During Thomas S. Wootton High School senior No. 2 singles player Ruchi Nanda’s regular-season loss to Richard Montgomery’s Piper Feldman, she was impatient and tried to use power to hit her counterpunching opponent off the court. It led to an abundance of unforced errors and frustration, Patriots coach Nia Cresham said.
But in her straight-sets win over Feldman in the Montgomery County tennis tournament final Oct. 20, Nanda was more opportunistic. Rather than just trying to overpower her adversary this time, Nanda was smarter with her shot selection. There were no attempts for low-percentage down-the-line winners off her back foot from 10 feet behind the baseline. Instead, she kept the ball in play until she’d created the right opportunity. And once she opened up the court with her heavy groundstrokes, she went for the winner.
Sports are evolving at a rapid rate and with constant technological advances and revelations in sports medicine, athletes are bigger, faster and stronger. And sure, it’s extremely entertaining to watch physically gifted athletes produce plays worthy of ESPN SportsCenter’s highlight reel, but often overshadowed by such flashiness, are the brains behind the skills.
“There’s no question, you get players who make all the highlights, someone who beats three players and scores goals on diving headers, but that player is not usually set up until the brain of the team has funneled the play to that person,” Walt Whitman High School girls soccer coach Greg Herbert said. “Intelligent players are key to [a team’s] success.”
Carrying the “smart player” moniker does not mean an athlete is compensating for lack of size or talent. And there are plenty of cerebral players who are big and strong and innately athletic. But having a high sports IQ can be a major, though often underappreciated, strength in any sport, coaches agreed.
So, what exactly is a sports IQ? Here are five contributing qualities, according to Montgomery County coaches:
1. Knowledge of the game
The smartest athletes don’t just have a general understanding of their sport, they know the deepest intricacies of the game. They know what to do, when to do it and how. They quickly pick up on trends and patterns and, accordingly, are able to make the right split-second decisions, instinctively.
While coaches agreed genetics do play a part in a player’s ability to absorb concepts and put them to use in game situations—sports IQ is difficult to teach—it also stems from athletes completely immersing themselves in their sport. Whitman boys soccer coach Dave Greene said his smartest players spend hours watching the highest level of soccer. Walter Johnson girls soccer coach Liz Robinson said the same of hers, which include leading scorer Cammie Murtha (23 goals, 19 assists) and Isabel Jabara (seven, seven).
“If a student-athlete knows where to go, he’s substantially increased the chances of him making the right play,” Georgetown Prep football coach Dan Paro said. “I think [some kids] are born with that gene. But at the same time, I think they probably have watched hundreds of hours of football.”
Paro said Georgetown Prep senior inside linebacker Rob Saylor’s field vision and awareness sometimes makes it seem like he might have eyes on the back of his head.
“He always sees [a play] coming,” Paro said. “Peripherally, he always knows what’s coming his way.”
There’s a concept in soccer, Greene said, referring to players putting their heads figuratively on a swivel. The game has to be played in 3-D; players must be able to see everything that’s going on around them, he said. And this applies to virtually every sport.
When athletes have good field vision, they’re able get themselves in the best position to make a play and everything just seems to slow down, coaches agreed. Herbert commended sophomore defender Morgan Wiese with creating the majority of the Vikings’ counterattacks through her ability to “read the game and understand where the access points are to get us where we need to be, to be successful.”
Added Bethesda-Chevy Chase coach Rob Kurtz: “We have a freshman, Jessie Gomez, who has a real high soccer IQ. The game just slows down when the ball gets to her. She has great vision, perception of space, passing sense and reads the game [so well].”
Kurtz said he’s admired those qualities in Jabara, and Winston Churchill’s Jane and Molly Olcott and Frannie Phillips, players on two teams in major postseason contention.
This is more than just seeing a play unfold and reacting quickly. Some athletes are able to pick up on the slightest movements—a flinch or subtle shift—and based on such, as well as awareness of certain trends and patterns, predict a maneuver before it’s even attempted.
“Smartness can help you because you can anticipate,” Whitman football coach Jim Kuhn said.
“Defensive backs, for example, you can anticipate the patterns [an offense] is going to run,” he said. Physically gifted players may be able to play at a high level in college, but won’t make it to the professional level. “You’ll never get to the promised land because if you’re not smart enough, the game is so complicated that if you don’t have an understanding of it, even if you’re physically dynamite, you’ll have a hard time getting to that next level,” he said.
4. The ability to maintain focus and composure
Some athletes can look like superstars during a training session, but freeze under the stress of competition. Games and matches are laced with momentum shifts and the smartest athletes are able to remain focused throughout, embrace the ups and figure out what to do during the downs, Cresham said.
5. Picking up on cues
Mental strength plays a major role in athletic success. When players and teams lose confidence in themselves and each other, performances can unravel rapidly. The more intellectual players are able to pick up on the cues that often signify impending implosion—body language, lost control of emotions and uncharacteristic mistakes, among others—and capitalize.
Having a high sports IQ is something that can be lost on film; knowledge of the game doesn’t pop out as much on a highlight reel as a huge offensive lineman who can just overpower opponents, Kuhn said. But it is not lost on coaches, and eventually becomes extremely evident.
“It’s the old adage, I’ve always said, it’s not about your size, it’s really about your knowledge of the game and your heart,” Paro said. “I’d take those two things over size any day.”