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Rhythm in Sports 

 

After music, the field of human endeavor most closely associated with rhythm would be sports. Except for the types of competition (such as figure skating) which are judged by the form of the bodily movements, the players in athletic contests seek a victorious result. A basketball player must toss the basketball through a hoop in order to score points. It makes no difference whether his physical motions were awkward or graceful: The points count so long as the ball passed through the hoop and no rules were violated. This gives sports an advantage from our standpoint. Because sports have clear-cut winners and losers, we can define excellent performance on the basis of a game’s outcome. It avoids the problem, evident in music and the arts, of leaving the determination of excellence to critics who may be biased. When good athletes are up against each other, the winner may be seen objectively to have done well.

Another aspect of sports is that its contests take place at a particular time. The athlete must perform then or his virtues do not count. There is no time, as in art, to dawdle over an performance, ponder changes, and make it right. The athletes perform physically although there is also a mental component. The spectators at sporting events can watch the rhythmic movements openly taking place as the athletes make one move or another. They can guess an athlete’s state of mind from strategies exhibited during the contest, facial grimaces, and post-game interviews. All in all, it makes for a more dramatic and, in some ways, personally more appealing kind of rhythmic performance than in music.

From the outside, championship performances have a mysterious quality about them. I remember in a Sports Illustrated article on the 1984 Olympics seeing the photograph of a wrestler on the U.S. team who was concentrating so hard that his eyes were glazed. What must be happening inside his mind that it should be put under such a strain! Had these athletes become like zombies? The performances might not seem so mysterious if we knew what the athletes saw from the inside - if we could observe the experiences in their heads. Because sports competition has become so intense, an industry has sprung up to train the contestants. Each aspect of preparation and performance has acquired a technology to support its function.

Of course, there is a genetic component in successful sports competition. Some competitors are naturally gifted athletes who start with that advantage. Babe Ruth was able to read the numbers of automobile license plates at a great distance. Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were exceptionally agile and tall. Muhammad Ali had quick hands and feet and a long reach. Such factors are, however, of interest mainly to team managers who recruit the players. In East Germany, before it fell, the whole nation functioned as a farm system to recruit gifted athletes for the Olympics. Talent scouts began looking at children as young as three years old for signs of athletic ability. The chosen few were steered into a program of intense training in various sports which lasted through the teenage years. This system guaranteed that the East Germans would have a talented group of athletes representing their nation at the Olympic games. Improvement in equipment and in medicines, including “oxygen cocktails” and illegal steroids, may also have contributed to improved sports performance over the years.

developing skills

A second aspect of sports improvement would be the development of skills in the individual competitor. Athletes develop playing skills both in practice and during the contests themselves. The training routines are intended partly to provide general physical conditioning. An athlete needs well-developed muscles to perform well although muscle building in itself does not bring good performance. In fact, Stan Musial, the former St. Louis Cardinal outfielder, said that professional-baseball players of his era feared that heavy body-building exercises would make them muscle-bound. Those players recognized the need to maintain suppleness of body in addition to muscular strength. Undeniably, however, an athlete should be physically in “good shape” so as to be able to maintain strength, energy, and endurance during the contests. Vigorous physical exercise tones the body, bringing out its natural abilities. Besides this, the athlete uses training to form and perfect the particular skills needed for his sport. Their techniques need to be grooved properly.

Each sport has a set of techniques that help a participant play well. The practice sessions allow these techniques to become ingrained in habit. When an athlete practices a technique enough times, it becomes a part of his “second nature”. He can perform the right motions without thinking. The particular skills needed for good performance depend on the sport. It would serve no purpose here to elaborate on that aspect. Within each sport there are numerous teaching professionals who instruct in proper technique. Theoretically, one knows that some techniques are better than others; but how does one know which they are? It may be that a superb performer in the sport, especially after he has retired from active competition, might be able to give sound advice on technique. In addition, proper form in any sport might be developed from studying the mechanics of the human body in relation to physical movements that the sport requires. Ultimately, the test of technical theory will lie in whether or not it works. Is a coach able to produce winners?

For a sense of how skills are taught, let us examine specific techniques which professionals have recommended in three different sports. Al Geiberger, a golf professional, recommends that the grip on the club be made in roughly the same position as when the player’s hands hang naturally at his sides. Ideally, the palms should face each other, with the palm of the right hand (for a right-handed player) facing the target. Vic Braden, a tennis coach, suggests that players keep in mind some “little checkpoints” during a match. A few of his reminders are: “Hit with the palm” on the forehand; “knuckles down and air the armpit” on the backhand; “chin up” during the serve; “finish high” on the volley”. Horst Abraham, a ski instructor, writes that “pivoting the skis starts a turn, not pressuring them ... to start the pivot, pressure must temporarily be removed, not added.” This last piece of advice is interesting in that ski instructors have always told their students to “move the pressure to the outside ski of the upcoming turn in order to begin the turn”. “Electromyographic studies, coupled with slow-motion film,” provided evidence that such analysis was faulty.

