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Documentary ‘In Search of Greatness’ explores what makes an athlete great

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Documentary ‘In Search of Greatness’ explores what makes an athlete great
Jerry Rice, former NFL wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers. Photo: IMG Films & Gabriel Polsky Productions

For years, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Gabe Polsky has been mulling the question, “What makes an athlete great?” It’s this question that’s at the heart of his captivating documentary, “In Search of Greatness,” which takes a look at how athletes unlock their potential and achieve greatness.

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“In Search of Greatness” is in theaters in limited release. To find a theater near you, visit

A former hockey player, Polsky grew up observing how certain players were identified as talented versus those who were not. “I was a kid who asked a lot of questions and challenged my coaches a lot of time and ended up on the bench a lot,” said the writer, director and producer to the Banner last month.

While at Yale University, his hockey coach was conservative and defensive-minded, and wanted his players to do exactly as told, Polsky said. There was no room for independent thinking. Despite the joy he found in playing with his teammates, Polsky eventually lost interest in the sport. He didn’t get to play as much as he wanted to, and it ultimately broke his heart. “I felt there was a lot that I could have done if given the opportunity,” he said.

Genetics are often touted as the key to making an athlete great, but Polsky believes otherwise. “Creativity is at the essence of greatness,” he said, yet creativity is rarely discussed in the context of sports.

Former Brazilian soccer forward Pelé Photo: courtesy of IMG Films & Gabriel Polsky Productions

Former Brazilian soccer forward Pelé
Photo: courtesy of IMG Films & Gabriel Polsky Productions

In the documentary, retired athletes Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice and Pelé elaborate on the idea of creativity and imagination as contributing factors in their success. All three men provide new and revealing accounts about the approaches that made them who they are.

All three attribute their success and longevity to a belief in themselves, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and visualization.

Nicknamed “The Great One,” Gretzky, who played 20 seasons in the NHL, knew he didn’t have the hardest shot in the game, but his shot was one of the most accurate, because he studied the sport and the techniques of former Philadelphia Flyers Center Bobby Clarke.

Rice, widely considered to be the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, didn’t begin playing football until his sophomore year in high school, because his mother thought the sport was too violent. Entering the league, he didn’t think he was the most talented receiver, but he knew he had “football speed.” He also developed techniques and skills to up his game. “The way I dreamt about it, visualized it, is how the plays were executed in the actual games,” states Rice.

Former Brazilian soccer forward Pelé is regarded by many, including his peers, other players and fans, as the greatest soccer player of all time. As a child, he learned how to play the sport in the streets of his hometown of Santos, São Paulo. He also studied karate for almost two years “to learn how to fall down and to prepare myself,” says the retired star.

“In Search of Greatness” gives credible evidence that greatness is more than just DNA. Through one-on-one conversations and compelling footage, Polsky examines how these athletes seemingly reinvented these sports in their own way.

The documentary also includes renowned thought leaders Sir Ken Robinson, a well-known education and creativity expert from the U.K., and David Epstein, author of the New York Times best-selling book “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.” Both men make the case that greatness is the result of a very specific combination of nature and nurture.

For Robinson, it’s not just about the statistics or data in measuring an athlete’s level of success. Like Polsky, he believes that “Creativity is the essence of humanity, but it’s not an incidental part of being human. It’s distinctively human.” 

When asked, “What is one of the lessons the audience can take away from this documentary?” Polsky looked at a poster for the film before responding. “Muhammad Ali was a poet in the ring. If everybody finds that poet inside of them and brings that to what they’re doing, they’re going to be better at what they do,” he said. “Find that originality, that artistry inside of you and apply it to what you’re doing. It’ll make the world more interesting, and it’ll make you happier.”

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