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Bodies of Evidence

Posted By Alan Jacobs On August 22, 2011 @ 8:19 am In Featured | 29 Comments

The human mania for classification manifests itself in countless ways, and one of the more peculiar is somatotyping: organizing people by body shape, usually with the belief that there’s some correlation between body shape and personality. These types tend to come in threes. In The Antichrist Nietzsche wrote that “In every healthy society there are three physiological types, gravitating toward differentiation but mutually conditioning one another . . . : those who are chiefly intellectual, in another those who are marked by muscular strength and development, and in a third those who are distinguished in neither one way nor the other, but show only mediocrity.” But this isn’t very helpful. Nietzsche doesn’t describe what the intellectuals look like, and there are many ways to be physically mediocre.

In the twentieth century two influential typologies arose, one by the German Ernst Kretschmer and one by the American William Herbert Sheldon. Their systems are quite similar: Kretschmer’s athletic-aesthenic-pyknic maps pretty directly onto Sheldon’s mesomorphic-ectomorphic-endomorphic. Muscular, skinny, fat. Kretschmer and Sheldon both believed that each body type was closely associated with a personality type: in general, mesomorphs are assertive, ectomorphs are timid and private, endomorphs are gregarious.

There’s nothing scientific about all this, of course; Kretschmer and Sheldon alike were simply drawing on the kind of folk wisdom that doesn’t bear up to serious scrutiny. But I think that if we’re honest we’ll have to admit that we’re all prone to doing such typing, if only half-consciously. Once the idea that fat people are jolly, or that introverts and cynics are cadaverous, gets into your head it’s hard to get it out again. Once I saw a performance of Twelfth Night in which the misanthropic Malvolio was played by a tall and hefty fellow, and despite the actor’s evident skills I struggled to conquer the cognitive dissonance.

We can take it as axiomatic that professional athletes will be mesomorphs — but some are more mesomorphic than others. And they can be mesomorphic in different ways. American football players tend to be thick, stout; basketball players long-limbed and lean. If a football player seems slender to us, that’s usually because we’re seeing him in comparison to other football players. Yes, there’s a significant difference between a cornerback and a defensive tackle: but not nearly as much as there is between either of them and a a random selection of the population. Basketball players have an even smaller standard deviation from the mean.

One of the things I like most about baseball and soccer is the wide range of body types involved. In baseball, even players with very similar skill-sets can look wildly different. Left-handed power pitchers? Ron Guidry and C. C. Sabathia. Right-handed sluggers? Hank Aaron weighed 175 pounds for most of his career, just a smidge less than Mark McGwire.

Similarly, what does a center-back look like: Rio Ferdinand or Fabio Cannavaro? And which is the model for the striker’s somatotype, Michael Owen or Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The prototypical midfielder: Luka Modrić or Sócrates? Goalkeepers tend to be more predictably shaped, for obvious reasons, but Iker Casillas is less than six feet tall, and Jorge Campos was, what, 5’7″?

In general, soccer players need quick lateral movement, which is easier to manage when you have a low center of gravity. That means in turn that there aren’t that many highly accomplished soccer players who have the traditional mesomorph’s V-shaped build, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. (And when they do show up even knowledgable soccer people can be bamboozled by the impressive physique: Andy Carroll is a good young player but he’s not worth £35 million. Among the classic mesomorphs in today’s soccer, maybe only Drogba is as good as he looks.)

In fact, the peculiar demands of soccer tend to yield some odd body types — people shaped a little different than the people we see on the street every day. One of the most common is the bifurcated ectomorph-mesomorph: a skinny upper body bolted to thickly muscled legs. Arsenal has two of these, Arshavin and Wilshere. Messi dominates this category, of course. Maradona was similar, but with his round arms and short neck you could tell that he would end up putting on weight some day.

Pelé of course had those tree-trunk legs, but with a stronger upper body. Pelé’s build, in fact, is what has become prototypical for an NFL running back: powerful thighs and a low center of gravity but with enough upper-body strength to shrug off high challenges. It’s so perfect a build for soccer that it’s always a little surprising to see true greatness in players who deviate from it significantly.

The less significant deviation is that of, say, Puskás — the “little fat chap,” as an English player supposedly called him when the Hungarians took the pitch at Wembley in 1953 — since we have often seen how the thickly-built mesomorph ages into a pudgy endomorph. No, it’s the ectomorphic genius who surprises the most. How did Cruyff and George Best avoid having their skinny little legs snapped by tackles? How did they, with their manifestly high centers of gravity, maneuver their way so consistently around players who certainly looked as though they ought to be quicker? Maybe there’s not as close a correlation between body type and skills as we’re prone to think.

And if that linkage is dubious, what about the alleged correlation between soma and psyche? Does a soccer player’s body shape tell us anything about his personality type? That may well be a topic for another post.

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