Stronger, Faster, Better: Is There A Limit to Achievement?


evolution of football players

One hundred years ago, certain athletic feats were deemed impossible. Run a mile in less than four minutes? Sprint 100 meters in less than 10 seconds? You’d have to be crazy to think either of those feats were feasible. What about clearing a bar eight feet in the air or swimming across the entire Atlantic Ocean? No chance.

However, many athletes have since surpassed all of those feats. Many runners have broken the four-minute and 10-second marks, the high jump world record is more than eight feet, and multiple “iron-men” have swum across the ocean.

Many of these previously unthinkable achievements have been made possible by the changing physiques of athletes. Compared to a modern Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, athletes from past decades would look like runts.

The same is true in team sports, where men like LeBron James, Cam Newton, and Bryce Harper are redefining what an athlete should look like. As the NFL’s own Website says, the average player has changed “from ‘everyman’ to ‘superman.’” The median weight of an NFL guard now stands at more than 310 pounds, and those players are expected to nimbly move their feet and protect the quarterbacks behind them.


However, despite the growth of most athletes, the optimum size to compete in other sports has caused those athletes to decrease in size. The average gymnast, for example, has shrunk from 5’3″ to just 4’9″ over the past 30 years.

Either way, whether they’re getting bigger or smaller, athletes have continually approached the sizes that will allow them to best master their disciplines. Along with other factors like advancing technology, specialized training techniques, and increased mental strength, athlete size has helped pushed the envelope of the types of feats fans can reasonably expect.


So what will the world’s best athletes look like in 30 years? How about in 100 years? If their physiques continue to change at this rate, those athletes will bear little resemblance to the ones we watch today.


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Khan Academy: Finding slope from graph

David Epstein TED Talk: Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?

NFL Upper Body Football Training

One Race, Every Medalist Ever

One Race, Every Medalist Ever

Usain Bolt vs. 116 years of Olympic sprinters Based on the athletes' average speeds, if every Olympic medalist raced each other, Usain Bolt (the London version) would win, with a wide distribution of Olympians behind him. Below, where each sprinter would be when Bolt finishes his race.

Lesson Plan

LEARNING OBJECTIVE: This lesson will teach students how to determine rate of change using data about athletes’ changing sizes. Students will understand that rate of change can be represented in a table or graph and is synonymous with the term slope. They will use the slope formula to determine the rate of change of player size over the years.

Log in to view the full Lesson Plan.

View the Lesson Assignment

Back to NuSkool
Lesson tags: Eighth, Featured, Math, MLB, NBA, NFL, Ninth, Rate of Change, Science, Seventh, Sports, Usain Bolt

Francis Tolan

Francis Tolan Francis is a Special Education and Social Studies teacher in the Bronx, NY. He's a new father but he's not too far from being a child himself. You can find his writing about sports, pop culture, fatherhood, and general nonsense on his blog at