What Elite Athletes Know (and What They Can Teach the Rest of Us)

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Gilmar_catching_a_ball.jpg

It is easy enough to hold a low opinion of the athlete. Society is prone to stereotype, and the athlete easily becomes a “dumb jock.” He is the one, says commonly accepted “wisdom,” who can only get into college because of his physical talents, who will amount to nothing after his athletic gifts are gone, and who must be managed by an agent without whom he would be lost.

As the old Gershwin song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Let’s start with what it takes to be a successful athlete. There is actually a joke about this, but it pertains to classical music. A young man from out-of-town is walking down the streets of New York. He stops a stranger, presumably a New York native, and asks: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice,” says the New Yorker.

So it is with the athlete. He learns to practice, improve, and practice some more, until he gets it right. Beyond getting it right, to the point of nearly obsessive perfection.

Elite competitors also know that they must prepare the same way that they intend to play. Not just going through the motions, but with the same mindset and physical intensity that they will bring to the game. It is well-known that the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the Jordan era was created, in part, by Michael Jordan’s relentless competitive demands on his teammates in practice. If they could take him on with even a small measure of success, their chances against the rest of the league were quite good.

Have you ever watched an NBA player shoot free throws? He does it identically every time. The number of times he dribbles the ball, the moment when he takes his breath, the time he takes to ready himself, and the way that he shoots the ball are always the same; the product of thousands of repetitions during practice.

This dedication extends to stretching, running, and weight training. A look at the bodies of today’s athletes creates a striking contrast with the physiques of their predecessors 50 years ago. The muscle and strength do not come without great effort and regular training. If you have ever lifted weights or done scheduled aerobic exercise, you have at least some idea of what is required.

Then there is the purely mental part of the game. Having the strength of character not to be intimidated by your opposition. And the concentration to ignore the crowd and stay within oneself, doing what one has prepared to do, not thinking about the last play, but being “in the moment;” not panicking, but reacting instantaneously to the movements of the opposition, your teammates, and the ball.

The athlete, too, must learn quickly and forget quickly.

When he makes an error, as all athletes do, he needs to realize what he has done wrong so as not to do it again. But, before the day is out and before the game is over, he must put his failure out of his mind, relegate that setback to the shadows, and prepare for whatever comes next: the next play, the next contest, the next turning point. To keep thinking about the shortfall will undermine his confidence and reduce his capacity to function at his best when the same situation arises again.

Imagine a relief pitcher in baseball as he enters today’s game — the “closer” who is expected to end the enemy’s rally and hold the lead in the contest — thinking about how he lost the game for his team the day before. If he does that, he will let himself and his team down once again.

The performers’ focus must be extraordinary. Indeed, when they are “in the zone,” they have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness that they were in a stadium full of observers.

Moreover, in the world of “biggest-strongest-fastest,” one cannot allow oneself to become too high or too low. The best athletes are characterized by emotional control, so that they permit only brief enthusiasms and try to limit any tendency toward dejection. Opening themselves to the more routine vacillation of mood known to most of the rest of us can undermine their ability to perform. You cannot easily, for example, hit a baseball well if you are too excited, or too “down.”

Diet also comes into play, especially in activities like body building, where what you put into your body affects your ability to build muscle and highlight the definition of those muscles so as to make them stand out. For a serious body builder who avoids banned substances, the severity of his weight training is matched by his ability to eat differently than all the rest of us do. He stays away from foods that will compromise the development of his physique and its appearance.

My brother Jack, an amateur body builder who has won numerous competitive awards in his age bracket, tells me that his training routine typically includes five days per week of work with weights for 1.25 hours per day. His low fat-high protein diet requires that 50% of his calories come from protein, 30% from carbohydrates, and 20% from fats. He drinks a gallon of water a day. Within 10 weeks of his competition, he ups his protein to 60% and lowers carbohydrate sources to 20%.

Actual meal choices are restricted to the following:

  • protein: fish, lean red meat, chicken breast, turkey breast, cottage cheese
  • fats: flaxseed oil, olive oil, fats from lean meats/foods
  • carbs: sweet potatoes, grapefruit, white rice, oatmeal
  • vegetables: lettuce, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans

Clearly, extraordinary discipline is involved.

In addition, elite competitors ignore minor injuries, and sometimes ones not so minor; they must be played through for the good of the team. No wonder that the “athlete’s creed,” involves “rubbing some dirt on (the wound) and getting back into the game.”

The champion hungers for formidable competition. He does not want the contest to be too easy, a challenger who does not test his skills. For him, the point is to be the best among the best, not a big fish in a small pond.

Philosophers of antiquity used the jock as an example of what other philosophers and their students should strive for. They cited the man of physical culture for his excellence, observed him striving to improve himself, and advised the rest of us to perfect the skills of the mind just as the athlete seeks to perfect the body. With respect to the challenges of living, they exhorted the novice philosopher to behave like the wrestler who, when thrown to the mat, gets up instead of giving up, and returns to the battle.

Apart from the possibility of celebrity and fantastic wealth, the athlete profits from the confidence that he has earned by his attitude and effort. He thrives on the exhilaration of a body that responds to his wishes, is finely and precisely tuned and honed, and is not an encumbrance but a tool to achieve his goals.

He is in fact, a model for excellence in living.

No wonder that the rest of us can’t help but watch him.

The top image — Gilmar Catching a Ball — comes from the 1958 World Cup Final. Source: Scanpix (svt.se) (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

The bottom image is of Jack Stein.

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