The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Why You Are Not an Elite Martial Artist

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Freakonomics. It was a transcript of a podcast. The full post may be read here.

There are a lot of factors that go into greatness, many of which are not obvious. A variety of Olympic and professional athletes tell us how they made it and what they sacrificed to get there. And if you can identify the sport most likely to get a kid into a top college — well then, touchĂ©!
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Maybe you’re an obsessive sports fan. Or maybe a more casual fan, and you follow just a couple sports or teams. Maybe you pay no attention to sports, and you only see it when the Olympics are on someone else’s TV. Whichever the case: when you do see those athletes, it’s easy to think of them as existing solely in that context. A full-grown adult. Wearing a uniform. Performing under extraordinary pressure. Focused on a highly specialized task that has zero to do with daily life, or at least your daily life. But is that who those people really are? And how did they get so good at this thing they do? When you see them on TV, all you’re seeing is the outcome. But what were the inputs? We understand that elite athletes represent some magical combination of talent and determination. But what about, say, luck?
Shawn JOHNSON: Oh my gosh. Yes, absolutely. I think a ton of luck is involved.
That’s Shawn Johnson, an American gymnast who’s won an Olympic gold medal and many other top honors.
JOHNSON: It’s like this miracle-math kind of equation that has to equal the perfect answer. I mean, you can’t get hurt. You have to be healthy. You can’t have the flu on the wrong day. You have to find the right coach in the right city. You have to be able to afford it. It’s all these random things and when you get all the people who fit that equation, you’re not left with many people. So I guess I was just the best of the very few who fit that equation.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: the third installment in a series we’re calling “The Hidden Side of Sports.” In the first episode, we looked at how sports have always mirrored society — from our historical penchant for war and colonizing to our more recent obsession with pushing the limits of human achievement:
NEWSREEL: Three minutes, 59.4 seconds, shattering the four-minute mile, the Everest of athletic achievement.
In episode two, we looked at the economics of a single NFL franchise, the San Francisco 49ers, and how they’ve begun to recover from a debilitating losing streak.
Kyle SHANAHAN: When you lose a game, a lot of noise happens. When you lose two, a ton happens. Usually three’s like Armageddon. Try nine.
In today’s episode: becoming an athlete. Time to step back and try to understand how these people rose to such heights. How scientific is the process; how predictable? We’ll look at a number of factors, including of course raw talent:
Kerri WALSH-JENNINGS: My parents are both super-studly athletes.
Mark TEIXEIRA: Yep, I think the gift is number one.
We’ll look at will and determination:
Domonique FOXWORTH: I did a bunch of pushups and sit ups that night, until I was throwing up.
And the mental aspect of this most physical pursuit:
J.J. REDICK: Well, I think the mind is as big of a separator for professional athletes as any physical tools.
Stories of opportunities gained — and lost.
David CANTON: In 1981, there was 18.7 percent African-American players in the major leagues. As of 2018, 7.8 percent.
And we’ll hear one story that’s almost too good to be true:
Andre INGRAM: They said, “Hey, you are blowing up on Twitter, you’re blowing up on Instagram.” You’re everywhere and you just have no idea.
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When you see an elite performer in any field — sports or music or surgery, whatever — it’s natural to ask yourself a question: how’d they get so good? How much of that ability were they born with? How much is attributable to hard work and practice? This is a debate that’s been going on probably forever: nature versus nurture; raw talent versus what’s called “deliberate practice.” We’ve had the debate on this program, most recently in an episode called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Too often, this debate ends up obscuring what strikes me as a pretty obvious fact: to become great at anything, you need both: talent and practice. Lots of each. But even that fact seems pretty narrow, don’t you think? Because athletic success — like any success in life, or any failure — is what you might call multifactorial. A lot of inputs, a lot of variables. Imagine you’ve got two athletes with identical talent levels and identical training methods: do you really want to make a big bet that their athletic careers also end up identical? As much as we might want to turn the pursuit of success into science, into a recipe, real life is more nuanced than that. Also, more interesting.