Charlie Disney, a top-rated table-tennis player and coach, believes that skill in his sport is “honed instinct”. The players are reacting so quickly to events that they have no time to think about much. Even so, good table-tennis players must be taught to deal with all possible situations that could arise during a match. They must learn to perform each type of move correctly, so that they can reliably do it once, twice, or twenty times, before moving on to other techniques. Unless each element is mastered in turn, it is not possible to advance in this sport. Disney asks his students to “shadow practice” - swing the paddle in a certain way, imitating his swing - before he allows them to swing at an actual ping-pong ball. The paddle should begin and end in roughly the same position. Also, he instructs students in coordinating and simplifying their bodily motions, including footwork, so as to minimize wasted energy. All these techniques need to be worked out in practice so that a player can concentrate fully on the game.

The purpose of practicing technique is that the movements, whatever they are, be wedded to habit. Either one can learn individually by testing what works or, better still, avoid the blind alleys and pitfalls by practicing under the tutelage of a knowledgeable coach. In any event, the practice sessions are meant to build the proper techniques of a sport into the athlete’s structure of habits through repetitious exercise. The more a technique is exercised, the more deeply ingrained it will become. Not only are the appropriate muscles exercised and developed with respect to agility and strength, but these muscles also become conditioned with the knowledge to perform the particular physical movements correctly. Neurologically, a pattern of habitual motions is imprinted in the athlete’s body and mind, following the principle that repetition builds strong habits.

If that principle is taken to an extreme, one would suppose that coaches might advise their clients to perform the same movements over and over as many times as possible. However, that is not the way that skilled athletes approach practice. They want to work smart as well as hard.

Al Geiberger specifically advises against over practicing. “Have you ever tried to hit 500 golf balls?,” he asked. “I got to about 400 one day, including a lot of wedge shots, and almost collapsed.” Is that any way to practice? “Actually,” Geiberger said, “I think a lot of practice at one time can be just as harmful as no practice at all, especially for a beginning player ... Too much practice is particularly damaging to your tempo ... I help my tempo more just by hitting balls a short time each day instead of batting out a lot at a time ... So I think that once you get past your first bucket of balls, the first half hour or so, you are not only wasting your time but are undoing all the good you had done before. You will start to get tired, you will begin to swing harder, and your tempo goes out the window.”

The “tempo” - rhythm of a good golf swing - is not something that can be forced by repetitious exercise. The mind tends to grow dull with too much repetition. To sharpen both mind and habit, Geiberger recommends moderate and varied practice. A particular suggestion is to vary the types of shots made during practice. The golfer might use several different irons and shoot at various angles and distances. He should “never hit a shot or putt to the same target more than twice in a row.”

Another of Geiberger’s recommendations is to practice the techniques one at a time. Like Disney, he believes that practice sessions should be approached with a particular goal in mind. Too many goals are confusing; having none is a waste of time. He wrote, “It is important that you only work on one thing at a time. And think of only one thing when you make a swing ... You might have three or four swing thoughts or feels that you want to work on or change, but you won’t accomplish anything by thinking of them all at once. The mind can’t handle it.”

The purpose of such exercise is to put mind inside each habit. The habit not only should grow strong through repetitious exercise but also have clarity of design. “If athletes don’t understand what’s behind their technique, they get confused and improvements come much slower,” an East German trainer declared. Trainers frequently make use of videotapes and computer simulations to show the athlete how to execute each technique. There should be, within habit, a memory of some conscious point made about technique during the practice sessions. But the thought would not stay conscious for long. When it reaches the stage of habit, the thought would become submerged within the skill so that the player can “forget” about technique yet perform properly. “After you learn certain things in a swing, they come almost automatically. That’s why it is so important to learn the proper way to do things. If you learn the wrong method, that also becomes automatic, and it is hard to make changes,” Geiberger observed.

teaching peak performance

Now let us consider the competitive performance. But, first, there is an intermediate step. Years ago, properly trained athletes simply showed up at an event ready to compete, confident that they could win on the basis of done so before. For top-flight athletes, that is no longer enough. A new technology has been developed to coax maximum performance from athletes in important contests. Sometimes called “sports psychology”, the Russians have coined the term “anthropomaximology” to describe this science. It is the science of peak performance, focused upon the individual performer. From a sports standpoint, this is the psychological aspect of training. The training is not undertaken to acquire skills used in a sport but to put an athlete generally in the right mental or physical condition to perform well.

