What is Athleticism and How is it Tested? Are We Re-inventing the Wheel?


It’s that time of year again, late February. The Super Bowl is a few weeks behind us and it’s time to start thinking about “next year.” For NFL organizations and football fans, this means settling in to watch the feats of strength and athleticism during the NFL Combine. And for sport scientists, this garners a lot of talk, debate and discussion about testing.

Athlete testing is actually one of my favorite topics, as for nearly two decades I taught a university course in Tests and Measurement for Kinesiology students, served on the FitnessGram scientific advisory committee, and of course, practiced these concepts on a daily basis as a researcher and sport performance/sports science practitioner.


“My Kids Need to be More Fit and Athletic”

One thing I keep hearing coaches talk about is getting kids “more athletic” or “more fit” — “he/she needs to be more athletic” or “our kids are just not fit enough.”

What does this mean? What is the definition of athletic or fitness or athleticism? Are there similarities between fitness and athleticism? And, how do we measure it beyond the coaches’ eye-ball test? And, finally, how do we report it to the athlete so it makes sense to them?

In this blog, I will take a deeper dive into the concept of athleticism, covering a review of its rich history, links with physical fitness and general motor ability, measurement approaches, composite scores, and finish up with some ideas on the presentation of results.


A Definition and History of Athleticism

In the field of Kinesiology, of which strength & conditioning and coaching are included, there is a rich history surrounding the assessment of human movement capacity. Nearly a century ago in 1921, Dr. Dudley Sargent of Harvard University published a simply titled paper The Physical Test of a Man highlighting the vertical jump. Are you familiar with the Sargent Jump Test? More than likely you are, if you’ve calculated power output from a vertical jump.

But, can a single test really represent the physical capacity of a human? Many will argue that a single test gives an incomplete picture of athleticism, and this was recognized at the time Dr. Sargent’s article was published as well. No matter how you view fitness and athleticism, there is perhaps one thing that is agreed upon when it comes to this topic — athleticism (fitness) is not a unitary concept. That is, there is no single measure to describe athleticism. Even the dictionary agrees —

ath·let·i·cism: the physical qualities that are characteristic of athletes, such as strength, fitness, and agility.

  1. Note: Physical qualities — plural. With 3 physical qualities listed: strength, fitness and agility.

  2. Note: Interesting they chose “fitness” as one of the qualities as fitness also has many factors. I assume they are equating fitness with aerobic fitness or cardio-respiratory endurance.

To be clear, there is no single test of athleticism (or fitness). Thus, many scholars and practitioners have developed a battery of tests, with some calculating a composite score (e.g., index or rating) from multiple tests (e.g., speed, agility, vertical jump, etc.) to represent a single score of athleticism (more on this later). This idea of a composite score of athleticism actually stems from the assessment of human intelligence (i.e., IQ — the intelligence quotient; circa 1880-1910), which is considered as a total score of abstract reasoning, concentration, general knowledge, etc.

In the next few sections, we will continue exploring the chronology of fitness and athletic testing. The main purpose of this exercise is for you, the reader, to understand again the rich history and underpinnings of the concept of athleticism, and to not re-invent the wheel!


General Motor Ability in the 1930s


In the 1930s there was a flurry of research activity around the physical components of human performance and the concept of “general motor ability” and “physical efficiency.” Early thinking posited that there was a general motor ability similar to a general intelligence. This related to “natural athleticism” — the athlete who possessed the ability to proficiently perform a variety of motor skills and adapt and learn new skills. Several familiar tests requiring running, jumping, agility, coordination, flexibility, balance; and endurance and strength were used to derive such composite scores as the Barrow Motor Ability Test. In addition, multiple measures of strength along with lung function were used to derive the Rogers Physical Fitness Index (PFI). These efforts led to further interests in their application to understanding and predicting human performance, and more specifically military fitness and the tactical athlete (e.g., soldiers) in response to World War II (circa 1940).


