Updated: Sep 3, 2020
I can’t really give myself the title of athlete anymore without putting a big fat EX in front of it. But, I still find myself thinking about the old days a lot, especially during the summer months when I am training elite hockey players back in the hockey hot-bed of Saskatoon. It is like their energy shoots me back to the days when I had the same level of aspiration. I don’t think too much about my own performance anymore, but more so the different types of athletes I played with and observed closely. I like to think about what worked, what didn’t, who played pro, and who ended up reminiscing like me.
I have come to the conclusion that in sports, there are essentially three different types of competitors that you will see. I think this would be true in any sport I have been involved in whether it is hockey, lacrosse, or Crossfit, and even Brazillian Jiu Jitsu (although my experience here is quite limited). I might even venture to say some version of these archetypes exist in academia, business, politics, etc. (Anyone wanna pick an archetype for Trudeau?)
The three archetypes I believe you will find are The Grinder, The Natural, and The Pro. Now like anything else there are going to be exceptions, and some people will have qualities of each, etc. I am generalizing hard here, so of course you can poke holes in it, but this is a pretty good idea of how it looks.
Who They Are
The grinder is the guy or girl on the team who wants to work the hardest. They get off on it. They take pride in working harder and more than anyone else. They give their all, truly. Generally this person is either under-sized, under-talented, or under-experienced. They make teams or the next level because of sheer-will, and work ethic. This is essentially the athletic version of the Napoleon Syndrome. They have something to prove, and are generally tough, gritty people. Grinders usually put big targets on the heads of Naturals.
How They Do
This Grinder is usually not the best player on the team. At higher levels they are essentially on the roster to bring up the level of competition in practise and inspire their teammates, but are probably not relied on by the coach to get things done in the game. They will be playing a level/league above their skill-level. Depending on how resilient this person is they may burn out, or get injured. This guy/girl is a role-player and likely never going to be at the elite of their sport, even though they’ll be in the mix.
However, popular culture loves to promote these people to hero level, so we think that they reach the top more than they actually do.
Examples from popular culture:
Rudy, Rocky Balboa.
Who They Are
The Natural wakes up at 6’3, 200# at the age of 18 even though they’ve never lifted a weight. Skill comes easy and they’ve never really been injured. They likely have an older sibling who played the same sport or a parent who is an experienced athlete. Things have been so easy in sports for so long, they don’t even really know how to try hard. They have been the best player on every team they’ve been on since they can remember. They are so used to being the best and winning, that they sometimes quit easily when things get tough. They usually don’t try hard in practise. Naturals find Grinders annoying.
How They Do
The Natural makes every team they try out for. It is not a question. But, when they finally get to a level where their skill doesn’t trump everyone else's they under-perform and often develop bad attitudes. They don’t like being challenged and don’t know how to work hard enough to be successful at the highest levels. Because of their high skill they will stick around, do as much as they have to to stay in the game, and continue working as little as possible relying on talent alone. Some people are so talented and gifted that they can be at the absolute top of their game despite having no work ethic.
Examples from popular culture:
Booby Miles, Ricky Bobby ;)
Who They Are
The pro is easy to describe. The pro is both a natural and a grinder. When you combine the immense work ethic of the Grinder with the immense natural ability of the Natural, you have something special. They have the talent to be lazy and succeed if they wanted, but they want to win so bad, that they work as hard as someone who needs to make up for lack of skill with hard-work. This person works hard in practise, in games, eats right, sleeps right, and lives and breathes their craft. This person is usually so “meta” that they empower their teammates to be better athletes. They are highly resilient, laser-focused, and very hard to rattle mentally.
How They Do
I don’t need to say much here. These are the olympians. The Sidney Crosby’s. The Brian Shaw’s. The Annie Thorisdottir’s. The Hayley Wickenheiser’s. These are people who win and win because of talent and hard-work. They have ability to make the incredible look routine, but still make the basics part of their routine.
Now when it comes to teams, I believe strongly in one thing. The best teams are those on which the best players are the hardest working. “Best” here, means gifted. If you have a team full of Naturals who don’t want to work, they will be trounced by a team of Pros and maybe even a team of Grinders. If the team-leaders are Pros and promote a team culture which reflects the mentality of the Grinder it will lead to the Naturals having to fall suit and become Pros or quit and get surpassed by a Grinder whose role and energy will be embraced on such a team. Teams can reflect either of the archetypes if the critical mass of the team fits one of these archetypes, so as with individuals, teams of Pros are going to be the most successful because they have the talent to succeed and the work ethic to make sure it happens.