Charles Garfield, a clinical professor at the University of California - San Francisco medical school, has spent more than twenty years studying persons who have exceeded the normal limits of performance in various fields. From those studies he has formulated a set of attitudes and procedures that are conducive to peak performance. These attitudes can be taught. Garfield found, for instance, that workaholic habits and perfectionist attitudes were actually an obstacle to performing at the highest level. One needed instead to take a “relaxed, confident approach” to the performance. In addition to techniques of goal-setting and imaging, he recommended that a person maintain a healthy level of outside interests to stay mentally refreshed. Goals needed to be nourished often by positive feedback. To overcome fears, he suggested writing down the worst-case scenarios for high-risk decisions so that the decision maker could face them squarely and move on. “All of us can learn to visualize, or to ‘blue sky’ - imagine the feeling of going beyond our current limits - and then conjure up that image when we choose,” Garfield declared.

Sports conditioning has both a physical and mental component. Plato recommended that the guardians of his city be trained in music and gymnastics which, he said, would condition the soul to seek a median position between having a hard and soft nature. These were two arts, given by the gods, “not for the soul and the body except incidentally, but for the harmonious adjustment of these two principles by the proper degree of tension and relaxation of each.” Training in these rhythmic disciplines would help a person control his own level of psychic “tension and relaxation”, in other words. That is much the same goal as in modern sports training.

Pavel Tsatsouline, who has trained Soviet athletes and special forces, tells his students that the main difference between elite athletes and normal people is that the former are able to vary the tension within their own bodies between zero and the maximum state in a very short time. Normal people, by contrast, go through life in a semi-tense state, like a light switch being flicked rapidly on and off. The athletes are either totally relaxed or totally tense, depending upon which condition they need at a given time. That is a key to physical peak performance. The high-performing athletes are tense during the sports competition but relaxed at other times.

As an example of proper technique, Tsatsouline cites Dr. Judd Biasiotto, a sports psychologist who was a four-time world record holder in power lifting. Amateurs assume that the proper way to prepare for a power lifting competition is to do warmup exercises before one’s turn to lift the weights. Biasiotto, in contrast, remained fast asleep while the earlier contestants performed in the Georgia (Soviet province) state competition. Shortly before his turn, Biasiotto’s coach woke him up. Biasiotto pulled up the straps of his suit, wrapped his knees, and stepped on the platform. “Within less than ten seconds”, Tsatsouline wrote, “he brought about a physiological transformation that could only be described as bizarre ... The hair on his arms and legs stood up, and his breathing became deep and rhythmic. His muscles actually seemed to increase in size ... Without a single warmup, Biasiotto unracked the weight, descended, and then exploded up with it for a new Georgia State record. The lift was ridiculously easy.”

Tsatsouline teaches an exercise that helps a person become energized quickly. The person breathes in, tightens and pulls up his butt, and then exhales slowly with extreme tension, making a hissing noise as the air escapes between his teeth and tongue. A way to reinforce this tension is to make a fist while exhaling. Alternatively, one may exhale in a series of short, explosive breaths through the nose. Athletes do these exercises just before competing in an event to bring themselves to a high state of tension. They take a number of deep breaths to bring more oxygen into their blood. There are also exercises to put a person into a state of deep relaxation. Here one breathes slowly and rhythmically, letting the rib cage drop while exhaling. One holds the deflated lungs for about five seconds, then inhales and repeats the process. One can also help another person to relax by shaking an arm or a leg in a gentle, rhythmic motion, trying to find that person’s natural groove. Generally speaking, relaxation comes with slow, loose, rhythmic bodily motions; and tension, with quick and irregular ones. The one involves low frequency, high amplitude vibrations; and the other, the opposite kind. The psychic tension which an athlete needs for high performance during competition is enhanced in coming from a relaxed state. So the ability to achieve both conditions is important to an elite athlete.

Pavel Tsatsouline disagrees with the idea, prevalent in the west, that gentle warmup exercises preceding a competition can help performance. He argues instead that such warmups cause a certain fatigue and set the muscles at the wrong degree of tension. Slow stretching causes bodily tissues to remain permanently overstretched. Like a rubber band in that state, they lose part of their elasticity. Instead, he suggests that an athlete stretch his muscles at the speed of the sport. In place of slow warmups, Soviet athletes jump up and down rapidly for a short period, increasing their heart rates and pumping adrenaline into their systems. They want their “stretch reflex” to stay sharp because that type of muscular contraction uses more motor units than voluntary ones.

