Saturday, March 13, 2010

Week 11: What do Magic Johnson and a Paraglider Have in Common?

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: Open University
Format: Audio
Length: 54 minutes

This week's post focuses on a series of interviews with athletes conducted by Open University, a web-based learning center. I listened to six short interviews with athletes representing a variety of sports, including: a marathon runner, a paraglider, a judo practitioner, a fencer, a cyclist and a soccer player. The athletes focused primarily on a few themes: motivation, coaching, performance and nutrition. In general, they discussed the body as an engine and articulated how (and why) they go to such lengths to prepare for competition.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the reminder of how driven serious athletes have to be. The opportunity cost of what they do is astounding. Mental and physical preparation consumes almost every aspect of their lives. This is even more impressive when you consider that the marginal return of such training by definition has to be diminishing. In other words, there is the "best" you can ever be, and it takes increasingly more hours to move the needle from, say, 98% to 99% of your best.

So why do they do it? While the interviewees included Olympians and rising stars, none of them have been made wealthy by their sport. Indeed, they have spent large sums of money and countless hours on training. This dispassionate view of course ignores what is arguably the most important motivator: a love for the sport. I was in a book store today and flipped through Magic Johnson's autobiography; in it, he discusses how much he loved being with many women. However, he was clear that his love for basketball eclipsed even this intense love for women. As a rule, he would not have sex before any game, and would not invite women to his hotel room if he had a game the following day. Most athletes probably don't have to worry about turning down hundreds of women on the day of competition, but the point remains: sacrifice is crucial. In Magic's case, sacrificing women was a necessary part of his preparation; the young fencer described sacrificing her social life, the paraglider has sacrificed a substantial portion of his discretionary income to purchase equipment, and in the judo athlete's case most agonizing has been sacrificing "crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks."

In addition to sharing an intense love and dedication for their sport, the athletes interviewed all initially competed in many sports before settling on the "one." To me, this seems to suggest, like dedication, an inherent competitive trait of these athletes. Another striking point was the way in which these athletes framed competition. Of course, competition took place in races and matches, but these athletes were arguably more focused on internal competition (with themselves) than on external competition. They unanimously claimed to draw the most satisfaction from improving technique, learning new strategies, and strengthening weaknesses. I guess at the elite level this makes sense - if you get to your best physically and enter a competition with the right mental framework, what else can you do? At that point, the chips fall where they fall...

The issue of coaching was also focused on - in short, the conclusion was that coaching matters. Immensely. As I type this, the girl's basketball team of my high school is taking the court to play for the state championship. They are coached by my former classmate, who scored more points than anyone in our school's history and went on to play college basketball for four years. I have no doubt she has played an integral role in this success story. According to the interviewed athletes, the key for good coaching is to help athletes identify and travel the proper path to their stated goals. A coach first and foremost must have a scientific knowledge of the sport, but must also have the empathy with the athlete to coax her (or him) to where she needs to be mentally and physically. As the elder Olympic cyclist, now a coach, put it: "Psychology is huge. Just a word can ruin everything. Preparation on the day of the event has to be clinical. The impact of a proper diet is immeasurable." I couldn't agree more.

The same elder cyclist pointed out how far the science of elite athletics has come in the past few decades - as a young rider for the British national team, coaches advised him to eat a piece of beefsteak every day for breakfast (which takes three days to digest fully). They also recommended not hydrating during competitions, on the logic that a "drying out" period is good for you. This reminds me of my grandfather advising my father to breathe through his nose while running the mile for his high school track team. While given with the best of intentions, this advice is very clearly not ideal for peak athletic performance.

One lesson here is that in spite of obvious advancements in science, conventional wisdom should be questioned. If eating beefsteak makes you constipated, maybe you should respectfully tell your coaches that it is not something you'd like to eat going forward... Another lesson is that great success is very rarely an accident. In sports and perhaps in life, it takes a motivated, talented person with a dedicated, experienced team to inspire results at the highest level.

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