In the previous piece, I wrote that I had a proven method for getting worse at all sports:
- Practice inconsistently (or not at all)
- Get (or stay) fat
- Ignore the health and function of your body
- Idolize elite players
- Pretend your skills are perfect
Those are all contrapositive statements. The first, as an example: “practicing inconsistently diminishes sport skills.” Which means my direct statement is “improve sport skills by consistent practice.”
This round, I would like to look briefly at each of my Five Ways to Suck at Sports.
1. Practice inconsistently (or not at all)
In the brilliant book Peak, author Anders Ericsson (referenced frequently in Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code”) campaigns for “deliberate practice.” Perhaps oversimplified, deliberate practice reduces to: (1) focus on skills; (2) try, fail, receive immediate feedback, try again, and so on; (3) practice frequently over a long time period. He argues that expertise in any skill can be developed with daily practice over a roughly ten-year window. The whole thing works because of small doses of struggle and small adaptations, accumulated over minutes, days, months, and years of practice sessions.
Dan John references his Utah State throws coach Ralph Maughan when reminding athletes, “Little and often over the long haul.”
At StrongFirst, we advocate for daily skill practices and term them “Greasing the Groove.” With little physical exertion, with lighter-than-maximal weights, with ultra-short training times (under 15 minutes in many cases), many students report lifetime PRs in their press, their snatch test, their Turkish get-up, their pistol, their pull-up or weighted pull-up, and a variety of other strength skills in as little as 3 weeks.
My twins are very young as of this article. They remind me that babies literally never stop trying to sit, stand, crawl, and walk. Once a skill is achieved, they want to do it longer, farther, faster. So they practice every few minutes, every day, with no desire to skip a day.
Historical record seems to indicate that frequent, consistent practice is the way to improve a skill. So, by implication, not practicing consistently is the best possible Way to Suck at Sports.
(Fun argument: What about elites who retire from an activity, yet return better after just a short training period? Never forget about the 8-10 years of consistency they had before that “retirement.” “Just like riding a bicycle,” as I noted in the last piece.)
2. Get (or stay) fat
There seems to be a well-defined body type for almost every sport. With limited exceptions, every elite athlete in a given sport looks basically the same. (Fun charts in this article to demonstrate my point.) Female gymnasts at the Olympic level are rarely over 5’ 4”; NBA forwards are rarely under 6’ 4”; NFL cornerbacks are typically 6’ 0” and 190lb; front row players in rugby are usually over 6 feet and well over 200lb.
What is astonishing, given all this variety in body sizes across sports, is just how muscular everyone is at the elite level. Rippling deltoids and defined abdominals and all that. The Olympics is very nearly soft-core pornography, with all the sculpted physiques and bare skin. (I’m hardly the first to say this; what exactly do you think ESPN’s Body Issue is really about?)
Super-heavy weightlifters, NFL lineman, and Sumo wrestlers get ribbed by internet geeks for being fat (not even going there in this article), but, statistically, they carry more lean mass in just muscle and bone than 99% of all human beings. So, don’t worry, they are plenty muscular and strong under the flab.
All of which begs the question, why? Why are elite athletes lean?
Because fat does not contribute to movement. I recall reading that a 6lb dead weight added to an 1,100lb thoroughbred is worth 0.5% more energy used to run a mile. (Even crazier, a 6lb overweight jockey seems to cost sixteen lengths, in terms of distance to the winning horse!) So 0.5% weight added, 0.5% energy increase. That’s not much, folks.
But what might be the impact of a 6lb dead weight added to a 200lb man? (3% weight added) What might be the impact of a 6lb dead weight added to a 150lb woman? (4% weight added) Or the impact of a 6lb dead weight added to a 120lb woman? (5% weight added)
Generally, it is accepted that each ground contact in sprinting requires absorbing 3X – 4X bodyweight. By gaining 6lb of useless weight, how can you possibly become 18-24lb stronger?
“Regression to the mean,” in this case, means that all the elites in a sport tend toward a particular body shape and bodyfat percentage because that’s just what works better. So, if you aspire to be the best, being more fat than elites in your sport is a pretty reliable Way to Suck at Sports.
3. Ignore the health and function of your body
A sorry definition of health, and the first one offered by Google search, is “the state of being free from illness or injury.”
I prefer to believe health is the optimal function of all the body’s systems: neural (brain & spine), endocrine (hormones), digestive, muscular, pulmonary (lungs), cardiovascular (heart), and others. And optimal function means that every system increases or decreases its capacity in response to the others. I resent when people speculate about cancers and nervous breakdowns in elite athletes: “But she was so fit.”
Look, fitness needs to be redefined: “preparedness for a particular task.” Physical fitness, mental fitness, aerobic fitness — none of those describes health. (Aside: when preparing for your sport, are you giving due attention to mental fitness? Most are not…)
Health is your resistance to disease AND your ability to adapt/overcome/grow/excel. The magic of a healthy body is that it can adapt to nearly anything.