Tsatsouline also teaches athletes to “trick” their muscles into accommodating a greater degree of flexibility than they would normally tolerate, even at the risk of safety. He points out that the breathing mechanism - the only one in our body which is subject to both voluntary and involuntary control - can be manipulated to induce a certain degree of muscular tension. This allows the athlete to control processes which would otherwise be involuntary. An athlete can also be taught to train more efficiently by exercising only those muscles used in his sport.

the mental game

At a certain point, the training is done. The athlete has prepared himself physically. He stands on the platform or at the starting gate waiting for the competition to begin. From now on, the only thing that can make a difference is his state of mind. In an important competition, there is the mental pressure of thinking what stakes are involved. After ten or twenty years of intense preparation, the moment has arrived. How can an athlete deal with this pressure? The athlete has to put himself in the right frame of mind to deliver the maximum performance. Whatever “tricks” of successful performance he may have accumulated over the years must be put immediately to good use. All else being equal, the competitor with the “mental edge” generally wins. What does that mean? The competitor must obviously “want to win”. But he must also know how to win by drawing upon hidden resources within himself. The athlete must “psych himself up” to win this contest.

Sports psychologists suggest certain techniques to summon the winning spirit when it is needed. One is the technique of visualization. Arnold Schwarzeneggar has said of weight-lifting: “The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact you can do something, you can do it ... When weight lifters are studying in front of the bar, they must, in their minds, lift it in order to then lift it physically.” Jack Nicklaus, the professional golfer, has said that before hitting any shot he always “sees” the ball where he wants it to land, “nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass.”

Visualization involves an athlete’s conscious effort to “see” a good performance imaginatively before it actually takes place. Having a clear picture of the movements in one’s mind helps later to perform them. Horst Abraham, technical director at the Vail Ski Center, has observed that in skiing “it helps to have a visual image before attempting a new movement ... The more vivid the image, the easier it will be to emulate ... Visual rehearsal ... not only aids mental preparation but actually stimulates the muscles needed for the movement.” He recommends practicing the fancier moves at home in the mind before attempting them on the ski slope.

Professional coaches also agree that the successful athlete should visualize specific tasks during the performance itself. This is sometimes called “narrowing the focus”. Jerry May, a sports psychologist with the U.S. ski team, has said: “The main thing (in sports) is to focus in on the task at hand, and not let things focus on the result.” Vic Braden, a tennis coach, advises players: “Treat each shot with respect. The better players try to concentrate solely on the shot they are making, viewing it as a total entity in itself; they take each shot in sequence and give each the respect it needs, without worrying about the past or thinking ahead to what they’re going to do with their opponent’s return ... What I tell my students is, ‘Take good care of each shot - it may be your last.’ “ When a player’s mind starts to wander, Braden advises his students to “refocus on the ball, with a reminder like ‘Here comes my friend.’”

Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard practiced a focus-narrowing technique when they won a bronze medal in figure skating at the 1988 Olympics. Oppegard described the routine: “Jill and I both go into the rink about an hour before we perform, look at the ice rink, look at the huge stadium that we’re going to perform in, and then, gradually, within that hour, start to narrow and narrow our focus until, for myself, all I see is Jill and the ice, and I don’t see any audience, I don’t see the judges, just Jill and the ice and my reaction to Jill and her skating.” Asked whether she was aware of the crowd, Jill admitted that she was, but added: “The thing that you have to be able to do is just concentrate, and be able to focus down low enough that you can just take each element as it comes in the program, and not get ahead of yourself.”

Some trainers advise athletes to deal with “stage fright” by taking deep breaths or performing a physical ritual that puts them in a comfortable state of mind. Archers are taught to develop a “mental checklist” such as “plant the feet, draw the bow, take a deep breath, focus and release the arrow.” They may even recite “focus words” to recall these steps during the event. Ray Werching, who kicked field goals for the San Francisco Forty-Niners, “never look(s) up at the goal post when preparing to kick,” commented Raul Espinosa, a sports and media expert. “‘Instead, he taps (Joe) Montana’s helmet, takes two steps back and then follows through with the kick. It’s the same every time.’”

Espinosa notes that some coaches advise athletes to “find a ‘trigger mechanism’ to relax them without going through a long period of self-hypnosis or getting into elaborate biofeedback techniques.” A simpler technique is “self talk”. Athletes are urged to talk to themselves when they start to have fears. They can tell themselves that they are a good athlete, or that they’re going to win, or some other statement that will induce a “positive mental attitude”. Positive-thinking athletes are more apt to be winners than the pessimists.

