Too much structure blocks sports excellence, says this doc

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

In Search of Greatness
RPL Film Theatre

March 22–24

One would be hard-pressed to find two documentaries more different than Finding Neverland and In Search of Greatness. There is, however a measure that makes them especially dissimilar: length. The HBO doc is four hours long and obscenely bloated. Greatness clocks in at a tight 77 minutes and is packed with valuable information.

Directed by Gabe Polsky (responsible for the excellent Red Army, about the legendary USSR national hockey team), In Search of Greatness takes three legends — Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice and Pelé — and dissects their upbringing to find what set them apart.

Yet this is not a doc built to praise them, which is incredibly refreshing.

Polsky’s main finding is that the interviewees didn’t excel in the categories usually measured by scouts. Their edge comes from abstract qualities. Growing up, Gretzky, Rice and Pelé were allowed unstructured time (a rarity these days). In these circumstances, they developed their creativity, a skill they would bring into the field. Their parents were involved, but didn’t micromanage every minute and they didn’t push early specialization.

An unquenchable desire to master a discipline and the ability to learn quickly constitute the spine of their success. Other factors are involved: by not being physical threats, elite athletes look for competitive advantages (Rocky Marciano developed the uppercut because of his short reach), they know how to make the most of their abilities better than their coaches (leading to conflict every so often) and they’re willing to take the proverbial final shot. A bit of showmanship or the right partner can also provide an edge (Lemieux in the 1987 Canada Cup for 99, Garrincha for Pelé).

Of course, the combination of these elements is volatile (there’s no formula, just a general idea). But ultimately In Search of Greatness makes a strong case for intangibles as the decisive factor in sports excellence.

Unwittingly, the film doubles as a doc about parenthood. You may not end up with the next Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, but a calibrated involvement is a good start.

In Search of Greatness doesn’t quite stick the landing, as it focuses on the least interesting aspect of the whole doc (will sports excellence continue exciting fans once humans reach the limits of their potential? Didn’t know that was a problem). Everything else is worth watching.