Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part IIIn a July 3 post I wrote, "Success at any form of competition is based on several factors: mastery of fundamental techniques, supreme focus on the task at hand and maintaining a state of calm in the heat of battle." An article by Philip E. Ross in the August 2006 issue of Scientific American takes an in depth look at the first of these factors and concludes, "Effortful study is the key to achieving success in chess, classical music, soccer and many other fields. New research has indicated that motivation is a more important factor than innate ability." Ross is a contributing editor at the magazine, a chess player and the father of Laura Ross, a chess master. In a sidebar to the main article, Ross writes, "Researchers have found evidence that chess grandmasters rely on a vast store of knowledge of game positions. Some scientists have theorized that grandmasters organize the information in chunks, which can be quickly retrieved from long-term memory and manipulated in working memory." If you are wondering what this has to do with basketball, read on: "To accumulate this body of structured knowledge, grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. The top performers in music, mathematics and sports appear to gain their expertise in the same way, motivated by competition and the joy of victory."
Ross notes, "Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax...In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields."
When I read this article, I immediately thought of Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, who are among the most fascinating and compelling athletes of all-time. What I respect most about them is that they all worked tirelessly to improve their skills and did not stop doing so even when they reached the very top of their games. Pete Maravich spent hour upon hour with his "homework basketball" drills--dribbling, shooting and passing. Before Pat Croce owned the Philadelphia 76ers he served as a trainer for many professional athletes and he identified Julius Erving as one of the hardest working athletes he ever saw. Erving and Maravich were teammates briefly with the Atlanta Hawks (before a court order sent Erving back to the ABA's Virginia Squires) and the two future Hall of Famers used to stay after practice to hone their skills in one-on-one games; Erving later did the same thing with another future Hall of Famer, Squires' teammate George "Iceman" Gervin.
Jerry Rice has said that when he watched game film he focused more on one dropped pass than the 8 or 10 that he caught; he also went into every training camp with the mindset that he might get cut unless he put forth the utmost effort at all times. I once asked Scottie Pippen how he would would most like to be remembered as a player and he instantly replied, "A gym rat. A guy who worked very hard to make sure that his game was complete in every area and wanted to be looked at as one of the best players in the league." The work ethics of Jordan, Bryant and Woods are very well documented.
Each of these great athletes unquestionably has certain gifts in terms of size, speed and/or hand-eye coordination--but what set them apart is how hard they worked to refine and hone those raw materials until they glistened like precious jewels.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM