Precipice of the Cross trainer: Rise of the Hybrid Athlete


By Julian Reed

A particular way in which someone or something is placed or arranged. The definition of a position.

Essentially, the bedrock of all of sport, since man began to play games in what’s believed to be 6000 BCE, with swimming  and archery.

Positions represent structure and organization. A position encompasses its own set of responsibilities and objectives. Particularly in team sports, success often is determined by one’s ability to play within team concept, enhancing the group as a whole while also satisfying individual goals.

However, it bears consideration, what happens with an athlete capable of playing multiple positions? Or an athlete whose skillset melds between multiple positions?

The answer to this question is reflected in our current golden age of athleticism, nutrition, training, and physical fitness. The answer has begun to have a profound transformation on the quality and style of much of modern professional sports. Now, for the sake of thorough explanation, I’m going to be separating this discussion into two distinct sections.

The evolution of the Hybrid in form and function. The evolution of athleticism and the rise of the hybrid in form is simply man’s natural evolution over hundreds of years. In function, how information and ideology about nutrition, fitness, sleep, specialized training (often beginning now as children), etc have radically improved what’s possible in all forms of sport in the last few decades.

Imagine an automotive vehicle for a second. Now, consider how much more effective and convenient it would be if said automobile also could  double as a locomotive engine, nautical schooner and aeronautical plane.

Individually and in the aggregate, you then would have essentially solved every lasting and emerging peril of commuting and transportation on earth in one fell swoop. Apply this logic to sport.

Imagine a basketball player with the strength and physicality of a center, the size and athleticism of a small forward, and the speed, passing and court vision of a point guard.

I just described LeBron James. Currently about to enter his 14th NBA season, and already an all-time NBA legend. Four time MVP, three time champion, finals MVP and two Olympic Gold medals respectively.

His game in many ways has pioneered the modern hybrid NBA game we’re seeing today. Despite being a 6’8 small forward, James also has a myriad of rare point guard skills and throughout his career has frequently played both positions in spurts.

During one of his championship campaigns in Miami, he was dubbed a “point forward.” James epitomizes the concept of a hybrid.

Extremely athletic, yet extremely versatile. At many different points in his illustrious career, he’s guarded all five positions defensively. Sometimes, all within a single game.

He possess natural quickness and agility that enable him to be able to guard small extremely fast point guards, despite his 6’8, 260 pound frame. James wrote the book for the relevance and impact of the “Swiss Army Knife” in the modern game. And when discussing functionalism, epitomizes the evolution of athlete  mentality. He is a well known Yoga/Pilates practitioner and legendary for extreme workout routines and diet. LeBron has been known to have a hyperbaric chamber in his home to heal the body daily. As his career has entered the backend, we’re beginning to see what he’s helped to create.

In the NBA today, the San Antonio Spurs have revolutionized positionless basketball from the team perspective. They’ve been the most consistently successful NBA franchise in history for the last 15+ years, making the playoffs with 50+ win seasons every year.

Having all-time great players and arguably the best coach of all-time certainly helps, but their success can largely be traced back to their system as well. Head coach Greg Popovich, a five time NBA championship, can be credited not only with the Spurs success as a team, but also in showing the validity/power of the European style of basketball.

Greater emphasis on fundamentals, passing, and structure. Team offense and team defense. This concept runs in significant contrast to what the NBA (particularly in the winning teams at the top) had been for many years, which was isolation heavy, one on one basketball. Made famous (and hugely appealing for multiple generations of kids) by legends like Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant.

Basketball (particularly at the highest level) is often thought of by people as an individual game. The Spurs massive success over the last 20 years has provided the best challenge to that ideology.

Historically, all of their players do a little bit of everything. Their centers and power forwards pass and help move the offense, along with posting up, scoring and rebounding. It comes as no surprise that the style of basketball championed by San Antonio has taken on a successor. One who would take the style to even further heights in many ways.

The current dominant force in the NBA, and already competing for all-time  status as a team for the ages, the Golden State Warriors. The spiritual successor to the template of the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs leveraged five championships off their system.

The Warriors are built around a relatively young core, who won the NBA championship in 2015 and who came very close to a second consecutive title after an NBA record breaking 73-win regular season, have cemented themselves as the new Spurs. More specifically, the new standard for consistent excellence.

Predicated on a pace and space offense, they’ve taken the Spurs template to a new level. Whereas the Spurs played inside out, using interior post scoring and ball movement to setup the three-point shot, the Warriors have revolutionized the inverse. The proliferation of the three-ball. Leveraged off arguably the greatest pure shooter in NBA history in Stephen Curry and arguably the second greatest shooter of all-time in Klay Thompson.

Both of whom can heat up at any time and drain baskets from unprecedented distances, with incredible  accuracy and efficiency. They’ve changed the ideology of basketball, as well as the ideology of the hybrid and positionless basketball. They’re perhaps the most versatile and balanced team in the game’s history.

