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Beyond 'G': A Historical Analysis of Motor Development and Athletic Ability

Author: Earl E. Walker, Jr., Ed.D.

Unitary measures of intelligence and their underlying theories are incapable of assessing the abilities of athletes and therefore overlook this domain of talent. Opponents of these traditional measures of intelligence hold that they only assess one specific type of intelligence, thereby overlooking the achievements of those with other exceptional abilities (Gardner, 1993a, b; Sternberg, 1985). Gardner (date) argues that these methods of assessment are driven by the values of the cultural framework from within which it is viewed. Challenging these traditional theories of intelligence, Gardner (1993a, b) posits a theory of multiple intelligences that is more comprehensive and better explains the abilities of athletes.

This article first provides an overview of the prominent theories that have influenced the way we currently view motor development and athletic ability. The origins of these theories; mind-body dualism, the heritability of cognitive intelligence and its relationship to physical ability, and the nature-nurture argument are discussed. 
Then secondly, this article explores theories of multiple intelligences and their contributions to understanding the way we currently view athletic ability. Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences is highlighted for its usefulness in understanding athletic ability. Evidence is presented to support the claim that intelligence cannot be measured be a single factor, 'g', as posited by Spearman (Gardner, 1993a; Jensen 1998).

Finally, an assessment of current research and the future directions of athletic ability and motor development are presented. Current genetic research presented by Bouchard and colleagues (1997) will be discussed.


Gardner (1993) states, "In our own cultural history, we must go back to Greek times to find a moment 'where the human body was considered beautiful, a worthy and loved and equal partner with the soul-mind' (p. 233)." We begin the analysis here.

In ancient Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, athletics were deeply embedded in and essential to the culture. Greek gods and athletes alike were revered for their physical attributes- amazing feats of strength, courage, and swiftness, while exercising the body was given equal importance to exercising the mind (Miller, 1991; Gardner, 1993a).

Miller (1991) points out that for the Greeks, " in antiquity was set in the gymnasium, [and] that the Akademy of Plato was first and foremost a place of exercise for the body... (p. viii)." Indeed, Plato's education and development of the ideal citizen did include physical training. He believed physical training to be essential to the development of fine men and women capable of contributing to his "just" state. Gymnastics, as he called it, was included in his ideal education of children for their physical, moral, and intellectual development (Plato, trans. 1968). For Plato, there was no separate education for the mind and the body. They were both developed concurrently.

Writing during the Romantic Period (Date), Rousseau (date), similarly believed physical development and activity to be essential to the natural development and education of children. In developing an education for his fictitious student, Emile, Rousseau assigned great importance to the physical health and development of the child. He believed that true knowledge could only be acquired through the senses and considered the body and the perceptual system to be integrated. Rousseau wrote, "Since everything which enters into human understanding comes there through the senses, manís first reason is a reason of the senses (Date, p. 125)." Knowledge could only be achieved by having a healthy and robust body that was sensitive to variations in the natural environment and able to detect these differences for the acquisition of knowledge. Rousseau provided a monitored space for his student to frolic and explore so that he could fine-tune these senses and thereby prevent him from becoming dependent on others for knowledge.

Likewise, Montessori and Piaget also included "sensorimotor" skills in their methods and theories of early childhood development (Zaichkowsky & Haberl, 1999). Montessori stressed the importance of an environment that would allow children to explore through the use of their senses and learn through the manipulation of surrounding objects. She identified several "sensitive periods", or critical times during a child's early life during which the mastery of motor skills were likely to occur, such as the critical period for the use of hands and for walking (Crain, 1992). 

Piaget also understood the importance of movement and the sensory system in the development of cognition and describes this importance in his cognitive development theory. In this theory, he describes the first stage, occurring from birth through the age of two, as the period for developing sensorimotor intelligence. During this stage, a child makes sense of the external world through his/her own movement or manipulation of objects in the surrounding environment (Crain, 1992).

As Gardner (1993a) notes, Piaget's use of the word intelligence in reference to sensory and motor activities may be the first time that motor activity had been described in terms of intelligence. However, he did not expand upon this concept and focused most of his research on logical and linguistic intelligence.

Though Rousseau, Montessori, and Piaget recognized the importance of motor development, they incorporated it into their theories and methods merely as a precursor for cognitive development. For Montessori and Piaget in particular, the importance of motor development ended in early childhood. Thus the Greeks remain the only known Western culture to value physical development on par with cognitive development and to extend its importance into adulthood (Gardner, 1993a).

