Thursday, July 9, 2009

Failure as Sports Motivator

Posted By on Thu, Jul 9, 2009 at 4:00 PM

All athletes fail at some level. Some of us just do it sooner than others and in front of smaller crowds, or no crowds at all.

Professional and college athletes are (unfairly) famous for their failures — Bill Buckner for the ground ball that went through his legs, Rick Ankiel and his inability to throw strikes, Darius Washington and his missed free throws against Louisville that would have sent Memphis to the NCAA Tournament. The rest of us fail privately and ingloriously, but are haunted just the same.


We find out we are not good enough. Most of us are confronted with the evidence in high school, some in college, a few at the elite level. The best athlete in my high school made it all the way to the 1968 Olympics, where he lost in the semifinals. Clearly, it was a warning: if the great RK could lose, what about the rest of us?

What indeed? I have been playing squash for ten years. I have achieved a higher level of mediocrity than I did in tennis, which I started playing 50 years ago growing up in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, and racquetball, which I began playing 40 years ago at the University of Michigan where it was called paddleball. I had some modest success in those sports, but eventually I failed at them.

Not only was I not good enough to win consistently, I did not even play up to my potential. And at some point I got worse the more I played. My failure was both mental and physical and thoroughly frustrating.

Then I discovered squash, an indoor racquet sport played primarily in the Northeast and Northwest and in Atlanta by people with Ivy League connections. Here was a sport that I could play well because I had no obvious weaknesses. After two knee operations, I can’t jump or run a quarter mile, but I don’t have to take more than five steps. The racquet is light, the ball is relatively slow. It’s like fantasy tennis. I was reborn.

To the extent that this is a self-improvement blog, it is a self-improvement blog for cynics and slackers. A higher level of mediocrity may accurately describe what most of us hope to achieve, but it will never catch on in a world of business and cable television that exhorts us to excellence, number-one, good to great, and the modern miracles of self-improvement. A mediocrity movement reeks too much of Garrison Keillor and his “pretty good” grocery stores in Lake Wobegon.

So be it. Athletic accomplishment in middle age is determined, more than we like to admit, by luck — the genetic luck of the draw, a job that allows significant time off late in the day and on weekends, a metabolism rate and body type that keeps your weight down, and the good fortune of remaining free from illness and serious injuries. Three of the best squash players in Memphis ten years ago — Abbott Widdecombe, Lou Loeb, and Dr. Michael Fleming — are all over 50 now, and none of them is currently playing. One has multiple sclerosis, one has had a hip replacement, and one had a double knee replacement.

Author Geoff Colvin is partly right in his book Talent Is Overrated, which argues that mastery of anything takes about 10,000 hours of practice. I believe him. Practice all you want, but you gotta have some talent and luck.

Sports are hard, but fogeydom is easy. For all of my adult life I have weighed between 170 and 205 pounds, no thanks to any self-discipline on my part. I believe that most diets fail. Fitness regimens don’t last. Free weights cause lower-back pain. Running causes blisters and hurts your knees. Lessons are expensive. Book learning is forgotten. And beer and wine are tasty as well as good for you.

The exercise routine that lasts is the one you enjoy, which for me is playing a game that involves a ball. A conditioning program is no good unless you can stick to it. I have done push-ups since I got out of college and can knock off 55 or so every morning without fail. One exercise, one minute out of 1,440 minutes in a day. Pretty pitiful. But I do it, and I’m over 12,000 minutes and counting.

For inspiration, I look to Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, who can do 70 push-ups, six more than his age; to former football great Herschel Walker, who disdained weight-lifting and did push-ups with his girlfriend sitting on his back; to Memphis lawyer Mike Cody, who ran the half-mile in near world-class time 50 years ago at Southwestern college and is still going; and to those thousands of runners who chug past my house on North Parkway every December in the marathon with a smile on their face. I have more than a few friends who have told me they go to sleep visualizing strides, swings, or perfect backhands.

I’m interested, but not enough to emulate them, in the senior super-athletes who are occasionally written up in the papers, like Memphian Dr. Earle Weeks, 52, who plans to run a marathon in every state and is on number 44, or the mother-daughter team that drove themselves nearly to death in some godawful land-water-desert-mountain endurance race. I know perfectly well there are people out there practicing and conditioning while I am slacking off and drinking beer and sneaking a Girl Scout cookie. I hope they have a bad day if and when I meet them on the court.

This blog, then, is not really about squash, an admittedly obscure and somewhat elitist sport. It is about getting worse and then getting better. It is about the near obsession that baby boomers have with sports and the games of our youth.

Some things I’ll be writing about:
Hitting the wall.
What drives athletes to start over.
Mental tricks that work.
Stupid sports tricks.
When girls couldn’t play.
Get fit in seven minutes a week.
The amazing Sandy Koufax diet.
Great sports books.
Talent is overrated, and so is practice.
Why you’re good but not great.
The only Memphian who was the best in the world.
When sports is better than sex.
Should you compete with your spouse?
How, where, and in what sport did you reach a higher level of mediocrity?

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