Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tale of Two Cities

Ok, so this has been banging around in my head for quite some time.  I don't know whether it's actually going to amount to anything, but here we go.

I read an article on about what it takes to be an elite level athlete written by Tom Kelso.  As I understand his thesis, it's: "Be genetically gifted, stay healthy, refine your skills, become mentally sound, hope for good luck."  I read this, and I immediately contrasted it with Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker from a few years ago, which summarizes the recipe for success as:  "Work hard and put in your time."  These two conclusions seem to be at odds.  And personally, while instinctively I side with the former, I hope the latter to hold more truth.

Kelso's conclusion favors the inherently talented, the ones who made varsity their freshman year without trying that hard.  Kobe Bryant, LeBron James.  Brock Lesnar.  Gladwell's favors the dedicated, those who kept coming to practice despite failure.  Michael Jordan*, Jeremy Lin.  Felipe Costa.  And yes, these are gross generalizations that may not be entirely accurate, but I think you take my point.

What's more inspiring---the top-dog winning as he was always expected to, or seeing someone who has been undervalued because he didn't fit the standard aesthetic ideal gritting his way through to victory?  More and more, this distinction between Kelso and Gladwell is becoming a nullity---look at the guys who consistently win at the big jiu jitsu tournaments.  Gone are the days when BJ Penn can train for three years and take black belt world championship gold home.  Now you have to train six days a week, at least tice a day, with strength and conditioning mixed in.  If you're really dedicated, you'll cross-train judo and wrestling.

I take this a an acceptance by the general public that Gladwell wins out.  Or at least, that Gladwell's conclusion is more right than Kelso's.  It might be that we all take solace in the idea that we could indeed be world champions if we didn't have work and family and money and everything else standing between us and what we think we want to do.

But really, it has more to do with realizing my potential than with making excuses.  I know that as it stands now, I will not be a black belt world champion in 4 years because I have other priorities in life.  I have a career, and I have aspirations outside jiu jitsu, and I have responsibilities besides.  What Gladwell's opinion allows me to do is to commit to working hard despite those "drawbacks" and still get the best out of what time I have.  Still drill before and after class, still roll with friends who can help me improve, find ways to condition off the mat so that when I'm on it, I'm not sucking wind in five minutes.  (Although there is no way to build grappling conditioning better than grappling.  So I have to figure out how to make this one work.)  Because if you commit to the full-court press, you don't have to be as good as your opponents; you just have to be willing to work harder than them every second of the game.  Doesn't sound that hard.

* -- Yes, I understand the irony in labeling Michael Jordan as an untalented hack, especially having lived in the Chicago suburbs during the 1990s.  The fact remains, he's likely the most successful basketball player who didn't make varsity his sophomore year.

1 comment:

  1. Jordan was always a terrific athlete - genetic gifts gave him the enormous hands, the frame perfect for basketball and the marriage of vision and bursts of otherworldly explosive movement.

    The full court press for the entire basketball game is unworkable on an elite level. Yes, Andre Galvao drills his ass off, but he is more genetically gifted than Oli Geddes, who is also drilling and training very often.

    Kelso is more accurate than the often-inaccurate Gladwell here, but whatever keeps your engine going is what fits best into your mental schematic.