Yet, an important element in athletic success is the mental ability to deal with the inevitable setbacks and defeats. “Inability to accept a bad shot, which causes the subsequent rash of bad shots, may be the most common downfall of amateurs,” Al Geiberger observed. “Golf is a game of misses. Never does even the best player hit all his shots the way he wants to ... The secret is in keeping your misses playable ... and in not being bothered by those misses. If you hit a bad shot, just tell yourself it is great to be alive, relaxing and walking around on a beautiful golf course. The next shot will be better.”

Before winning a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics figure-skating competition in Calgary, Jill Watson fell down on the ice during the competition. She and her partner, Peter Oppegard, went on to skate brilliantly for the rest of their routine. Asked if this pratfall had bothered her, Watson said: “No, it didn’t. All that happened was, I said to myself, there’s no way that after being third in the short program that I was going to let this Olympic medal just disappear, and I said Peter and I have worked for four years and we deserve to have that medal.”

That spirit of true grit is usually supported by a general sense of self-confidence rooted in the awareness of one’s own abilities, strengthened in many hours of solid training. Jill Watson mentally survived a spill during the Olympic competition by assuring herself that she and her partner deserved to win. The Swedish tennis star, Bjorn Borg, described his winning attitude after a victory in the U.S. Open men’s singles tournament. “When it comes down to the fifth set,” he said, “it’s pressure and nerves. Other guys get tense and do not play as relaxed as I do. I’m in great shape, very strong, and I know I can stay out there a long time and not get tired.” In other words, what kept Borg from cracking under the tournament pressure during the last set was his confidence in his own physical condition. It was a belief born of much experience in tournaments. Borg did not become unnerved the moment he began to tire because his mind was fixed on a self-image of strength. The thought of his own invincible strength put him in the best frame of mind to win tournaments.

Every experienced athlete is aware of the possibility of sudden failure. It is a constant struggle to cultivate and maintain a mental attitude to avoid this. Al Geiberger shot a 59 in the second round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic on June 10, 1977. This performance, netting thirteen strokes under par for eighteen holes, set a record for U.S. golf professionals in PGA tournament competition. Geiberger recalled the incredible events that happened on that day: He had started out on the back nine, at hole 10, shooting a birdie. The next four holes, where he had a birdie and three pars, were actually some of his worst. Then, on hole 15, he began a string of birdies on consecutive holes which lasted through the round. At the 17th hole, Geiberger recalled, his only thought was: “Well, this is a good round, let’s keep it going.” As he stepped up to the first tee on the front nine, Geiberger was six strokes under par. He proceeded to shoot an eagle on that hole. That made it five consecutive holes under par. At this point, Geiberger told himself to try for the tournament record of eight consecutive holes under par. He did have birdies on the second and third holes but, on the fourth hole, shot a par, barely missing the goal he had set. Nevertheless, he finished the round with four more birdies and a record-breaking 59 for the day.

“As I look back on it, “ Geiberger reflected, “trying to break the tour record of eight under for eight holes was the best thing that could have happened to me. If I had said, back on the 10th hole, that I was going to shoot for a 59, I would have choked and never made it. But going for that goal within the round took my mind off the eventual score and got me past the choking point.” In the initial holes, Geiberger was not thinking about anything in particular, just having a good round. That awareness began to sink in on the 17th hole: “Well, this is a good round, let’s keep it going.” It was nothing elaborate, just a simple positive thought, but enough to keep the streak going.

As he started the front nine, however, the pressure on Geiberger began to mount. He had to toughen himself to withstand the pressure. Geiberger’s strategy was to try to extend the streak of consecutive holes shot under par from five holes to eight. That focused his thoughts on a goal that was immediately attainable. Three more holes under par should be no problem to someone who had just shot five consecutive holes under par. The fact that he failed in this attempt did not ruin his day, for Geiberger went on to shoot four more birdies and achieve his record-breaking total score. He was lucky to have avoided setting an over-extended goal on the first tee which might have caused him to choke.

When the San Francisco Forty-Niners won Superbowl XXIV in 1990, commentators marveled at the way that the team rallied behind its quarterback, Joe Montana. It was noted that team members had come to Montana’s defense when press reports accused him of cocaine use. During the previous week, players from the other team had snubbed Forty-Niners on the street. Angered by this treatment, the San Francisco players were struck by Montana’s coolness under pressure during the pre-game practice. An equipment manager hung the jersey of a game-winning receiver from several seasons back next to Montana’s locker. The Forty-Niners went on to beat the Denver Broncos 55 to 10 in the Superbowl game. Montana himself was said to have an uncanny intelligence to spot opportunities on the field and follow through with an unfailing series of physical motions.