The Sliding Scale
What makes things really interesting is that different levels of competition exist and it changes the way these archetypes interact. At high levels we have a backwards sliding scale, and at the community level we have a forward sliding scale.
When you take these archetypes and apply them to the highest level, things get a bit weird. Take the NHL for instance. It is likely that the 4th line Grinders are actually Pros, because there are no Grinders on the team. However there might be a couple extreme Naturals still hanging around. At the highest professional levels of sports, for the most part you are witnessing the performances of Pros from the leading scorer to the penalty-killer. The skill level is so high that Pros appear to be Grinders and have to embrace that role If you don’t believe me, look at the resumes of some fourth liners on NHL teams. There will be lots who played at world-juniors and dominated in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL.
When you take things back to your own town or city, the scale slides again but in reverse. It is possible that the best athlete in your city who you think is a Pro or Natural is actually a Grinder, but since the level of competition in your area is low, they have the appearance of being gifted like a Natural. So, in your neighbourhood the sliding scale might make a Grinder look like a Pro.
A great example of a team of Pros and the “Sliding Scale” occurred at this years World Junior Hockey Championships. Team Canada won the tournament when Tyler Steenbergen netted the game winner late in the third. Steenbergen was the 13th forward and had seen very limited ice-time in the tournament. In the final game Steenbergen had played only 32 seconds in the first period, then 2:45 in the second and 3:59 in the third. He had found himself in the role of Grinder. But this is only because of the sliding scale. Before the tournament Steenbergen was leading the WHL in points. This Grinder who was 13th on the depth chart is in fact a highly skilled and capable Pro. When you can have the leading scorer of the WHL embracing limited ice-time and his temporary Grinder role for the tournament, that is when you have a team full of Pros, and you do something like win the World Junior’s.
Now I don’t want you to think that if you are Grinder, you shouldn’t try. Quite the contrary. The beauty of “going for it” is that you might not even realize you are a grinder until you’ve reached a level of competition higher than you ever thought possible. If you have an athletic career that ends at a level where you end up finding out that you are a Grinder, then I believe you had a very successful career. You were able to push yourself to the limits and can leave the game/sport knowing that you really did all that you could have. You over-performed the whole way through. It takes a special type of person to be able to perform at this level of output for so long. Perhaps it is at this point you will finally be able to appreciate how special the Pros really are.
Who I will call out though, are the Naturals. If you spend your career getting by on your talent alone, don’t be upset when it runs out, or you are sitting on the bench while a smaller, less-skilled Grinder is taking the playing time you feel like you deserve. Nothing is owed to you, and if you are serious about becoming a Pro you needn’t waste your gift of talent with a shitty attitude and unwillingness to work. There are thousands of Grinders who would die for your natural ability. Don't waste it. Be warned. The age of the Natural is dying and dying fast. More and more kids have access to high level training and opportunities to practise today than ever before. So, I can surely say that if you aren’t willing to put in the work, someone else will. Be a “try-hard”.
Bonus- The Dark Cousin of The Natural: The "Beauty"
I will briefly introduce one more archetype that is well known among Canadians, especially in hockey and lacrosse. The infamous Beauty. The Beauty is a special breed. Almost the Meta-Natural composed of a blend of natural talent, competitiveness, self-destructiveness, and extreme aloofness. This gem takes pride in preparing as little as possible for the sport, not training, drinking more than everyone else while still putting up points, practising hung-over on a Wednesday, playing important games stoned, and the list goes on.
The beauty can rely on natural talent to get to high levels and a lot of their power lies in the fact that they do not give a F#@$. The Beauty is almost like a mythical creature and a true Beauty can be quite awe inspiring. But beware the influence this archetype can have on a team. One or two of these guys can be beneficial on a team, but if they form the core group, you are doomed. If everyone on the team thinks being a Beauty is more important than winning, training, etc. you’ll have a team of Beauties who, “win or lose they'll always booze” but mostly lose.
Seneca Strength -Myles Jeffers