One of my golfing buddies recently sent me a video on how to hit the ball farther with a swing that looks effortless. The premise of the video was that every golfer knows a player at their club who looks like he is barely swinging, but the ball flies 300+ yards. For my non-golfer readers, worry not. I will help this all make sense for you in a bit, but for now, please understand the last sentence to read, “without even trying, the dude hits the dog snot out of the ball.” The gist of the video was that if we would only watch the guys who swing easy and hit the crap out of the ball and emulate their swings, we, too, will hit the ball a mile without trying. Now, go do it. Yeah, right. If it were that easy, Golf Digest wouldn’t sell thousands of magazines with golfing tips and the multi-billion dollar golf equipment industry, predicated entirely on the notion that spending more money will improve your golf game, would go belly up.
This got me thinking about a topic my cousin, Dan, has blogged about. Dan is a professional musician and professor of music at the University of Wisconsin. He writes a wonderful and entertaining blog, one that is also far more educational than mine. I recommend it. He plays the horn and teaches other people to play the horn. I know about as much about playing the horn as I do about 18th Century Russian Literature, which is to say, zippo. But, as Dan has explained in his blog, it is a very complicated instrument to play. I’m sure it’s very hard to play any instrument well, but let’s face it, even I can sit down at the piano and bang out something that has at least a slight resemblance to music. Not so the horn. Apparently, the difference of a millimeter or less in how far you press the buttons and very slight differences in how you blow into the mouthpiece can mean the difference between Bach and the sound of mid-day traffic in Mumbai.
The challenge Dan has written about in teaching the horn is, to paraphrase, you’re ultimately trying to teach people to do something that can only be done by feel and by people who really feel it (sorry, Dan, if I’ve bastardized your writings with my summary). You can tell them, “Hey, push that button down about a micron less and blow just a tiny bit harder and the sound will be beautiful,” but that’s a mechanical description of something that really isn’t mechanizable. You either got it or you ain’t.
Golf is exactly the same for most people. I’ve taken plenty of golf lessons, from both good pros and bad. The bad ones usually teach like this: “Take the club back until it’s almost parallel with the ground, then shift your weight ever so slightly to your left side, while rotating hips so that they pull your your hands into the slot. Make sure you create lag with the club head. Then, as the club face makes contact with the ball, release your hands, but don’t release them even a nanosecond before impact. Got it?” There are very few human beings who could put that all together and execute it any more than Dan’s student can get the little button on the horn into exactly the same spot Dan can. Dan can do it because God gave him the talent to do it. Tiger Woods can do what he does on the golf course because God gave him the talent. God apparently gave Tiger some other talents too, but I digress.
Since horn playing and golfing are as disparate as two activities can be, this got me thinking that teaching anything physical may follow the same pattern (and possibly teaching intellectual topics too, I’m writing this on New Year’s Day and my mental faculties are, um, a little slow so I won’t try to tackle that today). If this weren’t the case, then Nate Robinson (5’8” guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder and formerly of the New York Knicks, who has won several NBA slam dunk contests), who is exactly my height could teach me to dunk a basketball with just the following simple advice: “Bruce, the key to dunking a basketball is to jump higher. Your problem is that you’re only jumping about 9 inches off the ground and your hand isn’t even getting to the level of the rim. You need to jump about 3 feet off the ground so that your elbow gets above the rim, then you can easily slam the ball in a downward motion through the rim.” Aaaah, so that’s why I’ve never been able to dunk. I haven’t been jumping high enough. Seriously, telling me to jump 3 feet off the ground is no more ludicrous than telling some people to swing a golf club on a perfect swing plane or a budding musician to push the horn button to precisely the right spot while blowing air into the mouthpiece at precisely the right velocity (again, Dan, apologies for making you cringe with my descriptions of horn playing, but I challenge you to write about the golf swing any more accurately).
This discussion of how someone becomes really accomplished at something helps inform a question I often ponder: what makes a particular activity a “sport” versus, say, a performance. That is, what makes a sport a sport? I have developed two simple criteria for defining something as a “sport.” First, the outcome of every contest must be decided solely by the participants. The officials, referees, umpires, etc. are in place only to enforce the rules, not to decide the outcome. The second criterion is that, in order to play it at the highest level (i.e., professionally), one must have the type of God-given talent that Tiger Woods has and that Dan has with the horn. Considering the converse, if the average Joe decided to try play it professionally by dedicating himself to 8 hours of practice a day, it still wouldn’t be enough. For example, by recreational standards, I’m a decent golfer. My handicap is single digit, I’ve shot in the 70s numerous times (including a career low even par 72 on a very tough course), and I have a hole in one (see blog on same). But, I could have practiced all day, every day, since age 10, and I would not have played on the PGA tour. I just don’t have the God-given talent to play at that level and no amount of practice could get me there. Thus, golf is a sport (albeit a sport where you can drink a six pack and smoke a cigar while riding around in a little cart, but I digress). Let’s look at a few other would-be sports with the same lens.
- Baseball – clearly a sport under both criteria. You don’t hit a 95 MPH fastball and knee-bending curveball consistently without some help from the Man upstairs. And, the umpires just keep it honest.
- Figure skating – not a sport. It may qualify under rule #2, but it is decided by judges, usually Russian judges.
- Bowling – not a sport. Good by Rule #1– no officials needed. The pins either fall down or they don’t. But, I’m quite convinced that, if I spent the next 5 years at the bowling alley 7 days/week, I could consistently bowl in the high 200s (and weigh in the high 200s). No God-given talent required.
- NASCAR – not a sport. Same issue as bowling. Give me the keys to a high performance car and access to a track for a few years and I am certain I could drive 200 mph in a circle. Hell, I can already get my car up to 90 mph and tailgate the guy in front of me on I-95.
- Boxing – this is a really tricky one. If the fight is decided by a knock-out, it is a sport. It clearly takes God-given skill to box professionally. And, if you can decide the fight by knocking the other dude into next week, it’s a sport. But, if there’s no knock-out and the winner is decided by the judges, it is not a sport. So, oddly, you don’t know whether you’re competing in a sport or not until after each bout is over.
- College basketball – sport.
- Professional wrestling – not a sport. Duh.
- NBA basketball – not a sport. See “professional wrestling.”
- NFL games involving any of the 31 teams other than the Dallas Cowboys – sport.
- NFL game involving the Cowboys – not a sport. Sorry, when the refs give you every single call, the game is no longer decided by the players so it is not a sport. Just an ugly spectacle.