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.
Park's team faced a similar problem in coming up with a reliable proxy for individual performance in a team sport.
"Our initial idea was that, across various team sports, some positions may be associated with greater athleticism, and hence greater genetic quality, than other positions," he says.
In previous work, they found that hockey goalies and forwards, and soccer strikers and goalkeepers, tended to be more attractive than their teammates. But that's based on the assumption that those positions demand more athleticism than others.
To test attractiveness within a single position, Park's new study focused on NFL quarterbacks, whose passer ratings are an objective, fairly independent gauge of performance. The rating is an amalgamation of several stats, including completed passes, yardage gained, touchdowns and interceptions, and it ranges between 0 and 158.3.
The team asked 60 female Dutch university students to rate the faces of 30 quarterbacks who played in the 1997 season and 58 who played in 2007 – the season Eli Manning's New York Giants shocked Tom Brady's New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Both studies turned up small but statistically significant correlations between good looks and passer rating, similar to New Scientist's findings with tennis players.
Park could not reveal the specific rankings, but Brady topped the passer rating list that season, well ahead of the next-best quarterback, Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger. Brady is also married to Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, so it doesn't seem unreasonable that Dutch university students would fancy his face as well.
Fun as these links are, Park's team – and New Scientist – didn't conduct these studies only to fuel pub banter. The results tie in with previous work suggesting that traits such as good looks and athleticism are genetically related.
"It's safe to say that there are probably many things that lie between 'good genes' and athletic prowess," Park says. "We really have no idea what physiological processes mediate the effect." Testosterone levels could be one factor.
"I think it's a really exciting paper and it's great to see 'good genes-mate choice' theory being applied in the real world like this," says Geoffrey Miller, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose work inspired Park's paper.
He says Park's results are impressive because all NFL quarterbacks are presumably far, far above average in their athletic ability, and the differences between the best and the worst are slight.
But athletic talent may not be the only explanation for the connection, says Miller, who also argues that intelligence also is an indicator of a healthy genetic makeup.
"Quarterback is the position that requires the highest amount of general intelligence," he says. "What might be happening is that the quarterback passing rating might be reflecting intelligence more strongly than physical athleticism."