though you know it’s not good enough to win against this polymath. Play your game and pay attention. Take copious notes (essential notebook!). Report on how the match proceeded, your challenger’s tactics, where your own game seemed to fall apart, how your opponent sized you up. Now, go home roll up your sleeves, and get to work.

Coaches Tip:   Opt for #4. It is by far the most fun and the most rewarding!

The Antidote: Adaptability with Purpose 

The choice of how to compete against this foe is palpable. You must level up, raise the bar, raise the floor, put it in gear, push the envelope, step it up – whatever phrase you prefer. Improvement. However, that improvement plan requires a new trait: adaptability with purpose. This is the antidote to the polymath adversary you cannot overcome. This is the only remedy that can work effectively with long-term positive results. It's your turn to become the polymath.

Becoming a competitive polymath requires considerable knowledge in many aspects of your field. It means you are a moving target – an enigma – to your rivals. Your competitors are flummoxed because you continue to become faster with new tactics. You come prepared with improved agility or more stamina. Your opponent can never anticipate you. You outwit, outwork, and outgrow them.

Think of the game of chess. The seasoned player knows that he/she cannot expect to play the exact same game strategy over and over. The savvy chess player understands that he/she will not replicate the same combinations of moves with the same pieces time after time. Each chess match is a unique variation with a multitude of possible outcomes. The more opening combinations, gambit attacks, or ‘en passant’ methods one can employ, the greater the odds of outmaneuvering the opponent. Learning and employing new techniques for specific results is adaptability with purpose.

In tennis, the champions know that their field of competitors possess varied strengths and weaknesses. Each challenger will have distinctive armor and weapons to deploy. Thus, the champion will require malleable strategies for a counter-attack. These tactics and strategies – punches and counter-punches – are the thrill of competing. This fills that emotional outlet, that jolt we crave as players. This is appealing to us. My guess is that if you ask any champion if he/she would continue to find their sport fascinating if they could predict outcomes and do the same thing over and over, the player would say, “Heck no.” (Not sure the bookies would agree).

Losing the uncertainness of outcome and the adaptableness of stratagem negates the very excitement derived from playing. It’s all about solving the puzzle. The process of unraveling the clues to better perform brings plasticity to your training and your game. Intention drives attention. Conviction propels innovation.

Coaches Tip:      As a coach, don’t always solve your student’s problems for them. Allow them to try and fail. Allow them to get up, refresh and find their antidote. Otherwise, it could be detrimental to their problem-solving skills. This is a necessity in any sport.

competitive polymaths

The Art of Plasticity

Champions and title holders in any sport are knowledgeable in a variety of areas. In addition to technique, strength, and sheer talent, champions endure by adapting and cultivating a plethora of skills. For example in tennis, top players will excel with more than their big gun forehand or their explosive serve. There is more to their game – a lot more. They know they can’t coast along relying only on their ‘signature’ shot. Their skills must be many and varied. There must be plasticity in their development. The more adept you are at molding, expanding, and refining all aspects of your game, the better armed you are for a variety of challengers.

In fact, the closer you examine your favorite sports figure, the longer and more impressive the list of weapons in that champion’s arsenal. The off-court activities of a champion (including but not limited to nutrition, exercise, recovery routines, equipment, mindfulness, opponent reconnaissance, playing field/court conditions, and atmospheric/environmental surroundings) are weapons – knowledge and preparation weapons. It is staggering to consider how much ‘homework’ goes into creating a champion. Part of that work is trusting the art of plasticity – the genius of adaptability.

My sport, tennis, is littered with wanna-be champions who expended a disproportionate amount of their training doing repetitive stroke work. This kind of training, while honing that particular stroke, leads to one-dimensional skill sets. This can also result in injuries from artificially isolating body movements. Developing a cache of dependable weapons strengthens the player exponentially. Specializing in one thing will not reap the rewards that are attainable by remaining pliable and adaptable. Frankly, if a player cannot capitalize on a diverse skill set, the inevitable outcome will be one of constant pressure to hide their weaknesses. Top players seek out weakness and exploit it.

