The size is important in every sport

Does the physique determine the sport, or is it the other way around?

Running, gymnastics or basketball? First and foremost, the stature and other body characteristics determine which sport someone is suitable for.

Multiple Olympic champion Usain Bolt wouldn't have much fun running a marathon. Because the muscles of endurance runners work differently than those of sprinters, they contract more slowly. “You have to work more economically so that the athlete can cover a long distance. That doesn't matter to Usain Bolt, who performs in under ten seconds, ”says Markus Tilp, head of the Institute for Sports Science at the University of Graz.

So how someone is built is crucial for success in a sport. “A weightlifter is not short and strong because he is a weightlifter. He's a weightlifter because he's short and strong, ”explains Tilp. He estimates the proportion that the body has on fitness for a sport to be around 80 percent. The rest is training, even Usain Bolt did not always look the same as he does today, and adaptability is a great advantage for humans: "Even muscles and tendons adapt to the loads," says the sports scientist.

The size is what matters

Of course, you have no influence on the size, since the physical advantage is particularly evident in some sports: A tall basketball player seems to almost put the ball in the basket. Conversely, it is no coincidence that the American gymnast Simone Biles measures only 1.45 meters: "Small people have their center of gravity closer to the horizontal bar, which makes it easier to turn," explains the tall researcher, who plays volleyball himself. Here, too, a large stature brings advantages. As with football, however, these are also related to the position in the team, according to Tilp, who also scientifically studies team games. Goalkeepers and defenders are usually taller than midfielders. Where - as in archery or sailing - the sports equipment plays a central role, size is likely to be less important.

As everywhere where people are concerned, there is no easy answer. After all, athletes always surprise with a figure that is untypical for their sport. The physique can sometimes be compensated for by other abilities: "If a footballer knows before the opponent where the ball is going and reacts quickly, it doesn't have to be that big," says Tilp. But because tactics and good coordination also count, physical disadvantages are easier to compensate for here than in a sport that only aims at speed. Of course, what helps everywhere is experience.

What does that mean for the next generation? “The body is only one criterion for making a decision. Which sport a child chooses also depends on the social environment - friends and parents - and the opportunities that are available there, ”says Tilp. Where there is joy and success, it stays that way. Although the body is still developing and, above all, puberty can still play a trick on a desired sports career: For example, when the body of a track and field athlete changes significantly as a result of hormonal changes.

In his own research, Tilp investigates how muscles and tendons change when stretching. The latest conclusion: Their structure is hardly changing. Nevertheless, stretching increases mobility and prevents strains. In any case, it has advantages - for all athletes.

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(Print edition, 08/20/2016)