As the Chief Curator of the SportsLegendsMuseum and the Babe Ruth Birthplace I am often asked what makes athletes like Babe Ruth, Michael Phelps, or Cal Ripken different from everyone else. What makes a good athlete into a great athlete? My standard answer has been “skills and talent.” Any young athlete can be taught the right skills to compete. But, skills can only build on what gifts the young person naturally possesses. Just like becoming an artist is more than learning how to hold a paint brush, sports is more than learning proper techniques. You either have it or you don’t. This has been my standard answer.
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of watching an open rehearsal by the Gardens Ice House’s resident skating company, The Next Ice Age. The NIA is a non-profit company dedicated to “the preservation and growth of artistic ensemble skating through performance and education.” They call themselves “a dance company on ice.” But the NIA is certainly much more than that.
Watching the skaters perform was a treat. Their poise, professionalism and artistry were nothing short of amazing. Their level of performance certainly exceeded my expectations. To the spectators there that evening, there was no doubt that they were athletes AND artists.
But the biggest surprise for me came after the performance. As the guests retreated to a small room upstairs for light refreshments the young skaters made their way around to introduce themselves, express their appreciation for our support and to tell us a little more about the performance we just saw. They talked about their work ethics, their practice schedules, and their appreciation for the love and support they receive from their families. Again, their poise and maturity were remarkable. Clearly their coaches and choreographers were good teachers both on and off the ice.
It was during these conversations that I realized my opinion of what the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete was had a significant flaw. I forgot about passion…the willingness to practice day in and day out for hours at a time to become better at a craft…the willingness to sacrifice sleep, friends, and other opportunities in order to become the best. Yes, it takes talent…you either have it or you don’t. Yes, it takes skill…learning the fundamentals and practicing them everyday is important. But it also takes a belief that hard work pays off. These young skaters from the Next Ice Age were amazing…not just for their incredible performance…but for the ability to inspire the rest of us. Who knows, one of them might just be the next “great one.”
Shawn Herne is the Chief Curator for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.