‘The almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else’


I randomly came across this article by David Foster Wallace today. It’s about the weird universe inhabited by professional tennis players, and elite performers more generally.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera.

But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.

Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence.

An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

I wasn’t in the U.S. for the Michael Phelps hype cycle last Olympics, but I remember a friend telling about what a weird specimen he was in ‘Today’ show interviews and news articles. His range of experience was so limited (‘I wake up, I swim, I go to bed’) that his interviewers struggled to find anything to ask him about. Apparently they just asked him over and over again about what he eats. ‘Eleven pancakes for breakfast?! That’s amazing!’ What else are you  gonna ask a dude who spends 10 hours a day swimming back and forth?

I listened to a podcast last night by the author of a book called Talent is Overrated. Apparently the scientific evidence shows pretty incontrovertibly that there’s no such thing as ‘talent’ as such, only practice. Apparently if you take anyone who is at the top of their field (Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett), and you find that they spent thousands of hours of time deliberately honing their skills.

Here’s an article by the author of the book:

You do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don’t exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that’s demanding and painful.

[…] The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

It’s sort of appealing to think that you’re just 10,000 hours of practice away from that hole in one, or that slam dunk, or that first million. What I’m amazed at, though, isn’t that people have the time or the dedication to develop their skills to such an incredible extent. It’s how you have to give a shit to do what they’ve done.

I’m sure that if I spent two hours a day for the next 10 years working on my jump shot, I’d be really good at it. The problem is, I really don’t give a shit if I can make a jump shot. When I think about it, though, I’ve spent probably 1,000 hours in the last five years going running, and have deliberately tried to get my 10k time below 40 minutes. Running in a big circle is just as arbitrary as putting a ball through a little hoop, yet one of them is a genuine source of stress (and stress relief) and the other one is something I care about as much as yodeling, or Yatzee, or anything else I end up doing once a year and giving no further thought to.

Whenever I’m confronted with genuine greatness, it’s the bottomless giving a shit that really astounds me. On your 18th year of hitting golf balls every. fucking. day, how do you go to the driving range again? When you’re on the second-to-last chapter of your 898-page deconstructivist masterpiece, how do you not think ‘Is it really worth all of this?’

I’m too old and atheist to think that I’ll discover some hidden talent and become the Tiger Woods of billiards or something. But I still hope I find something I give enough of a shit about that I don’t mind doing it every day.

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2 responses to “‘The almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else’

  1. Thanks for this. I needed to be reminded.It looks like the comment I made on "Alone in Berlin" wasn't posted. I can't repeat myself, so please just let me say I want to read the book, now. It holds far too much meaning for me.

  2. Surely most of the giving a shit comes from enjoying what you're doing, from doing something fulfilling? I told you about that book on 'Flow', right? That was saying that doing an activity where you're developing a skill, where you're constantly pushing your level of performance, an activity that has a clearly defined goal and provides clear immediate feedback as to whether you're winning or losing, kinda blows your mind because in those moments everything seems to fit. While you're doing that activity, the world is simple. Your mind is fully occupied with something and has no room to wander to distractions and anxieties.

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