Coaches Tip:  Never force a student-athlete to specialize or amplify one skill at the risk of neglecting others. This will weaken their strength and strengthen their weaknesses.

All players understand that a good offense is only part of the equation. Of course, a good defense is just as important. Yet, I propose that developing the art of purposeful adaptability is more important. In general, ‘specializing’ means you are good at one thing. Conversely, ‘adaptability’ allows you to be good at many things. I challenge the concept that to become great at something, we must focus with a dogged single-mindedness on that one thing.

While focus is a wonderful aptitude, without the ability to adapt and acclimate to conditions or competitors, we cannot realize our full potential. A diverse knowledge bank and a growth mindset are indispensable. Use that dogged determination and concentration to specialize in the art of plasticity. Be devoted to transformation.

It’s sad to think about the wanna-be’s career-changing situations. How would some of those athletes have shaped sports history if they had invested in better nutritional preparation or opted to refresh their average backhand instead of relying on their formidable forehand or developed an unmatched off-court discipline or changed a biomechanical flaw to prevent injury? The art of plasticity evaded them.

Tennis greats like Rafa, Roger, and Novak have dominated the sport for over a decade. Why? They are competitive polymaths. They have mastered, in utter completeness, the sport of tennis. Yet, they have the grit to continue to improve and adapt. I cannot comment on these icons of tennis without special recognition to Roger Federer. I have studied all aspects of his game incessantly. I have even studied his eye movements during play. His passion for the sport buoys his longevity. If you’re a tennis fan, I’m sure you agree Roger Federer’s tennis is remarkable. For me, Roger’s inimitability is how he has used diversity and adaptability to positively change the world of tennis and beyond.

The First Step

My recommendation to begin your journey into polymathy is to read and study. Leaders are readers. Research and investigation are mind-expanding. The power of the polymath cannot be achieved without reading. Before you throw the book at me, count the number of books you have read about tennis or your chosen sport? (Magazines don’t’ count.) How many books have you read about related areas that could help advance your understanding of being a top athlete? How many books could you recommend to your peers?

I fear the generations of tomorrow may lack the discipline (and enjoyment) reading can provide. I wonder if reading – really reading and considering a subject – is vanishing in our culture. I see our society becoming one of the bullet points and text abbreviations. Our need for instant gratification is producing a sea of minds that know almost nothing about almost everything.

Being a competitive polymath is about learning how to dive very deep into several subjects. I can find no examples of one-dimensional athletes or entrepreneurs who made it to the top echelon of their field. Top performers are well-versed on many topics. My bet is these top performers are voracious researchers.

Expand your mind into new frontiers. From my vantage point, there is nothing more exciting than to engage with a polymath and learn from them. It’s fascinating! Embrace learning – again or for the first time. Change your definition of learning from scholastic mandates to absorbable discovery. You’re never too cool to learn something new. Cultivate your mind and your life.

It is my greatest hope that you will implement some tips from our Bio-Cultivating and Neural-Cultivating blogs. Further, it is my hope you will be inspired to pass these learnings along to family and friends. We all have people in our lives who have the desire but lack the accurate information to improve their health. It is frustrating to sift through the bombardment of data and the misinformation in today’s world. It’s no wonder some give up in frustration. I believe that we deserve the healthiest choices that honest modern science can offer. It is my mission to help as many of us as possible get and stay healthy.

Body Helix

As a tennis coach myself, I found the compression industry to be unacceptable for our needs. I set out on a journey to help you and your students. I know we all get beat up. The harder we compete, the more we get injured. All compression is not created equal! At Body Helix, we start with an unapologetic obsession for exceptional quality. Our design philosophy is to create modern, innovative gear that surpasses that which is offered in the global marketplace. As a privately held, Veteran-owned, North Carolina company we challenge global leaders to elevate their compression game or step aside. It’s compression gear designed by tennis players for tennis players.


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Fred Robinson National Tennis Champion

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