FOXWORTH: I mean, Jay Z sold drugs, grew up in Marcy Projects to a single mother.
That’s Domonique Foxworth, who played six seasons in the NFL.
FOXWORTH: Now he is a multi-multi-millionaire married to BeyoncĂ©, the most amazing talent we have today. So why don’t we set it up so that all young men must sell drugs when they’re kids, and have only their mother, and grow up in Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York. I mean, he had a great talent and to be honest there’s probably a great deal of luck he happened to not be there when one of his friends got arrested, and his friend didn’t snitch on him — that is a lot of luck. And the same thing is true for me. I can go through the course of my life and look at all the things that happened that were just happenstance that led me to these positions, and I’m not going to say that it’s a model that should be followed. I understand that there are occasional outliers, but trying to build around that seems crazy.
So okay, we’re not going to arrive at some perfect model for turning an ordinary person into a world-class athlete. But we’ll do our best to describe some of the inputs that seem to be strong contributors. Let’s start with … physical ability. It may not surprise you to learn that a lot of elite athletes exhibited a pretty high baseline level of talent from an early age. Mark Teixeira, for instance, a three-time Major League Baseball All-Star.
Mark TEIXEIRA: Yes. And most kids grow up being — you know, if you’re an elite athlete, you’re going to be the best kid on your team. I played every sport as a kid.
DUBNER: Was baseball your best sport from the outset?
TEIXEIRA: It always was. And I actually enjoyed playing basketball more. I played backyard football. I played soccer, tennis, and — but I was always good at baseball. I knew baseball was going to be a sport for my future.
Athletic talent is considered one of the more heritable traits passed from parent to child. In SuperFreakonomics, one of the books I wrote with the economist Steve Levitt, we performed a rough calculation showing that if a Major League Baseball player has a son, that boy is about 800 times more likely than a random boy to also make the majors. So it may not surprise you that a lot of the athletes we’ve been interviewing for this series came from athletic families. Here’s Kerri Walsh-Jennings, who’s won three Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball:
WALSH-JENNINGS: Oh man. Well, my life has literally been family and sports like from day one, from birth. My parents are both super-studly athletes. They both come from very athletic families.
SHIFFRIN: My parents are both athletic.
And the alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who’s won two Olympic gold medals.
SHIFFIN: My mom is extremely athletic, and even now, she’s had knee surgeries and hand surgeries and neck surgeries and everything, but she’s still such an incredible athlete.
JOHNSON: Well, I mean my dad did every sport when he was growing up.
And the gold-medal gymnast Shawn Johnson.
JOHNSON: He was a hockey player, he wrestled, he did BMX, he raced Moto X. I mean, everything.
Just how powerful is the sports gene? David Epstein is a science journalist and author of a book called The Sports Gene. In it, he tells the story of a man named Donald Thomas.
David EPSTEIN: Donald is about six-foot-two, a lean Bahamian guy.
Thomas played basketball at a small college in Missouri, but he was far from an elite player, and the college program was far from elite. One day in the gym, he was bragging about how high he could jump.
EPSTEIN: And the best jumper on the track team, a guy named Carlos, overheard him and said, “You know, you’re talking all that trash. You wouldn’t even clear a bar of six-foot-six in a real competition.” And Donald says, “Yes, I would.”
So they go out to the track and Carlos sets the high jump bar at six-feet, six inches. Donald — still wearing his basketball sneakers — runs up, jumps, clears it easily. Carlos moves the bar higher, and higher. Donald keeps clearing it.
EPSTEIN: We’re talking about the first high jumps of his life. He’s going over the bar backward of course, which he’d never done before. And Carlos gets the bar to seven feet, and Donald clears seven feet, at which point Carlos is worried he’s going to hurt himself.
Donald Thomas soon moved on to Auburn University, on a track scholarship. And, not long after, he competed in the World Track Championships.
ANNOUNCER: And this is Donald Thomas, very much an unknown quantity really.
Thomas was jumping against much more experienced and accomplished athletes.
