Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why watch sports? Or, How To Ramble On About Sports While At Work

In sports, there are players, and there are fans. Clearly.

I'm certainly not an athlete. 90% of my sports-related life falls into the fan category. I spend hours on the couch, at my computer, and at the stadium. I analyze, critique, and applaud with a very broad view of the game and its context. I can scoreboard watch, check line charts, look up advanced batting statistics, and consider receiver/cornerback matchups in real time.

When I spend my 10% as an athlete, all that mental processing, the cerebral analysis and statistics, geometry and physics, doesn't go away. For real athletes, it does. This separation is an unfortunate consequence of the speed of games, as mental operations compute on a seemingly geologic timescale when compared to fast-twitch muscle fibers and hand-eye coordination. It's in this separation of mind and body that great athletes are forged, and where I most frequently fail.

The nervous energy I feel before stepping on the ice, or field, or court, is unmanageable. The incessant doubt which creeps throughout my mind as I glide to the net simultaneously poisons my skills and slows my reactions, generating a new wave of doubt in turn. Professional athletes, for the most part, are not burdened with such pervasive thoughts. Kobe Bryant sees the ball, sees the court, sees the game clock tick away the first second of the game, and immediately flips the Brain Switch to off. Evan Longoria steps into the batter's box and sees nothing but the pitcher, the ball, the simple geometry of a parabola, and the instant of bat:ball contact. Robin van Persie sees the ball arcing into the box and instinctively jumps to meet it a fraction of a second before the defender makes contact.

I see the puck, figure out who the shooter is, see if I can remember if the shooter likes going blocker or glove, high or low, and the likelihood of a pass. Then I check my position to make sure I'm cutting off the angle and start widening my stance to decrease my time to ice. I make sure my stick is on the ice, turn around, and fish the puck out of the net. It's inevitable.

The few times I've played well have been marked by a combination of factors, all of which have been present during those brief flashes of competence.
  • Significant distraction from or disinterest in the game
  • Some degree of physical pain from previous exercise
  • At least some level of discomfort with my equipment
  • A particularly noisy environment
While professionals are able to turn off their minds and play the game, I must rely on constant distraction and routine. I stopped 19 of 21 shots during a stretch at a practice yesterday:
  • I had just been selected to a team for the upcoming season and was bored with practice
  • My knees and back were in moderate pain from patio construction and Sunday's draft skate
  • My leg pads were uncomfortably lose
  • 26 children were occupying the other half of the ice
The physical frustrations associated with sports are widespread but relatively easily overcome. With enough practice, any basketball player can excel at shooting free throws. The mental aspect, however, is an unwinnable war for all but the top 1% of athletes.

Despite all of this, the hallmark of the truly great athlete seems to be one who transcends the separation of the mental and physical aspects of the game. There are many whose greatness is a combination of relentless practice and superb execution, but these players, many of them All Stars and in their respective Halls of Fame, always fall short of epitomized greatness. Wayne

Gretzky possessed a skill bluntly described as "vision," but, in reality, an impressive ability to both play and analyze the game simultaneously. Being able to act as a fan while actively playing a game at the professional level is a generational feat for all sports, and it provides a spectacle which defies statistics, probability, and reasoning.

Why do people watch sports? Because it is typically more interesting to watch a game played well than to play a game well. With the exception of those generational talents, even the best professional athletes can never truly appreciate their abilities while still maintaining that level of excellence. Although a fan cannot score a goal, hit a home run, or execute a brilliant pass, he can analyze the game to a satisfaction which is otherwise unknown in modern society.

So the next time someone asks you why you spend 3 hours a day watching sports, just say "because sports are cool." Because they are, and you know the real answer anyway.

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