Almost every player in the Warriors’ rotation can shoot, pass and defend. Often playing “small ball”, the team features incredible length and defensive prowess, while also being able to distribute the basketball and score regularly on offense. With the addition of Kevin Durant, they likely will predominantly play small ball hybrid offense this season. In spite of the Warriors recent success, they don’t tell the whole story on how basketball has continued to evolve over the past decade, as much as they’re sort of the amalgamation of that change in philosophy and how successful it can be.

To spin it backwards, you have to talk about centers in historical context. Basketball has always been dictated on the backs of its biggest and tallest players (Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Russell, David Robinson, etc.).

Since it’s inception, basketball has largely been about rebounds and easy baskets around the rim. Whichever team could get more easy baskets, and more rebounds off opponent’s and teammate’s missed shots has historically always won championships. It’s why there’s at least one all-time great center at the core of nearly every dynasty (Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, etc.) in NBA history.

Even amongst non-dynasty teams that won championships (Rockets, Pistons, Mavericks, etc.), nearly all had an impact players at center.

A slow plodding methodical style of basketball predicated on feeding the post, with centers and power forwards utilizing a back to the basket and face up game. This style was popular amongst teams and employed for decades. However, this methodology has become nearly extinct in the modern game.

As mentioned earlier, Popovich successfully brought the European style of play to prominence in the NBA, despite also utilizing power forwards and centers. Mike D’antoni fielded near legendary offensive juggernauts in Phoenix with the Suns led by Steve Nash in the mid 2000’s. The Suns inversely to San Antonio also revolutionized what has now become the standard with three-point shooting.

Rather than getting easy baskets a few feet away from the rim, Phoenix focused on moving the basketball around the wings and behind the 3-point line. Rather than kicking it inside to a big, freeing shooters up with screens and ball movement in order to get open looks at the basket from behind the arc. With Nash, Shawn Marion, a young Joe Johnson and Leandro Barbosa, the Suns were a prolific scoring team.

Their style in many ways became the skeleton for what would become the Golden State Warriors a little under a decade later.

Undersized and agile players in the power forward and center positions, small fast scoring point guards, etc. Later, this philosophy would also be adopted and enhanced by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2010’s. The examples I gave highlight this Renaissance on hybridization from the team perspective. This doesn’t even begin to address and highlight the evolution of the NBA athlete, on an individual level.

Of course, LeBron James in modern sport drives this bus. But, there are so many glaring examples of this evolution. For starters, New Orleans Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis.

Despite only being a relatively young 23 years old, he’s already one of the NBA’s elite, and putting up historic numbers. Like James, a true hybrid.

Though listed as a power forward, he utilizes elements of point guards, small forwards, as well as centers in his game. He’s also becoming less and less of an oddity in a sport increasingly becoming a “positionless” game. Young promising talents around the league such as Karl Anthony-Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Wiggins and others are helping continue the evolution of the hybrid.

Not just in basketball, but in modern sport in general, we’re beginning to redefine and challenge the ideology of positions and roles. Increasingly in team sports, the elite players not only master and understand their own positions and roles, but are sophisticated enough to understand what everyone’s responsibility is.

The quarterback position in football is the toughest position in all of sport because on top of having to memorize thousands of plays, along with a few hundred adjustments, line protections and signal calls, you’re also tasked with fully understanding what your 10 offensive teammates positional responsibilities and individual tendencies are.

By nature, the quarterback position is sort of a hybrid. You’re both the pass thrower and playcaller. Usually the leader and face of the franchise. As of late, with increasing influx of dual threat athletes (Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, etc.) at the position, add in another responsibility and feature.

Running.

Along with the other intrinsic responsibilities I mentioned already, they’re also a big part of their team’s running offense. Both on broken plays where they’re tasked with fighting for whatever yardage they can muster, and on designed quarterback runs. This is the evolution of the hybrid in form.

Now let’s talk about honing in on some of the areas that training and the other characteristics mentioned above have rapidly expanded the scope of the modern athlete.

For hundreds of years, sport was almost niche. Certainly, you had an opportunity to be famous as a Greek gladiator or Renaissance Knight, but those were local customs, not implemented on a global scale. A small pool of trained individuals (and/or slaves) stocked those sports with their talent base. What’s helped massively evolve all of sport across the globe, now backed by billions of dollars,  there’s a massive financial incentive to find the “next”.

The next great Olympian, NBA superstar, NFL quarterback, football striker, 100 meter track star, gymnast, etc.

Every coach, agent, talent scout on planet earth is scouring for the “next”.

That emphasis and financial incentive has given millions of people all over the world the dream and motivation to pursue athletics.

“When Sir Roger Banister broke the four minute mile in 1954, the competitive sports world was largely constrained to Western Europe and the places Western Europe had  colonized. So, most of the world was not really involved in the competition. Fast forward to today. Much wider competitive population. The gene pool in sports has changed. There’s been a sort of self sorting in sport that there wasn’t in the past.”(Epstein, David, Chasing Perfection/“The Sports Gene).

Globalization has had a massive impact on the fast evolution of the athlete.

Any sport is limited by the influx of talent it receives. Example, the United States of America dominates basketball globally and has for the better part of three decades.

Why? Majority of our elite athletes whom also possess the necessary skills and height generally play basketball.