ANNOUNCER: And he goes clear! Donald Thomas goes clear at 2 meters, 35. The man that started high jump only two years ago. That is an incredible jump.
EPSTEIN: And not only does he win but he records the highest center of mass jump ever in history. He doesn’t set the world record because his form is so bad. He looks like he’s riding an invisible deck chair through the air.
It turned out that Donald Thomas had a physiological trait — an abnormally long Achilles tendon — that gave him a big advantage.
EPSTEIN: So there aren’t that many Donald Thomases in terms of winning the World Championships. But this happens at lower levels all the time where somebody will step in with no or very little background and win some kind of regional or state championship and then those are the people who end up training and going on to become champions.
David Epstein also writes about the success of “talent-transfer programs” in the U.K., Australia, China, and elsewhere …
EPSTEIN: Where they’ll take people who maybe aren’t making the national team or making it to the top in a certain sport and say, “Hey, why don’t you go try this other stuff?”
Some converted athletes have done remarkably well. The U.K. won several gold medals in rowing and skeleton with athletes who began in other sports. In the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Australian Alisa Camplin, a converted sailor, won gold in aerial skiing.
EPSTEIN: She wins the Olympic gold medal and was still so poor at skiing that when she was invited to ski down the mountain to the gold-medal winners’ press conference, she fell and rolled down the mountain on the winner’s flowers because she still didn’t know how to ski. I heard she learned how to ski later, like on vacation. But not by the time she’d won the Olympic gold medal.
TEIXEIRA: Yep, the gift is number one.
Mark Teixeira again.
TEIXEIRA: Because without the gift, you can’t take a kid that has zero athletic ability and just happens to be a hard worker and he goes to the big leagues. But talent on its own, as we all know: it only gets you only so far.
But talent on its own, as we all know: it only gets you only so far.
TEIXEIRA: At any given time there’s 1,000 big leaguers out there. But there’s probably 10,000 players, whether in college or amateur baseball or low professional ranks, that are good enough to someday make it.
DUBNER: Talent-wise you’re saying.
TEIXEIRA: Yes, there’s 10,000 talented players with a gift. Of those 10,000 players, which are the ones that work hard enough? Which are the ones that figure it out? Which are the ones that get it? That make the right decisions and you know, train the right way, and eat the right way and do preparation for games. Those are the ones that make it. The most talented player that I ever saw as an amateur was Corey Patterson. And he had a decent big-league career. But talent-wise, I would kill for his talent. Talent-wise, there were a ton of guys that I thought had more talent than me, but I thought I figured it out.
REDICK: My brother was inherently more talented than I was.
That’s J.J. Redick, who’s played in the NBA since 2006.
REDICK: He could never shoot the basketball the way that I could, but he could hit a baseball a mile, he had a cannon for an arm. My best friend from high school was the same way certain kids are just — everything sort of comes easy to them, and it’s natural for them.
JOHNSON: I have seen some of the most physically gifted and talented gymnasts I think our sport has ever seen.
Shawn Johnson again. She now coaches young gymnasts.
JOHNSON: But they just do not have the mental capability to get themselves to that elite level. And it’s not a matter of training them or getting them to the right sports psychologist or getting the right people around them. It’s just, it’s not there. I think you have to be born with some sort of innate ability to push out all pain and emotion and push yourself past a boundary that 99 percent of the world kind of operates within.
FOXWORTH: I remember being in an apartment we lived in in Indianapolis …
Domonique Foxworth again.
FOXWORTH: … and I told my father I wanted to be a professional football player …
He was eight years old.
FOXWORTH: … and he told me, alright, well, you set a goal, you should do something to get you closer to that goal every day. And I took that to heart. So I did a bunch of pushups and situps that night, until I was throwing up — it’s ridiculous.
What was it that gave Foxworth such an intense drive for football
FOXWORTH: I was in love with the game, in part because of how violent it was. Honestly, whatever warped sense of masculinity I had at that age, that probably has not fully left me, was like, “Basketball is for the soft kids. Football is for the men. And I want to play football.”