The Structure and Dimensions of Physical Fitness and Athleticism

Continuing into the era of the Cold War (1950-1960), much attention was given to this topic due to the Kraus-Weber report (The Report that Shocked the President in Sports Illustrated) that showed poorer fitness levels of American youth compared to European children. This prompted President Eisenhauer to form the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956. Subsequently, President JFK published his own statement “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated and promoted a national fitness program (La Sierra High School).

soft american.JPG

Again, at the time, there was considerable interest in physical fitness for the health and security of our country. But, what is the best way to test and assess fitness in the U.S. population? Enter Dr. Edwin Fleishman, a Yale psychologist who led the research commissioned by the U.S. Office of Naval Research on one of the best, yet grossly overlooked (perhaps because it’s difficult to find), resources on this topic —The Structure and Measurement of Physical Fitness.

Fleishman designed a comprehensive project that tested several measures of fitness on 200 Navy recruits to identify the components of fitness and derive a fitness testing battery. The following “areas” were considered: Strength (Explosive, Dynamic, Static); Flexibility-Speed (Extent Flexibility including trunk and legs; Dynamic Flexibility/Speed of Movement; speed of arm and leg movements; agility; runs); Balance (Static, Dynamic, Balancing Objects); Coordination (multi-limb, gross or whole body); and Endurance/Stamina.

Several tests in each of these areas were carried out, and the statistical technique of factorial analysis, the same method used in IQ studies and some the previously mentioned fitness/athleticism studies, was used to determine the ‘best’ tests for each area or dimension. For example, 30 tests of Strength were administered (weight lifting; dynamo-meter tests; body weight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups; softball throw; runs; jumps) and it was determined that there were four factors of strength — Dynamic Strength, Static Strength, Trunk Strength, Explosive Strength. Similarly, administration and statistical analysis of 30 tests of speed, flexibility, balance and coordination resulted in another six factors. The final test battery included 10 tests among 9 dimensions of fitness (note: 50-yard dash and broad jump were included in preliminary analysis):


Given ties to the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, this work influenced the physical fitness test batteries used in physical education during the 1960s through the ‘80s. I actually remember doing the softball throw, 50 yard dash, long jump, and shuttle run during ‘field day’ as a young lad. Of course, this all changed with the obesity epidemic, and shift towards the public health model of health-related fitness during the ‘90s and into the 21st century (e.g., FitnessGram ®, National Academies Fitness Measures and Health Outcomes in Youth).

Using Fleishman’s work as basis, further research throughout the latter part of the 20th century evolved the concept of fitness or athleticism into the following primary sub-domains or dimensions of fitness —


Current Definition of Athleticism

The dimensions of fitness, physical capacity, general motor ability and athleticism considered throughout the past century are in line with the current definition of athleticism within the NSCA Position Statement on Long-Term Athletic Development

Athleticism is the ability to repeatedly perform a range of movements with precision and confidence in a variety of environments, which require competent levels of motor skills, strength, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and endurance.

Husker Power and Nike SPARQ: Modern day scores of athleticism

We could go on and on about the definition and dimensions of athleticism…or is it fitness…but let’s not digress. Instead, let’s move forward and consider two examples that may be more familiar to the modern day sports coach or strength and conditioning coach.

Legendary strength and conditioning coach, founder of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and Volt strength advisory board chairperson Boyd Epley pioneered efforts not only in strength and conditioning but also athlete testing within the Nebraska Husker Power program. Epley and coworkers created the Performance Index, a composite score which included tests of the bench press, hang clean, squat, vertical jump, and 40-yard dash.

Similarly, the Nike SPARQ — Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness — rating has been touted as the “SAT” for athletes, and includes a general assessment (40-yard dash, kneeling med ball throw, pro-agility, and vertical jump) and some sport-specific assessments as well.

With regard to the composite score, Fleishman, who by the way also provided a composite “Fitness Index,” noted “many instructors and students feel the need for a single index to summarize overall performance.” However, “the most useful information is that provided by the separate tests, since this allows the pinpointing of strengths and weaknesses.”

This brings us to the importance of graphically representing the test data for your athletes.