“Are jocks geniuses?”, a columnist asked. In Montana’s case, he explained, this “genius” was nonrational, involving the premotor cortex which controlled physical motions. Instructions programmed there allowed him to perform more smoothly and rapidly than if the brain had to devise each motion separately. Reason would say: I see, I step, I throw. With Montana, “it’s I seestepthrow”, the commentator explained - one seamless motion.

holistic thinking in sports

Joe Montana’s type of intelligence illustrates what some have called “holistic thinking”. Holistic thought is opposed to the analytical type of thinking. Analysis means to divide the whole into parts which can be studied more closely. Holistic thinking considers the thing as a whole. Athletic performances are better suited to holistic than analytical treatment because they involve an integrated set of motions which must all happen at the same time. There simply is not enough time during a game to perform each of the movements separately and then string them together.

Holistic thinking has been linked anatomically to functions carried out in the right hemisphere of the brain. The brain has both a right and left hemisphere connected by a bundle of nerves called the corpus collosum. The right hemisphere coordinates movements and sensations associated with the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere does the same for the right side of the body. In addition, the left hemisphere is known to control analytical thinking, which includes verbal expression, reading, writing, and mathematical computation. The functions associated with the right side of the brain are nonintellectual ones, or those having to do with sensory interpretation, coordination of movement, intuitive or creative thinking, and holistic perception of complex patterns. This hemisphere can grasp a number of patterns simultaneously.

Since Plato, the western academic tradition has emphasized left-side brain functions to the exclusion of the other. We acquire pieces of knowledge one at a time. In sports, the traditional coach teaches separate points of technique, ignoring the “flow” needed in actual performance. Some coaches use the holistic approach. “In skiing,” wrote Horst Abraham, “we draw upon right-hand brain capabilities of holistic perception, rhythm, spatial relationships, and simultaneous processing of many inputs. Left brain functions are largely uninvolved.” He continued: “Novices often go wrong in trying to control their movements with a constant, specific internal awareness. They engage the left-brain functions of analysis and sequence to interfere with holistic coordination of physical movement, which is a right-brain function ... Obscuring a person’s awareness with too many instructions will make him so preoccupied that he can’t even stand up on his skis! They call it ‘paralysis through analysis’.”

George Leonard, author of The Silent Pulse, demonstrates holistic thinking through a process of vision which he calls “soft eyes”. Seeing this way allows the right side of the brain to take over. The left-side equivalent, called “hard eyes”, “entails focusing the eyes on specific formal entities, giving them shape, cultural meaning, and name ... This kind of seeing ... is basically analytical, having the effect of separating figures from the ground in which they may be said to exist - creating ‘objects’ ... With hard eyes we can read the fine print.” The visual mode associated with “soft eyes” is “receptive rather than positive, synthesizing rather than analytical. It lets the visual world come in rather than reaching out to bring it in. With soft eyes we tend to perceive a whole field of vision in terms of the energy and motion that make it up, rather than perceiving the collection of discrete objects that exist within it. There is less than the usual distinction between figure and ground. With soft eyes, peripheral vision is enhanced, the depth of field appears to be greater, and colors seem remarkably vivid.”

In The Silent Pulse, Leonard presents a set of exercises to bring about the condition of soft eyes. First a person should stand with closed eyes, maintaining a balanced and centered state of mind. The shoulders and lower pelvic muscles should be relaxed. The person would then massage both eyeballs lightly through the closed eyelids. He would drop his arms to his sides and take three deep breaths. On the third breath, he would open his eyes and simply “let the world come in.” He would “not reach out ... to focus on any object or any point in the visual field”, but instead “become aware of the entire visual field, giving no part of it any more importance than any other part. “The next time you watch a basketball game,” Leonard wrote, “ note the expressions on the players’ faces: that relaxed, seemingly vacant look in the midst of hectic motion. Nobody has taught the players the art of soft eyes. It’s simply that those who have learned it intuitively are the ones who, if otherwise properly endowed and motivated, have become the top performers.” Horst Abraham remembered that “as a boy, living in the mountains, I often chose to run home in a dry creek bed to avoid ripping my clothes in the brush; I ran with soft focus, trusting my intuition and feelings to allow me to bound from rock to rock, though I could hardly see in the dark.”