ARMSTRONG: I just, I trained my ass off. I loved it. And then when I got in the race, I just didn’t want to lose.
That’s Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who was stripped of his titles when it was proved that he — along with many cyclists of his era — had been doping. I’d asked Armstrong what drove him when he was a kid.
ARMSTRONG: As a 46-year-old and I look back on it, and really really far removed from that part of my life, there are probably things. I mean, I didn’t have — I didn’t grow up on the street, but I didn’t grow up behind a white picket fence with 2.3 brothers and sisters and an S.U.V. and a mom and a dad. My mom and I were scrappers, and I never met my biological father and I’m not making excuses here but I’m just trying to — you know, there wasn’t — the only father figures in my life were my coaches.
DUBNER: Did you — I was going to ask; did you ride angry? I don’t mean quite angry, but you were really cocky and confident.
ARMSTRONG: You can say “angry.”
DUBNER: All right. Angry, yeah.
ARMSTRONG: I didn’t walk around angry I just — I felt it, it served me best to be angry. The anger part, and I also know that this happens in every locker room of every sport. So, let’s just say, right, let’s just use Texas football and Oklahoma football as the biggest rivalry you have. The week leading up to the game, those coaches, every single day, guess what is posted on the board, in the University of Texas Longhorns locker room, meeting room, it is articles and quotes from the other team. “We’re going to kick their ass.” “That so-and-so player, he’s mediocre” And the coaches, they love that. “Hey Joey, did you see what number 82 said about you?” And so we — if I didn’t have that, if I didn’t have a rival speaking out in the press saying, “Oh I saw Armstrong last week, he looked average, he looked like he’s past his best.” If I didn’t have that, which I did plenty of times, then I’d make it up. I’d go read some article. And I’d say “That motherfucker. Can you believe that he said that?” And the next day I’d go out and train and I mean, it would be the only thing on my mind. Now, it sounds a little toxic, but it made me ride harder, made me train harder, made me hustle.
WALSH-JENNINGS: I think my insecurity drives me really really hard, you know?
Kerri Walsh-Jennings again:
WALSH-JENNINGS: At every kind of leveling up from eighth grade to high school, high school to college, college to the Olympic team — there was a moment, there were many moments of insecurity in the transition, many moments of, “Oh, S-H-I-T, can I do this? Am I good enough?” It’s exhausting. It’s really exhausting. I want to leave this sport being known as a bad motherfucker.
So yes, most of the athletes we’ve heard from were extraordinarily driven, and talented. But of course they’ve also had to work incredibly hard at perfecting their craft. Most of them, at least. Remember Donald Thomas, our high-jumping friend?
ANNOUNCER: And he goes clear! Donald Thomas goes clear at 2 meters, 35.
David Epstein interviewed Thomas’s college track coaches:
EPSTEIN: They said they would usually find him outside shooting free throws when he was supposed to be inside learning how to high jump.
Most athletes, however, do train incredibly hard. In part because they’re not allowed not to by their coaches, their teams, maybe their parents. But of course, they also push themselves.
Mike MCGLINCHEY: I think it’s about how much you want it, how much you love it, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for it.
Mike McGlinchey is a rookie offensive lineman on the San Francisco 49ers; he was the ninth player chosen in this year’s draft.
McGLINCHEY: I was never the best athlete on my team. I was — I’m still not the best athlete on my on my team here. But I’ve always wanted it more, I’ve always worked harder than everybody else. And just attention to detail and the things that — you need to know how to self-correct, you need to know how to learn.
“Knowing how to learn” is particularly valuable when the skills you’re trying to learn are unusual.
MCGLINCHEY: Playing offensive line is one of the more unnatural human movements on earth, in sport. You’re required to move other large men out of the way and when you’re trying to stop them in pass protection, you’re completely moving backwards. It’s a really, really different thing to have to learn how to do, and until your body can feel it, until you can watch it on film and self-diagnose when things happen, that’s where the separation comes in.