Show me the Data! Athlete Testing and Data Viz

We live in a time where eye-popping advertisements and social media posts grab the attention of young people. Sorry to tell ya, but showing an athlete their bench, squat, clean, vertical jump, etc. in an Excel spreadsheet row is not engaging or meaningful to the human brain.

And, that’s where data visualization, or data viz, comes in. Data viz is basically how we visually represent and communicate data clearly and efficiently using statistical graphics, plots, and infographics. There is a fascinating science of human perception, processing and cognition behind data viz. Think about it. A simple number or set of numbers on a sheet of paper or those numbers graphically and visually expressed. What do you like and remember?


There are several software platforms that provide an amazing array of data visualizations but we are going to keep it simple and show a few examples from Microsoft EXCEL. Ya I know, I just pooh-poohed this common tool. But the reality is that it is widely used and the point is to make the numbers come alive a bit more.

Several coaches are using the “radar plot” or “spider graph,” like the one shown above. There are several good YouTube videos on “how to create a radar chart in Excel.


Volt Strength Numbers

In the Volt app, bench, squat, and clean — or what we call “Strength Numbers” — can be measured once it is safe to do so. Measuring an athlete's upper, lower, and total body strength allows Volt to safely recommend individualized weights for almost any movement the athlete might see in the future.

However, at Volt we are always looking to push the boundaries of sports performance training. Our sports science and data science team wanted to go beyond the classic “Strength Numbers” of squat, bench, and clean and utilize our revolutionary new Smart Sets feature which is powered by our artificial intelligence engine, Cortex™. In doing so, we want to provide a visual display of an athlete’s status and progress across all categories of strength movements.

Volt athleticism blog  -  Repaired.jpg

Think back to the dimensions of athleticism. Rarely is there a single measure that best represents a dimension. Instead, there are multiple facets underlying each dimension. Strength, for example, is movement-specific and therefore we categorize (and program) movements as Explosive, Upper Body, Lower Body, Core, and Auxiliary. Furthermore, upper body can be broken down into pushes and pulls in both the vertical and horizontal planes. And, one can push and pull vertically either upward or downward. For the lower body, we have 3 categories: 2-leg push, single leg push and hip extension movements.

Again, based on our Smart Set features and the ability to estimate 1-rep maxes for a number of movements, it is possible to produce a progress report within each movement category. Above is a preliminary prototype of a Volt strength profile. From this information, coaches and athletes (and Cortex) can evaluate and make adjustments to training.


A Final Note: Athletic Performance goes beyond the Physical Domain

It has been pointed out in two previous blogs — one on the NFL Combine and the other on the NBA Combine — the importance to consider athletic performance as the sum of four domains: the physical, technical (sport-specific skills), tactical (sport IQ, X’s and O’s), and mental domains.

Although the overall GPA (i.e., akin to the composite athleticism score) may be 3.12, we want to know how the student is performing in all academic areas (mathematics, science, literature, social studies, physical education, art, etc.).

So, at the end of the day, there are a lot of ‘puzzle pieces’ to consider within each domain and for each component or dimension of a factor within a domain to truly understand athlete performance and athleticism.


Takeaways: Some Things to Consider

When testing and evaluating physical tests in your athletes, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Why are you testing? What is the purpose of testing?

  2. What tests are you selecting? Are they reliable and valid? Do they match your objectives?

  3. Have you organized the testing protocol?

  4. How will you evaluate the test data?

  5. How will you present the data to the athlete?

  6. Are you also considering the other domains of performance when evaluating the overall athletic performance?

What gets measured gets managed
— Peter Drucker

Join hundreds of thousands of coaches and athletes using Volt's intelligent training system. For more information, click here.

Joe Eisenmann, PhD, is the Head of Sport Science at Volt Athletics. Dr. Eisenmann has 25+ years of experience as a university professor, researcher, sport scientist, strength and conditioning coach, and sport coach. He joins the Volt team as an advisor on sports science and data analytics, contributing to the Volt Blog on topics around long-term athlete development (LTAD).
Learn more about Dr. Eisenmann | @Joe_Eisenmann