Despite some more contemporary acknowledgements (i.e., ...) of the importance of movement and motor development, the inclusion and importance of athletics and other forms of motor development in education have fallen out of favor and led to the devaluing of athletic ability. In modern times, we have taken for granted the development of motor skills and the importance of physical activity. Along with this occurrence has come a limited understanding for the skills of athletes. Though we continue to marvel at the physical feats achieved by many athletes, research to understand the development of their expertise lags far behind that of the more cerebral fields (Bouchard, Malina, & Perusse, 1997). Several prominent movements have influenced the way we view athletes and athletic ability. Although an extensive look at these factors is beyond the scope of this paper, a survey of some of the major influences is presented below.

Mind-Body Dualism

As mentioned above, the ancient Greeks viewed the mind and body as integrated and inseparable. However, this holistic view of the human organism has diminished and more recently been refuted in Western culture. It is unclear when this transformation of ideologies precisely took place; however, it is generally attributed to Renee Descartes.

In the sixteenth century, Descartes set out to prove his very existence by doubting all previous postulations of human existence derived primarily from the senses (Descartes, trans. 1996). In doing so, he deduced that his very existence was confirmed by his ability to think and that he existed only because he was a thinking being not because he was a material, sensory perceptive being. Descartes first set forth his idea that the mind and body were separate and distinct entities in his publication of the Discourse, and then elaborated upon this idea in his later publication the Meditations (Descartes, trans. 1996).

Descartes (trans. 1996) believed that he only existed because of his ability to think. I his Discourse (trans. 1996), he writes, ìthe soul by which I am what I am ñ is entirely distinct from the body, and indeed is easier to know than the body, and would not fail to be whatever it is, even if the body did not exist (p. 127).î Without this intellectual ability, he would "cease to exist (p. 18)." He then expounds upon this idea in his Meditations (trans. 1996), writing that the mind and the body are separate and interact only on a hierarchical basis for simple functions such as movement, hereby establishing a hierarchy of importance for the mind over the body. This distinguishes him from the thought of the Greeks- and particularly Plato (trans. 1968), who assigned no importance of the mind over the body in his ideal education.

A clear distinction is also seen between Descartesí dualism and the holism espoused by the Ancient Greeks. To Descartes (trans. 1996), the mind was merely a mechanical, non-intelligent form of matter. He explains, a body I understand whatever has a determinable shape and definable location and can occupy a space in such a way as to exclude any other body; it can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell, and can be moved in various ways, not by itself but by whatever else comes into contact with it (p. 17).

To the Greeks, the mind and body, along with the spirit, were parts of a whole organism (Miller, 1991). 

Nonetheless, Descartes' dualism continues to influence the way we curr4ently view and study the body. His thoughts set the stage for analyzing the development of the mind separately from motor development and physical activity. He also paved the way for viewing one as having greater importance over the other.

Evolution and Biological Determinism

Building on Cartesian dualism, Darwin's theory of evolution and Galtonís notion of the heritability of intelligence have arguably had the greatest single impact on the way we view motor development and athletic ability. These theorists have exhibited a great influence over scientific research and provided a strong impetus for fields such as evolutionary biology and genetics. 

In his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1859) posed his theory of evolution that argued that contemporary human beings, along with other species, were modified descendants of a less resilient breed. Darwin proposed that evolutionary change occurred in two steps; variation and selection, more commonly known as ìnatural selectionî. Variation consists of traits randomly being introduced into the species by mutations in the organism, and Darwin believed that the human species consisted of innumerable variations represented by the diversity seen among individuals.

Prior to the publishing of Galton's Hereditary Genius, Darwin was largely occupied with describing the physical variations within species. He borrowed from Goethe's Law of Compensation to describe the variation seen among lower orders of species. Darwin (1859) states, "if nourishment flows to one part or organ in excess, it rarely flows, at least in excess, to another part (p. 147)."

Shortly after Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, Francis Galton published Hereditary Genius, in 1869. In this book, he argued for the heritability of intelligence, using some of Darwinís evolutionary theory of natural selection. Although Darwin did not intend his theory for this use, he became convinced of the plausibility of heritable intelligence. With newly found inspiration to explore Galtonís notion and to combine it with his theory of natural selection, Darwin began to further apply his theory of natural selection to intelligence (Gould, 1996).