MANUEL: Swimming is like pretty difficult.
That’s Simone Manuel, who won two gold and two silver medals at the 2016 Olympics.
MANUEL Because you’re in the water, which is totally defying gravity. You have to work out every day because if you’re out the water for one day even — when I take my day off on Sunday when I come back Monday morning, I feel terrible. And you have to kind of practice all of those aspects of the sport on a regular basis, or else you’re not going to improve.
There’s also the fact that the training opportunities in some sports are inherently constrained.
SHIFFRIN: Ski racing is a really unique sport in many ways. When you think about it, the actual time that I spend, or any racer spends, on the hill actually skiing during a day of training — let’s say you get, one course length is about 60 seconds long, and you get seven runs in one training session. And that takes about somewhere between three to five hours, depending on how long the chairlift takes. So you’re adding up about seven minutes total of practice in your sport for the entire training session, which is comparative to, say, three to five hours of somebody playing tennis in a single session. Which makes me feel like the deliberate practice component is that much more essential. There’s skiers out there, teammates of mine in the past, who spend their time from the top of the chairlift to the top of the race course, it could be half of a train length, that they’re skiing down and they’re just flailing about and doing whatever. And I was doing drills to the top of the course, trying to make use of every square inch of space on the mountain. Every time I’m deliberately practicing skiing and my technique and everything, I’m kind of getting a one-up on everybody else who’s not.
Because it’s so demanding to master the skill set that accompanies each sport, whether it’s skiing or swimming or football, you can imagine an aspiring athlete would want to spend as much time as possible on that skill set. And not waste time on, say, other sports. This has become a huge debate in youth sports: at what age should an athlete stop playing other sports and commit to “theirs”? And once they do commit, is it definitively better to spend most of your time in deliberate, structured practice. Or what about a more free-flowing, unstructured environment, what’s sometimes called “deliberate play”?
REDICK: I totally agree with this this notion that there’s something to be gained from less structure.
That again is the NBA veteran J.J. Redick. As an example, he brings up his former teammate Jamal Crawford.
REDICK: Jamal is one of the best ball handlers in N.B.A. history. He’s had a fantastic career. Jamal will tell you he’s really never done a drill. He’s never done a ball-handling drill but he has incredible ball-handling skills. And he’s done that through just playing pickup or taking a basketball around his neighborhood when he was growing up and literally putting moves on bystanders he as he passed them in the street.
Redick’s own view on unstructured versus structured practice is still evolving.
REDICK: I had a teammate in Orlando. His name was Anthony Johnson, I played with him for two years. He was much older. This was early in my career. And I met up with him for lunch and I was telling him about all the workouts I was doing that summer. And he said to me, “Dude, don’t worry about being the best workout guy. Worry about being the best player.” And it kind of annoyed me when he said that, but I’ve thought about him saying that probably 50 times over the last five years. For me, part of it is I want structure. I feel like I thrive in structure. I like having a plan. I like going to a gym and saying, “This is what I’m going to work on today.” But then the other part of it is, it’s sport, right? There’s something organic about it. There’s something that has to flow naturally. And if your point of reference is only structure — well, the game is not really structured, right? You’re constantly reacting to things as they happen. There’s nine other players, there’s one ball. I think that’s actually been incredible advice for me over last five years of my career.
J.J. Redick grew up in rural Virginia, and his practice environment then was pretty unstructured.
REDICK: My dad put up a hoop and it was just — for me being in that backyard and shooting a basketball and seeing it go through the net became just an obsession and it’s something that I wanted to do over and over again.
Lately, Redick has tried to reconnect with that unstructured practice environment.
REDICK: You get a safe place to work on your weaknesses and improve those weaknesses. Look, if I go into a gym and I’ve got 30 people in the gym watching — even at 34, I’m going into my 13th year in the N.B.A it’s a little nerve-wracking to work on your weaknesses in front of people in a structured setting. But alone, away from any lights it’s a more calming experience and you can gain confidence from doing that.



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