In golf, the proper swing is an easy one. The golfer must be completely relaxed. But how does one try to swing more easily? Geiberger suggested thinking of an uncoiling spring: “When you start down from the top, it’s important to do it at the same pace you went up. Just as I like to feel leisurely when I’m swinging the club back, so I like to feel leisurely starting down. It’s as if you are letting your body uncoil and your arms swing the club down, without forcing.” Geiberger quoted Sam Snead to the effect that he liked his swings to feel “oily”. That was an “excellent thought”, Geiberger believed, because the feeling of oiliness was “ingraining a fluid sensation in his (Snead’s) mind. Any time you are thinking of a fluid swing, you will instinctively swing more slowly and easily in the early stages.”

Most golfers go wrong in swinging too hard at the ball. They try to speed up the swing to make the ball go farther but the opposite usually happens. Geiberger therefore recommended that golfers swing more slowly and easily. Even the pros make this mistake: “Jack Nicklaus says that when he wants to hit the ball farther, he takes the club back more slowly. Tom Watson’s dramatic improvement began when he slowed his swing down a little at the top and greatly improved his tempo. During his great 1973 season ... Tom Weiskopf said he was doing everything more slowly - not only swinging and walking but even brushing his teeth.”

There is a state of rhythmic consciousness when the world itself seems to move more slowly. To tennis players in that trance-like condition, wrote Horst Abraham, “the ball, coming in at 100 m.p.h. or more, seems to be transformed into a large, fuzzy grapefruit-sized object; the ball slows down or even stops, as if waiting to be hit.” Such awareness is experienced during peak athletic performance. Horst Abraham described the experience of Bernard Russi, a skier, racing through the most difficult part of the course at Kitzbuhel in Austria. Although Russi had dreaded the steep fall-away and its tremendous ripples, “as he (Russi) came to the spot during the face, he felt light, relaxed; time seemed to slow down. It was as if he was seeing himself in a film running at a slow motion.”

This feeling of being completely at ease during a strenuous performance also extends to “great composers, scientists, and philosophers” in their most creative moments. Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion, called this condition “being in the zone”. When O.J. Simpson made his game-winning run against UCLA in 1967, he felt that he was performing automatically. It was as if he was seeing himself in a dream.

Sheer physical exertion sometimes brings on a feeling of euphoric effortlessness known as the “runner’s high”. A newspaper report described this as “a trance-like state in which movement seems effortless, the mind grows creative, and they (the runners) are suffused with a feeling of omnipotence or even euphoria.” Some attribute this feeling to the fact that, when joggers reach a certain stage of fatigue, their bodies release beta-endorphins into the bloodstream, which act like a narcotic to kill pain and produce pleasurable sensations in the brain. Sometimes called “the third wind”, such a condition normally occurs after at least a half hour of hard running. A veteran jogger described it in these words: ‘First you run until everything hurts - your chest, your legs, everything. Then it just gets so easy.”

Normally we think that the harder we work, the more likely we are to achieve a certain result. To achieve rhythmic perfection, on the other hand, involves the oxymoronic concepts of effortless achievement or “winning through surrender”. One lets things happen and does not try to force. At a critical point, rhythm arrives with an involuntary relaxation of effort that would seem to defeat the previous work of pushing hard for results. But instead of defeat, victory comes with this backing off from willful effort.

the required state of mind

George Leonard regards peak performance in terms of rhythmic epiphanies that involve collapse of ego. The term, “focused surrender”, describes the process by which athletes and others unexpectedly hit their level of supreme performance after letting go of willful, anxious efforts. “Again and again,” he wrote, “we encounter this paradox: intense effort that becomes effective only through total surrender, the unlikely marriage of trying and not-trying, during which intentionality can alter structure.”

Leonard recalled a fellow student’s examination for black belt in the art of aikido. The student, Richard, was a gifted though rather self-centered individual. To teach him humility, the aikido instructor let Richard to train for three months on speculation that he might be allowed to take the examination. When the time came, Richard’s performance was stunning. His movements were “gentle and coherent” and time seemed to slow down to a stately pace.” The light grew brighter as if an aura surrounded Richard’s body. Asked about the experience, Richard said later that he had “experienced no effort or strain whatsoever; only a voice in his head, repeating, ‘This isn’t Richard. This isn’t Richard.” It was, wrote Leonard, “a classic example of the process known as ‘reduction of the ego’ ... There, in the eye of the storm ... denied the support of his teacher, divested even of his name, Richard found the deliverance he had not known he was searching for.”

