The NASCAR Driver as Athlete Debate: Lepp 2.0 Weighs In

Posted: July 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

Golden Tate, wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks started a firestorm in the motorsport world by questioning why 5-time champion Jimmie Johnson should be considered an athlete.

As a sport physiologist with 30+ years testing and working with endurance athletes (running cycling triathletes), professional soccer and basketball players and motorsport pit crews and drivers, I will weigh in from my professional opinion. Here is a list of athletic components that can define what an “athlete” is or is not. Granted, there will be a debate as to whether more components can or should be added.

I guess the key question is: How many of these components do you have to possess to be called an athlete?

  • Accuracy – controlling movement in a precise manner
  • Agility – controlled change of direction
  • Balance – the ability to control the body’s stability while moving or stationary.
  • Body Composition  – the ability to maintain the optimal ratio body fat/muscle.
  • Cardiovascular Endurance – the ability of the body, process and deliver oxygen.
  • Coordination – the ability to combine several distinct movements
  • Efficiency – the ability to perform movement with minimal exertion.
  • Mobility/Flexibility – the ability to move freely and easily.
  • Muscular Endurance – the ability of muscles to contract repeatedly
  • Muscular Power – muscular force exerted over time
  • Recovery – the ability of body to return to its pre-activity state after exercise.
  • Response/Reaction Time – the ability to react quickly to external stimulus.
  • Motor Skill – the ability to develop gross and fine motor skills to refine technique.
  • Speed – the ability to move as quickly as possible over a given distance.
  • Muscular Strength – the ability to exert a force against resistance.
  • Mindset – the ability to remain focused and deliberate during performance
  • Environmental Stress – heat, cold and other external stimuli

Okay, so is Jimmie Johnson an athlete? Based on my working with and collecting various data on racecar drivers, here is Jimmie’s score:

  1. Accuracy – racecar drivers live by precision based movements and proprioception through their entire bodies.
  2. Body Composition – weight is important but not critical. Lighter is always better.
  3. Coordination – very important with clutch/throttle and hand eye.
  4. Muscular Endurance – G forces make this important, more at some tracks than others.
  5. Recovery – this component is what performance enhancing drugs is all about. Don’t let any athlete tell you different. The ability to recover from the mental and heat related stress after a 4-hour race determines how you will perform the next week.
  6. Response/Reaction Time – no need to comment here. Can I say re-starts?
  7. Motor Skill – split second decisions by vision transmitted to muscles critical to success. This along with Response/Reaction time may be genetic and lends to argument that drivers are born not made. I put eye hand coordination under this item.
  8. Mindset– very important and why many athletes with all of the above fail.
  9. Environmental Stress– heat stress is major factor here and on occasion carbon monoxide, which can affect aforementioned mental function. Noise also major factor.

Now for Mr. Golden Tate – Football player, specifically wide receiver. I have not worked with football players, but it’s not hard to assess the requirements.

  1. Accuracy – precise route running makes a wide receiver
  2. Body Composition – not many fat receivers.
  3. Coordination – no brainer
  4. Muscular Endurance – try being part of 2-minute drill.
  5. Recovery – critical in some offenses, particularly hurry up offenses
  6. Response/Reaction Time – very important in turning and catching already in the air ball.
  7. Motor Skill – routes, patterns, eye hand…
  8. Mindset– very important and why many athletes with all of the above fail. To be honest, you can’t be a successful athlete without disciplined mindset.
  9. Environmental Stress– heat, cold and noise.

10. Agility – critical to wide receiver. Changing directions is what it’s about.

11. Balance – how about sideline ballet catches? Avoiding tackles? Critical component.

12. Speed – you don’t make it in football without this one.

13. Mobility and flexibility – critical for most catches

14. Muscular power – this is critical component of speed acceleration, deceleration and jumping.

15. Muscular Strength – a key component in muscular power but also holding onto footballs etc.

So, Mr. Tate beats Mr. Johnson 15-9 on the Lepp Athletic Scale. Does this mean that Jimmie is not an athlete? Not at all. Many athletes I have coached have less than 9 on this score. I consider Tiger Woods an athlete, but I would guess he would be in that score range. Lance Armstrong is a tremendous athlete, but would not accumulate a high score.

My point of this exercise, is that defining  athleticism is very difficult. Do you need to have 3 of these components? 5? 1? I know where Golden Tate was coming from. We need to stop reacting to these casual comments. Athleticism is made up of many components, some of which I have surely missed. Who do I think are the best athletes in the world? How about Seal Team Six. I guarantee it.

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Comments
  1. Ryan says:

    Seal Team 6 doesn’t exist. But if they did, they would eat Golden Tate for breakfast. 😉

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