After the publication of Galton's Hereditary Genius, Darwin turned his interpretation of Goethe's Law of Compensation toward explaining human variation in intellectual ability and the relationship between intellect and physical prowess (Gould, 1996). In his later publication, The Descent of Man, Darwin (1871), explains that as higher ordered species developed greater intellect, they no longer needed the same physical abilities that they once needed for survival. In other words, the nourishment required to develop the necessary physical skills for survival could now be used for physical development. Lower ordered species and primitive human groups remained less intellectually developed but retained their superior physical skills for survival. Hence, there is an inverse relationship between intellect and physical aptitude. 

Natural selection and heritability are both frequently used by scientists to explain the physical abilities of athletes and the dominance of some domains of athletics by visibly homogenous groups (Hernstein & Murray, 1994; Hoberman, 1997). Galton is credited with fueling the contemporary nature-nurture argument, which is still hotly debated in the sport sciences today (Hernstein & Murray, 1994; Hoberman, 1997; Gould, 1996). Understandably, if motor development and athletic giftedness are due to hereditary and natural selection, as proposed by Galton, then attempts to develop motor skills beyond those needed for basic survival are unnecessary and perhaps futile.

Intelligence Testing

Following the leads of Descartes, Darwin, and Galton, the traditional field of intelligence testing has attempted to rank people according to their intellectual capacity and has strongly influenced the way we view athletes and human potential in general (Gould, 1996). The first intelligence test, developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905, was created largely for altruistic purposes (Gould, 1996). Binet and Simon developed this test to identify learning disabled children in the schools of Paris so that they could be provided with the special education that they required (Gould, 1996; Binet & Simon, 1905). Though Binet and Simon did not set forth a clear definition of intelligence, their method of assessment proved to be more reliable than existing methods and was accepted for use by the schools of Paris. This method of testing soon gained acceptance in the scientific communities of industrialized nations and sparked the development of similar tests internationally (Gould, 1996).

Despite the acceptance of intelligence tests in the scientific community, no agreeable definition could be established among scientists within the testing field. Largely in response to the controversy over the definition of intelligence and concerns about the cross validity of intelligence measures, Charles Spearman (Date) began comparing intelligence tests to find if they were measuring the same construct. He found that despite the fact that numerous tests purported to measure intelligence in its various forms, their high correlation with each other supported the fact that there was some general intelligence being measured by all of them. He labeled this intelligence, ëgí for general intelligence being measured by all of them. He labeled this intelligence, ëgí for general intelligence (Jensen, 1998). With these findings, unitary measures of intelligence have since dominated the field of intelligence testing.

As mentioned above, intelligence tests were originally developed for altruistic purposes (Gould, 1996). Binet and Simon (1905) wrote, ìOur purpose is in no [way] to study, analyze, or set forth the aptitudes of those of inferior intelligence (p. 286). Despite this stated intention, intelligence tests have been used to justify discriminatory practices against certain groups almost since their inception. For athletes, intelligence tests have been used to insinuate lower levels of intelligence supporting Darwinís notion of an inverse relationship between intellect and physical ability (Hoberman, 1997).

Multiple Intelligences

Opponents of these traditional measures of intelligence hold that they only assess one specific type of intelligence, thereby overlooking the achievements of those with other exceptional abilities (Gardner, 1993a; 1993b; Sternberg, 1985). Gardner and Sternberg argue that traditional methods of assessment are driven by the values of the culture within which these theories were developed. Gardner (1993a) explains, "An intelligence entails the ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community (p. 15)."

Theories of multiple intelligences and alternative intelligences have been espoused to eschew the unitary view of intelligence. Creators of these theories aim to provide a more egalitarian method of viewing human potential and ability. Of note are Sternbergís Triarchic Theory of Intelligences and Gardnerís Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Neisser, Boodoo, Bouchard, Jr., Boykin, Brody, Ceci, Halpern, Loehlin, Perloff, Sternberg, & Urbina, 1996). Both theorists challenge traditional constructs of intelligence and may better explain the exceptional abilities of those neglected by unitary measures of intelligence.

