Meritocracy in Sport: Does old fashioned hard work still pay off? #RESM 5333

FLW Tour Pro Randy Blaukat — photo credit: Megabass America

In a recent article entitled Hard Work Doesn’t Always Equal Success, written by FLW Tour veteran Randy Blaukat, the notion of meritocracy in professional fishing was brought into question. In the article Blaukat acknowledges that in a sport like fishing, hard work is only part of it. He states “the amount of pure physical work and effort you put into pro fishing does not equate to success”, a contradictory notion to most. No other athletes undergo the emotional toll, personal financial risk, or the amount of uncontrolled variables that professional fishermen(and women) do. The fact is, the hard work that is done in fishing is more psychological than physical. Much like a game of chess, it takes a toll mentally more so than physically both in preparation and in performance.

It’s a common narrative in American society, this idea of meritocracy — the idea that those who are the most talented or work the hardest will rise to the top tier in their field. Perhaps sport is one of the only remaining societal structures that is truly meritocratic. Our political system runs on popularity, the hiring adage “its not what you know, its who you know” seems to be pervasive in even the most competitive of industries, and social mobility is a pipe dream.

But what about sports? What about the feel good stories like Rudy and Rocky?

Physical Sports

Photo credit: Doug Mills — New York Times

The majority of sports seem to follow the model of meritocracy, as Dr. Arthur Ogden would agree. He tells a story of a football player who was raised in poverty, went to a modest college, and then went on to play in a Super Bowl for the Broncos all because of his ability and hard work. There exist examples like this throughout football, including most notably the Greatest American to ever live, Tom Brady.

Physical sports like football, boxing as Ogden also mentions, and mixed martial arts (MMA) seem to be the most obvious examples of hard work or at least “want to” paying off in a meritocratic way. You train, you outwork your opponent, and you beat them in the ring or on the field. Conor McGregor might be one of the most polarizing and dominant MMA superstars to ever step into the ring. His training regimen is assuredly brutal and demands the most out of him. Such training has paid huge dividends for the featherweight’s career and he may now be in position for the most lucrative fight of his life against Floyd Mayweather.

There’s no talent here, this is hard work. This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equal as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that [is] that. I am not talented, I am obsessed.” — Conor McGregor

Psychological Sports

Professional fishing isn’t necessarily the most physical of sports, and while it does require unappreciated levels of both physical and psychological endurance, it’s not in the same category as these new age gladiator sports.

However, there is a different kind of “work” and effort being done in professional fishing. Tournament fishing is gambling. Professionals pay $10,000 per tournament entry. TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS gets you in the door. They are not guaranteed to make that money back. The entry fee doesn’t even touch the thousands of dollars invested in boats, trucks, and other equipment. Not to mention the families that rely on these professionals to make a living chasing a creature that changes with the wind — literally.

It’s not physical preparation, its not hours on the water, its the mental game that makes champions in this sport. Gerald Swindle, the most recent B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, is famous for his positive mental attitude (PMA) slogan. Swindle contests that PMA is the difference between the average angler and professionals.

Swindle’s 2016 AOY Award Presentation, from www.bassmaster.com.

The Space Between

The common thread that seems to connect both physical and psychological sports is in fact hard work. The method in which premier athletes do the work looks very different though. McGregor, Brady, and Swindle would agree that attitude is important, but to McGregor and Brady their body is their livelihood. Swindle will tell you he is nothing without the space between his ears.

In short, yes. Meritocracy is alive and well in the world of sports. Professional athletes, regardless of their sport know exactly what it takes to perform at the highest level and they know that it does take hard work to get there.The psychology or necessary mindset of success does not seem to change from sport to sport, however the degree to which psychology plays a role in the outcome of a sport certainly appears to be the difference. Understanding what it takes psychologically requires the hardest work of all, and those that have mastered it like McGregor, Brady, and Swindle have certainly risen to the top.