Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Winter Olympics, Twitter, David Foster Wallace, and the Psyche of the Elite Athlete (I Hope This All Ties Together)

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the things I found most interesting about the just-concluded Winter Olympics was the way that new technology has altered the way in which we watch the events themselves, and view the athletes who compete in them. As I don't have a working t.v. at the moment, I followed much of the competition on, which, among other innovations this year, introduced a live Twitter feed to relay posts from various people in the sporting media in addition to some of the athletes themselves. Ostensibly, these posts are little stream-of-consciousness snippets of their writers' thoughts and impressions, brief snapshots from the perspective of those competing in the games. If that is so, I find them fascinating, not so much because of the contents, but because of what those contents say about the mindframe of elite athletes.

Anyone who has at any time closely followed sports has become accustomed to the peculiar idioms of sporting cliché, which are the vernacular in which most athletes communicate. We've all heard statements like "we want to go out there and give it 100%" or "we want to go out there and execute" so many times that any significance they might originally have had, or any insight into the game they might once have provided, has long since drained away. When we watch an athlete being interviewed, whether they're being questioned by a reporter on their way to the locker room at halftime of a contest or answering questions in a post-event press conference, we expect these answers as routine, and don't infer all that much meaning from them. Some of us even suspect that those giving them don't really mean them, that they consider their words as devoid of significance as we do. What the Twitter feed tells us, I think, is that this impression is incorrect, or at least incomplete.

While there was an occasional nugget of insight or glimpse of complexity among them, for the most part athletes seem to post to Twitter employing the exact same banalities that they use with the media - i.e., "my teammates gave it their all", "great effort by X", etc. , despite the fact the intermediary of the sports journalist, and all the attendant rituals that go with a postgame interview, are no longer part of the equation. One must of course be careful when generalizing from such a concise format, and I suspect that in some cases athletes may merely desire to keep things simple and uncontroversial, or not know what to say beyond the obvious - is there any reason to suspect Evan Lysacek knows anything about womens' ice hockey, after all? - but I also think that to a certain extent, a phrase like "giving it 100%" is something more than a cliché to them. I'm not sure if "belief" is really the correct word, particularly in the sense of its conventional meaning - mantra might be more like it - but it is something that is an intrinsic part of the way a successful competitor thinks about his or her sport, and repeating it has a helpful effect.

In my own experiences with organized sports, brief and undistinguished as they were, I sometimes encountered this phenomenon. When I'd be in the weightroom working out with the other guys on the football team, or doing conditioning drills with my basketball teammates, we'd often encourage each other with similar phrases, which I always found faintly ironic and ridiculous. A lack of any extraordinary athletic talent is without doubt the main reason I could have never succeeded in sports beyond perhaps playing for a lower division college team, but even if I'd had such talent, I suspect I could not have succeeded as a world class athlete. To be an elite competitor seems to me, to a certain extent, to require that one engages in a certain type of narrowly-defined self-delusion. One must believe in one's own gifts unquestionably, and be willing to entirely attribute one's successes to them - (cf. a skier who wins a race by two hundredths of a second attributing a nearly insignificant margin of victory to his or her own superior talent and drive, rather than the luck of skiing on faster snow or avoiding having to ski into a headwind). This is as likely a delusion is not - it is just as probable the deciding difference in this case was the weather or the conditions of the course as the skill of the respective skiers - but it is a necessary one. If one thought of winning not as one's own achievement but merely a matter of luck, it would be difficult to muster motivation to work hard, and to continue to compete through stress, pain, and adversity, when another defeat is the most likely result (after all, only one person/team can win any particular competition). However, at the same time, one cannot allow one's self to believe the implicit corollary there - that one's failures are also attributable only to one's own talents or lack thereof. It isn't necessarily a bad thing that failure discourages us ordinary people - if we fail wretchedly at something in life, and particularly if we do so repeatedly, it may well be a sign that we just aren't very good at it, and ought perhaps to be redirecting our talents toward some other activity. If an elite athlete reacted that way, however, he or she never would made it to elite status, because sporting competitions being the chaotic and unpredictable things that they are, every competitor, even the most talented, fails numerous times on their way up, just by dint of injury or bad luck or not giving one's best performance in a big event. To reach the top of the mountain in any major sport thus requires not only prodigious talent but also a temperamental imperviousness to the discouragement that failure usually brings. A competitive streak is not enough to achieve such imperviousness - one needs not only to want to win badly, but to resist coming to believe that failing to do so means one isn't good enough. That means not indulging in too much introspection about one's own endeavors - start to think too hard or too abstractly about them, and drive and focus on the goal suffer.

Thus, I suspect, the tendency of athletes to focus on seemingly empty verbal talismans like "giving it 100%". Say them enough, and it helps you maintain the focus you need to succeed, enjoy the sense of accomplishment when you win, and block out the pain of disappointment when you lose. I recall reading the David Foster Wallace essay "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart", in which the author expressed his disdain for the former tennis star's autobiography, and his dissatisfaction with the genre of sports memoirs in general. Wallace complained that Austin's book, and sports autobiographies in general, are inevitably poorly written and lacking in self-awareness and anything resembling insight into what makes a great athlete great, and ultimately concluded that it is perhaps only spectators who can articulate what the concept of athletic greatness means, by virtue of their removal from the arena. I think the first part of that conclusion is correct, but not necessarily the second - it seems to me that to achieve athletic greatness on the level of becoming an Olympic champion, or winning a U.S. Open, one has to forfeit a certain amount of introspection as the unaffordable distraction it may be.

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