Elite athletes distinguish themselves through hard work, grit and, most importantly, raw talent. However new research, along with a study conducted by New Scientist, points to another trait of the most accomplished jocks: a handsome face.
The better an American football player, the more attractive he is, concludes a team led by Justin Park at the University of Bristol, UK. Park's team had women rate the attractiveness of National Football League (NFL) quarterbacks: all were elite players, but the best were rated as more desirable.
Meanwhile, a survey of more than a thousand New Scientist Twitter followers reveals a similar trend for professional men's tennis players.
Neither Park nor New Scientist argue that good looks promote good play. Rather, the same genetic variations could influence both traits.
"Athletic prowess may be a sexually selected trait that signals genetic quality," Park says. So the same genetic factors that contribute to a handsome mug may also offer a slight competitive advantage to professional athletes.
This is not to say that the best athletes are always the best looking, either. The correlations uncovered by Park and New Scientist explain only a small amount of the differences in athletic performance.
That caveat was clear in our informal study of pro tennis players. Stars like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer garnered average attractiveness ratings only marginally higher than journeymen such as Fabio Fognini, currently ranked 56, and there were plenty of outliers. For instance, our lowest-ranked player, Robert Kendrick, actually got the best attractive score of the 30 we tested.
To establish these correlations, we randomly selected 20 tennis players in the world top 100 based on ranking point totals at the end of 2008, with two players from each decile (1 to 10, 11 to 20, and so on).
Next, we asked @newscientist Twitter followers to rate the faces of the players, presented in a random order, on a third-party website. We also asked the followers' gender and asked them to rate their familiarity with each tennis player in the survey, but these factors did not affect the attractiveness ratings.
This web survey tended to include lots of lower-ranked players with very similar point totals, so we conducted a second survey of another 10 randomly selected top-30 players not included in the original survey.
When we first compared attractiveness ratings with each player's ranking points, we uncovered a slight correlation between looks and performance that was not statistically significant. Considering that we analysed only 30 faces altogether, "this isn't too surprising", Park says.
However, when we compared the players' looks to another measure of performance – the percentage of matches each pro won in 2008 – the correlation proved statistically significant, though still modest.
"The study may have been conducted informally, but you've made a new discovery," Park said after analysing our data. "Who would have thought that better-looking tennis players are more likely to win matches?"
One could quibble over which measure is more accurate reflection of a tennis player's athletic ability. Ranking points favour players who compete in lots of tournaments and are unkind to those with injuries. Winning percentages, on the other hand, offer a purer measure of performance but it doesn't recognise the quality of a player's opponents.