There’s a song by The Waterboys frontman Mike Scott called Sensitive Children that, along with many other tunes, has lingered like uranium deep inside my cranium (confession: I stole that rhyme from Scott, too). In it, he sings, “Sensitive children, seeing things you don’t, sensitive children, walking where you won’t, you can’t contain her, just love her to the bone.” Over the years, the message has often wormed its way into my consciousness in dealings with my own kids.
It resurfaced recently when I viewed Gabe Polsky’s new documentary, In Search of Greatness, in advance of our Superstar Issue. Polsky, the director who created the sweeping Soviet hockey/sociopolitical film Red Army, tunnels into the psyches of some of the sporting world’s living legends, including Jerry Rice, Pele and the primary voice in the story, Wayne Gretzky, to discover what made them supreme.
It turns out the secret ingredient is…nothing. Let kids be kids. Allow them to create. Don’t force them to conform. Pele had the strength as a youngster to rebel when he felt the need. “I never accepted the order of the teacher,” he says in the film. “The coach sometimes say, ‘OK, don’t dribble it too much. Don’t touch the ball.’ Then I keep the ball, and dribble too much.” Gretzky was blessed with parents who knew they had something special, but allowed it to grow organically. Their primary concern was raising a well-adjusted person, not a superstar. “It was not life and death for us as a family that I had to play sports,” Gretzky tells Polsky.
Walter Gretzky put a premium on individuality. When Wayne was 10, his dad philosophized about the best team at a tournament and guaranteed his son that not one player on the squad would make it to the NHL. “They’re too structured,” Walter told Wayne. “They play too much of a team game, the defense stayed back, the left winger and right winger stayed on their side, and for kids, that’s not the way to play.” Walter was proven correct. The kicker: five boys from Wayne’s minor team made the NHL, he says.
With freedom to express comes innovation, which sometimes looks strange, perhaps even inferior. Gretzky’s skating style looked a bit awkward, he wasn’t Connor McDavid fast, his shot wasn’t Zdeno Chara hard. Put him in the scouting combine and he might flunk. But an innate understanding of the game, Polsky says, coupled with a ferocious obsession to nurture that sense, allowed him to overcome any shortcomings to become the best ever. Gretzky came to learn, through tough experience and expansive thinking, that he wasn’t built to taking a pounding in front of the net. Instead, he gravitated to open ice, usually down low, where he could display the skills he’d honed over hundreds of hours playing shinny from dawn until dusk. It sounds simple, but nobody else was doing it. “Gretzky’s genius had very little to do with his physical ability,” Polsky says.
It had a lot to do with his state of mind. Gretzky was consumed by hockey, particularly in winter. Instead of going to the movies with friends, he’d stay home and take shots for hours. His choice. Similarly, Rice would lie in bed at night, lights out, throwing a football in the air, catching it by timing and rhythm.
Watching the film, you get the sense the legends feel the games they love have lost their way, to an extent. Kids are organized to death, playing one sport year-round. Gretzky tossed his hockey bag in the basement once spring arrived, and grabbed his ball glove. He also played some lacrosse. Pele was big on karate. They say they incorporated what they learned in other sports into the their primary pursuits. “We’ve lost our creativity and imagination that we used to have in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Gretzky said. “If you take 10 kids to a pond today and said to them, ‘All right, go play.’ They’d say, ‘Well, what do we do?’ They’re all so structured now, it’s so analytical.”
Polsky believes that clean sheet of mental ice must extend to the mentors, too. Only exceptional children will deviate from the norm. Others need to be prodded and understood. “Coaches should read novels, get inspirations from other areas,” Polsky says. “It will allow them to think about the game differently. It’s about people, how they behave, what are their motivations?”
For transcendent talents like Gretzky and Rice, one other factor was pivotal: luck. They entered professional situations with coaches who shared their visions. Rice was championed by Bill Walsh and says if not for his San Francisco shepherd, he might never have made the NFL. Gretzky, who left a situation in Brantford, Ont., in part because of a coaching system that didn’t jibe with his style of play, had a kindred spirit in Glen Sather. Gretzky said he’d been warned repeatedly that once he turned pro, he’d be demanded to sacrifice offense for defense. In Gretzky’s mind, always having the puck was his defense. Sather was on board. “In other words,” Polsky asks Gretzky, “you found someone that…” Gretzky intervenes. “Yeah. No. Someone found me.”
Gretzky calls his tale from childhood to deity a perfect storm. He played in the right era, had the right parents, the right obsession, the right vision, the right work ethic and the right coach. Today’s game is brimming with exceptional talents, but hockey’s mechanical evolution has stunted innovation. We know nobody ever again will wear No. 99, but will there ever be another 99? “Imagine all the people who were weeded out, who could have been the next Gretzkys or great players, because they were doing something different and the coach said, ‘Nope,’ ” Polsky opines.
Says Gretzky: “Today’s players are bigger, faster, stronger, but,” he laughs, “it doesn’t mean they’re smarter.”