Sternberg (1988) holds that traditional and contemporary views of intelligence are not necessarily invalid, but incomplete. They view intelligence from a very limited perspective. His theory may prove useful in explaining the exceptional talents of those traditionally overlooked by IQ tests. His Triarchic Theory of Intelligence consists of three components representing the different operational processes of thought active in intelligence. The first, metacomponents, represent the process of identifying, assessing, and evaluating a problem. The second, performance components, represent the process of operating upon or putting to use the information derived from the metacomponents- problem solving. The third, knowledge acquisition components, involve the processes used to gather information for solving the problem.

Sternbergís (1985) theory broadens traditional constructs of intelligence and continues to be refined. Though he does not identify intelligences for specific domains, as Gardner did in 1995, his theory of intelligence may be applied across domains. Sternberg states that his theory subsumes all other valid, yet incomplete theories of intelligence.

Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1993a) may prove particularly useful in placing motor development and athletic ability back on par with intellectual development, thereby reconciling the mind-body dualism popularized by Descartes, refuting Darwin's interpretation of Goethe's Law of Compensation, and quieting the nature/nurture argument initiated by Galton. Gardner's proposed theory of intelligence consists of seven intelligences, one of which subsumes motor development and athletic ability, discussed below.

Distinguishing Gardner's (1993a) theory from other theories of intelligence is his selection and adherences to explicit criteria that candidates of intelligence must meet for consideration as an intelligence. He draws on research from neurobiology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and other fields to establish a more comprehensive set of criteria for human potential. These criteria include, a) the potential isolation of the intelligence by brain damage; b) the existence of individuals displaying exceptional quantities of the candidate intelligence; c) the existence of an identifiable neural mechanism to process select information; d) a traceable course of development; the identification of precursors to the intelligence in lower ordered species; e) support from experimental psychology to identify the autonomy of the candidate intelligence; and, f) methods to assess the candidate intelligence; and a representative symbol system.

Using these criteria, Gardner (1993a, 1993b) identifies seven distinct types of intelligence; linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal intelligences, summarily defined in the table below. Unlike Descartes (trans. 1996), who distinguishes only between cognitive and motor activity, Gardner believes that all of the above intelligences represent different types of cognitive abilities and different ways of representing their cognitive strengths.

Gardner (1993a) believes that intelligences rarely if ever operate in isolation from one another and that most people possess all seven types of intelligence to some degree. For athletes, Gardner explains that logical intelligence, spatial intelligence, and interpersonal intelligence are among those commonly displayed, but others may also be drawn from- depending on the sport. For instance, given the detrimental effects of excessive (or inadequate) levels of emotion during sport performances, we can also argue for the display of intrapersonal intelligence in athletes (Lazarus, 2000; Gardner, 1993a). 

Furthermore, the expression of a particular type of intelligence is not necessarily indicative of an individualís aptitude for expressing the other types. Gardner (date) points out that the expression of an intelligence is dependent upon the opportunities presented within the environment, the social and cultural value assigned to that intelligence, as well as innate factors. Therefore, he cautions against the interpretation of intelligence testing for predicting aptitudes, much like Binet ad Simon (Gardner, 1993a; 1993b; Binet & Simon, 1905).

Gardner's (1993a; 1993b) TMI is a more holistic view of human potential and ability closer to that of the Ancient Greeks. Similar to Plato (trans. 1968) who explained, "Different men are apt for the accomplishment of different jobs (trans. 1968 p. 370a, b)," Gardner believes that different people have different types of cognitive abilities and different ways of representing their cognitive strengths. These variations cannot be accounted for by traditional intelligence tests, which only measure logical-mathematical and linguistic types of intelligence.

Future Research and Implications

Although research in areas of motor development beyond basic movement and early childhood continues to lag behind that of the cognitive sciences, new findings in other areas such as medicine, public health, and genetics continue to indirectly inform the sport sciences (Bouchard et al., 1997). For instance, geneticists have found that the expression of genetic traits can be influenced by the environment, discrediting previously held beliefs about biological determinism (Schork, 1997). Further evidence from our studies of twins show that athletic skill and development is both genetically and environmentally determined (Bouchard et al., 1997), casting doubt on staunch environmentalist as well.

As we continue to learn more about motor development, athletic ability, and other human potentials, it becomes increasingly apparent that we will have to forego our previously held dualistic beliefs about the mind-body and nature-nurture. More contextual perspectives such as those posited by Sternberg (1985) and Gardner (1993a) will command greater attention and prove more useful to our understanding. As these theories are refined and newer ones developed, perhaps we will move closer to a more balanced and holistic perspective of all human potential.