The Minds of Great Athletes

When I was in high school, nothing mattered more to me than running, and nothing was a greater source of exaltation, anxiety, and depression—often in quick succession.  Those who are runners don’t need me to gloss that part of “exaltation” due to the runner’s high; wonderful though it is, that’s not the exaltation I have in mind here. The exaltation of the above triad was rooted in the thrill of victory, the anxiety stemmed from  uncertainty about how I would perform on any given day, and  depression was how the agony of defeat expressed itself, at least in my case.

As my running career developed, I reliably observed something that astonished and puzzled me. I could be as physically talented—or even more talented—than another runner; yet he, not having the courtesy to notice the fact, would nevertheless proceed to beat me in every race. Likewise, there were guys on our track and cross-country team who had more raw talent than I, but who couldn’t beat me in a race. Besides having a good, light build for running; besides having the right slow-twitch/fast-twitch ratio in muscles; besides having a natural aptitude for the motions of running; besides having naturally good endurance—besides all these, there was evidently a quality of mind that distinguished the best runners.

It’s hardly news that there’s a mental component to being a great athlete, but what is it, exactly? And could it be learned?  These were pressing questions for me, for I was discovering to my sorrow that whatever it was I didn’t quite have it. So I was desperate to learn the formula that would give me the edge I needed to bask reliably in the glorious light that showers winners.  Among my fellow runners, our general name for this something was mental toughness, and that still seems apt. From that exceedingly careful observation born of self-interest, I  learned that the mental talent that made some people great athletes was not a matter of intelligence. Also, as far as I could tell, while toughness could be cultivated to some extent, this mysterious quality of mind lay deeper than what could be acquired through habituation.  It seemed to be more a matter of inborn temperament.

“Toughness” is a nice first approximation of the temperament because it captures an essential feature of the minds of great athletes: they perform beautifully under pressure. Or, as David Foster Wallace writes in his perceptive essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”:

Great athletes can do this [perform beautifully] even—and, for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially—under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two. (p. 154, Consider the Lobster)

The mind “prone to self-conscious fear” is how David Foster Wallace—who was at one time a competitive tennis player (hence his fascination with the adolescent Wunderkind Tracy Austin)—describes his own case, and that’s roughly how I’d think of myself. At the crucial moment, when you have to dig deep in order to overcome intense physical suffering while at the same time silencing the similarly distraught voice of fear and self-doubt telling you that you’re just not up to it, that you can’t keep pace with the guy pulling ahead in the final stretch; at that crucial moment I could not depend on myself. Sometimes, gods willing, I thrillingly broke through. Other times, I broke in two.  Choked in the clutch.  Among my teammates, when you choked in a workout or in a race, you could expect your “friends” to grab their throats and sputter, “Ack, ack!” at you.  It may seem cruel from the outside, but as we all knew from the inside, it was better to laugh than to cry.

I’ve given some thought to what sort of gift of mental temperament makes some people able consistently to excel under forces that break us lesser minds. I think David Foster Wallace is on to something when he suggests that

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.

He gives a great example of this mental talent by pointing to how Tracy Austin reacted to a serious car crash that ended her brilliant tennis career: “I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it.” Wallace then speculates: “What if the statement is not only true but exhaustively descriptive of the entire acceptance process she went through?” He goes on to wonder whether such a person is stupid, or enlightened in the childlike way some saints and monks are enlightened.

I had a friend in high school who was a great athlete in several sports, and while he had physical talent it always seemed to me that what made him great was his temperament.  In track he was a great half-miler. He’d never gone out for the cross-country team because he’d been playing soccer or basketball during the season. But our senior year he decided to run cross-country, and much to the chagrin of us seasoned cross-country runners, he soon started winning races. Not always, but depressingly often from the point of view of guys who had been at this for years and had hoped that Dave wouldn’t be as competitive at a longer distance.

One cool, fall afternoon the coach had us run a hard ten-mile time trial in the hills behind the school. By mile eight Dave and I were running together ahead of the rest.  We were flying, and though we hadn’t spoken a word we were united in our exultation.  As in one’s best races, the running felt effortless.  Listening to Dave’s slightly ragged breathing and pounding step, I knew he was working harder than I was, and I suspected  that had I wanted I could have pulled ahead; this was a very long distance for him, while it played to my natural strengths.  But half the fun was sharing this high with a friend, so I let go of my competitive urges. At that very moment, as though he also was aware that our blistering pace was easier for me than for him, Dave turned to me and asked, “Why the hell don’t you run like this during races?”

It was a question as maddening as it was simple. Why didn’t I? For Dave, it really was a matter of just doing it. Needless to say, neither of us was in a position at that moment to discuss anything, much less a topic as delicate as this; it was enough just to concentrate on fast, even breaths.  Later, when I tried to explain what it was like for me, on the inside, this glimpse into the machinations of my elaborate (and often self-defeating) self-consciousness simply mystified him. “Why make it so complicated?” he asked.  Why indeed.

If he had to ask that question, I could see it was unlikely he would appreciate my answer. Likewise, and to my great frustration, try as I might I couldn’t understand his simple-mindedness. There we stood on either side of what appeared to be an unbridgeable chasm.  Dave had the gift of simply and confidently doing what needed to be done, with no complicating doubts and fears rising to stand in his way.  Whereas there is hardly anything I do that isn’t accompanied by a hyper self-consciousness that explores every angle, and during races seemed perversely attracted to the unprofitable ones. This gave me some advantages in other domains, but it was not shaping up to be an asset for me as an athlete.  David Foster Wallace concludes his essay in a similar vein.

It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.

Our solace, then, is that David Foster Wallace and I would no doubt have a far more interesting conversation with each other about the minds of great (and not-so-great) athletes, than he could have had with Tracy Austin, or than I did have with Dave.

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2 Responses to The Minds of Great Athletes

  1. Pingback: The Deeds of Great Athletes | Idle Speculations

  2. Pingback: The Search for the Academy (or, the Idleness of Philosophy) | Idle Speculations

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