Mithridatism is the foundational concept behind vaccination. Vaccination is meant to amp up adaptation of your immune systemwhich depends on beginning with health. Auto-immune disorders are commonly exacerbated in elite athletes, yet sub-elite athletes with similar disorders benefit from their training. I don’t think being an elite is a death sentence, by any means, but Dan John has described in detail in his books that choosing to be the best in the world at one thing comes at a price. I believe that price is your health.
If you are truly determined to become elite in your sport (and here’s how to become one), you will certainly make compromises to your health along the way. Competitive stress, psychological stress from both self-imposed and outside pressure, days and weeks and years of intense training (and, perhaps, excessive conditioning and associated oxidative stress?) will take their toll.
Old-time athletes, though, like the champion weightlifters of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (the late, great Tommy Kono comes to mind) managed to live long lives after sport. They emphasized maintaining flexibility, reasonable diets, managing stress, strong relationships, and having interests other than sport. They took weeks off–sometimes months!
Contrast this with Lance Armstrong. In both of his autobiographies, he describes his obsession with riding. It dominated his life. It forced out friends, significant others, and even teammates. No point was too far, in terms of mental training, physical training, or “feeding the machine” with his nutrition. There was no balance to Lance’s life; no down time; no off button. Forgive me for speculating, but how much of his testicular cancer–based on reliable data about many other cancers and their relationship to stress–was due to the constant, ever-increasing pressure he had on himself to be the absolute best in the sport of cycling? How much of his disease was catalyzed (or even caused) by his ill-health?
There is no guarantee that striving for vibrant health will create better sporting results. There is no guarantee that improving in sports will damage your health. But there are two guarantees for the high school, club, and other amateur athletes I serve:
- Forgetting to manage your health will shorten your athletic career
- Fitness alone (“preparedness for a task”) will never create health
Since you, dear reader, are most likely an amateur athlete, neglecting your health and the function of your body is a sure Way to Suck at Sports.
4. Idolize elite players
In Good to Great, author Jim Collins reveals a key psychological edge of companies about to achieve breakthrough: they realize, and quietly declare, “We could be the best.” They do not look on their competitors, even those long-established as dominant forces in industry, as Goliaths or unclimbable peaks. Companies ready to move from good to great simply acknowledge that they have the potential to be the best and get to work.
I have read innumerable athlete autobiographies. In every instance, the true champions aspired to greatness for themselves. They did not gaze at the shadows of competitors who came before them. Decathlete Dan O’Brien was certainly inspired by Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner, but he was not awed by them. Lance knew all of the great French and Italian cyclists of old, but he was not afraid of them. Legendary tennis player Andre Agassi seemed to care less about John McEnroe while making his flight to the stratosphere of sport. While these athletes were coming up, elite players were not godheads, idols, or models. They were just examples.
But if you hold elites in your sport on high, you do not believe you can be the best. You compare yourself to them. You marvel at their accomplishments. You wonder how it is possible to achieve as they have. A better strategy would be to violate an old maxim: “Never meet your heroes.” When people say that of celebrities, it is because you will inevitably be disappointed to learn that your idols are human. They are not magical creatures endowed with special gifts.
As an athlete, it is an advantage to know this. To know your “heroes” — better, your rivals — are human like you is empowering. They suffer like you. They struggle like you. They err like you. And that makes them beatable.
But if you don’t want to acknowledge this and prefer to treat your competition like idols, you have chosen a verified Way to Suck at Sports.
5. Pretend your skills are perfect
I wrote in a previous article that the key difference between elite athletes and beginners is that elites are noticeably better at the basics than everyone else. There are more examples of this throughout sports than are worth describing. To be the best does not require flashy tricks or backboard-busting moves. In fact, and I forget if this was said by Bill Belichek or another NFL coach, professional coaches believe “winning favors the team who makes the fewest mistakes.”
John Wooden in Wooden probably described this best: when a player chose an around-the-back pass to a teammate, despite that the assist lead to a scrimmage-winning score, that player was punished. The lesson to be learned was two-fold: “the team is greater than the individual” and “fundamentals are key to this team’s strategy.”
Any good NCAA basketball player would be dusted by Allen Iverson head-to-head. It wouldn’t be because of height, power, or talent. Iverson dribbles better and moves better on the court. NFL vets tell fresh draft picks to read the playbook and study more film, because the professional game “just moves faster.” Usain Bolt looks like any tall high school sprinter coming out of the blocks or around the turn in the 200m, yet every individual step is 1-2% more powerful and efficient.
To become an elite athlete requires relentless pursuit of perfection in the fundamentals. Groundbreaking electric guitarist Joe Satriani still practices his scales every day and he is considered the Great Teacher for modern guitarists.
But you could believe your skills are “good enough.” Worse, you could assume they are perfect. You could stop honing the basics and start working on the sexy stuff. That’s fine: it’s a most enjoyable Way to Suck at Sports.