During peak performances, athletes are searching for some thought, image, or state of mind which comes while pushing the limits. Jim Marshall, one of the Minnesota Vikings’ “Purple People Eater” group of defensive linemen, recalled that a simple image sustained this group in the heat of competition. “We used to call it ‘riding the crest of the wave.’ Except for the Superbowl, it seemed we could do no wrong.” Frank Viola, the Minnesota Twins pitcher who won the final game of the 1987 World Series, had his own image: “You need tunnel vision to win a Series game. I couldn’t find the tunnel in game four, but I got it back tonight.” The idea of the tunnel is like the surfer’s wave, though perhaps a bit more tightly enclosed. All one has to do is enter it, pass through, and finally arrive at the other end without any chance of becoming lost. Neither the defensive lineman nor the baseball pitcher saw himself as an active participant in the process. Their winning movements took place automatically or as if they were performed by someone else. Art Garfunkel, lyricist for the Simon and Garfunkel team of pop singers, described his craft in similar terms: “You feel like you’re a vehicle, and if you stay out of the way and just be a humble bearer of this godly thing called music and just transmit it like a conduit, you can witness its beauty almost as a spectator.”

A question to ask is whether this awareness of “finding the tunnel” or “being in the zone” is a state of mind which the athlete can consciously bring on or the athlete is lucky to experience it now and then? If the former, then there may be a science to help athletes reach this state. Otherwise, if the condition cannot be achieved by willful effort, of what use are writings about it? The philosophy of rhythm would then be a waste of time. Only statements of truth that tell a person how to do or make something are useful knowledge. It may be that some athletic performers are prone to peak performances more often than others, either because many years of practice have conditioned them mentally and physically to deliver peak performance or because they have a special gift. There may or may not be a way of inducing that conscious state in which one catches the winning thought and goes on to perform flawlessly to achieve an astonishing sports victory.

a view from the mountain top

The broad interest in professional sports would seem indicative of a materialistic culture. In the violent clash of behemoth-like athletes at the football line of scrimmage, the commercial flavor of such gatherings, and the grim ethic of winning, one finds little to suggest spirituality. This is our version of a Roman circus. Yet, such a judgment may be too harsh; spirituality has been found in stranger places. While watching a broadcast of the 1984 Olympics, I thought that this scene was not so unlike what persons in other cultures might have experienced while seeking spirituality. The television viewers were not just looking at well-conditioned bodies; they were seeing souls.

A television commentator came up to Evelyn Ashford, an American sprinter who had just finished first in the 100-yard dash. How did she feel, he asked? What was going through her mind while she was performing her record-setting run? As Ashford stood there panting, he wanted to know what was in her mind. For millions of people, in that brief moment, she was like a seer who had just come down from the mountaintop. Ashford told the interviewer of having felt a powerful calmness during the race. When she was running well, it was better than sex. I thought, these athletic super performers are our equivalent of religious mystics who have seen God. They testify to a wondrous inner experience had when their bodies were most rhythmic.

It may be that Americans today follow sports not for the spectacle of bodies but the spirituality of winning. A true champion is one who can deliver rhythm when it is needed. He or she is one who rises to the occasion through a superior attitude and spirit. And that is what the spectators are looking for: a revelation of that spirit which a champion possesses. People know from their own lives how hard it is to perform under pressure. They know that the athletes whose performances they are watching on television are under more pressure still. They want to see how champions handle this. When the Boston Red Sox slugger, Wade Boggs, made his first appearance at the plate in Fenway Park in April 1989 after sports magazines had dragged his name through the mud by reports that he traveled with a mistress, the fans cheered wildly. Boggs’ spirit was not crushed by those embarrassing revelations. Here he was ready to play ball again, like a trooper and a true champion.

Sports provide a window on the experience of rhythm in a way which ordinary people can understand. As chronic spectators, we see these athletes engaged in combat each week, sometimes up and sometimes down. We see them perform on the playing field. We hear them unburden their thoughts in the post-game interviews. Such persons give us a glimpse into spiritually unusual experiences. They are highly disciplined men and women having just the right amount of looseness when it counts.

Put another way, these peak-performing athletes are deliverers of the highest rhythms. They are living examples of persons immersed in the sublime mysteries of rhythm. They are like ecstatic prophets who, in ancient Greece or Judaea, went into a trance and uttered words that revealed the divine consciousness. The electronic media, in various types of shows, have set before us a spectacle of the rarest and most rhythmic performers: talented, rich, beautiful, and often young. It is like a gathering of demigods at the summit of Mount Olympus, persons who shower their unique rhythms down upon us, inspire us, and give us hope that we may catch some of the sparks.

Note: This is Chapter 6 of the book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, by William McGaughey, which Thistlerose Publications published in 2001.

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