Beginning often at the AAU level as 5th and 6th graders. It’s become the norm for players identified at a young age with otherworldly height/skill to be ushered into the elite high school basketball programs (Mater Dei, De Soto, Montverde, Oak Hill, etc) around the US, and then filtered into a handful of elite college basketball programs (Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, etc).

This is the common pathway to the NBA today. And, it produces an exemplary farm system for the NBA, and in turn, the US Men’s National Team.

Inversely, the United States is nowhere near the elite ranks  in European football. Why? Because almost none of the US’s best athletes (among those whom possess the necessary abilities) choose soccer.

A lot of  reasons for this, which is a different conversation in itself, but that correlates directly with what I mentioned before. Any sport/club/league is limited by the influx of talent. Majority of youth athletic talent in America choose football or basketball for boys.

Soccer, basketball and track for girls. Thus, those are the crafts athletically we excel in. This is also true in other parts of the world for other sports.

Gymnastics, Russia.

Long distance running, Kenya/Nigeria.

Short distance speed running, Jamaica.

European football, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, France,  Germany, Chile. Etc.

Now, America certainly excels in more things than any other country on earth, by far. Why is this? Emphasis and specialized training. And more simply, money.

There are thousands of training facilities with labs and specialized training all over the United States.

“From heart rates to levels of lactic acid, each element of performance can be tested in a lab with the results used to plan the next block of training.” (Norton, K., “Morphological evolution of athletes over the 20th century”)

And, as previously mentioned, we’re getting kids in on it at younger ages. The US’s robust University system provides even more support for hundreds of thousands of athletes across all sports with 2-4 year degree scholarship programs coupled with advanced training.

Particularly for women’s Athletics, this is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Because of the revolutionary advancements made possible by Title IX, the US remains a decade or two ahead of the rest of the globe in women’s athletics. To spin it back forward to the form of evolutionary hybridism you have to talk nutrition, as it’s as crucial (if not more so than) as training and specialization.

Nutrition (and the amount of scientifically backed information supporting it) has massively evolved over the decades. The added understanding of the  health benefits of particular foods, eating schedules, protein, carbs, calories, etc. has gone through a metamorphosis as scientists and doctors continue to learn about the human body, and what it needs to both survive and excel.

“When you exercise hard for 90 minutes or more, especially if you’re doing something at high intensity that takes a lot of endurance, you need a diet that can help you perform at your peak and recover quickly afterward.” (Jaret, Peter “WebMD 5 Nutrition Tips for Athletes”)

This is an ever evolving science that will continue to be tweaked unique to the individual, for as long as major athletics exist in our culture.

What you eat. When you eat. How much you eat. How often you eat. With personal trainers, personal chefs, personal nutritionists on hand daily, there’s been a proliferation to increase performance even just 1% for the modern elite athletes around the world.

Ultimately, we’re limited by the speed in which technology/science can continue learning and breaking new ground on what a concept like limitation actually means to the human condition. What are limits? How fast can you actually get, through training? How much stronger? How persistent are limits?

These are questions humankind has continued to challenge and break through every decade for over a century. Man lives to evolve. Evolution is encumbent on the ingenuity and perseverance of man. This is a symbiotic relationship that is perpetual in nature.

Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman once said “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”.

This ideology really drew me in, and directly correlates with the piece. His quote, athletic hybridism, human evolution, etc all have the same linking parallels.

Increasingly, we’re becoming a world without lines. Definition and delineation certainly can be important (for categorical purposes, especially), but in function, they’re largely a limitation on what we as people intrinsically believe in our hearts to be possible.

I believe, what we see as possible more than anything else ultimately determines who we become as people, what  kind of life is available to us, and most important to this discussion,  what we’re capable of.

Inherently, hybridism is a master class on being balanced and whole. On taking the responsibility and initiative to understand the sum of all parts, rather than an individual role. Do the other aspects of a particular field, job, game, system, etc not also matter and contribute in a meaningful way to function/success?

In the modern world, we’re breaking down barriers, everyday. Asking tough questions and doing everything possible to grow and evolve. This is most present in athletics where there’s clearly defined winners and losers.  

However, if the goal is improvement, through continued dedication and hard work, there’s no such thing as a loss. Neither you nor the goal was stationary. Because basketball players and track stars and weight lifters  are pushing the boundaries of innovation, in turn, we all are.

Sports remains the highest lexicon for translating what the human mind and body is capable of. As we continue to learn more about ourselves, about food,  about training and sleep, we will continue to evolve as a species. To both excel at current tasks and be future proofed for challenges not yet  present. There will be a 100-meter runner 5x faster than Usain Bolt in the next 50 years. That’s the power and point of the hybrid athlete emphasis. Raising the standards for  all, so the elite few can (each time) take those newly established accepted norms to unexpected heights. Evolution is persistent. Man is persistent.

 

 

References:

Guide to Essential Nutrients

The Evolution of Athlete Performance Training

The evolution of athletes

Netflix Documentary "Chasing Perfection", 2015

Epstein, David "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance", Current, 2013

Nutrition Tips for Athletes

 

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