What I Admire About Professional Athletes
“I am not a role model.” -NBA Great Charles Barkley
There doesn’t seem to be any relationship between athletic success and personal morality. If there is, God’s keeping the data points locked up tight. That was what Barkley meant:
A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?
I don’t believe professional athletes should be role models. I believe parents should be role models…. It’s not like it was when I was growing up. My mom and my grandmother told me how it was going to be. If I didn’t like it, they said, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” Parents have to take better control.
What I admire about Kobe Bryant isn’t how he conducts himself in society. It isn’t his courage at the end of games. It isn’t even his value on the basketball court. Instead, I’ll remember him for the way he trains.
Joe Posnanski recently speculated that talent for an athlete isn’t just God-given ability; it’s the patience to practice something over and over again until one gets it right. This correlates with the 10,000 Hour Rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell:
The 10000 Hour Rule is usually attributed to the research done by Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s. He and his team divided students into three groups ranked by excellence at the Berlin Academy of Music and then correlated achievement with hours of practice. They discovered that the elite all had put in about 10000 hours of practice, the good 8000 and the average 4000 hours. No one had fast-tracked. This rule was then applied to other disciplines and Ericsson found that it proved valid.
Some athletes are naturals but don’t work hard enough to make the most of it. On the other hand, the NFL is full of stars who were rejected by several schools and teams but made up for it by working harder than anyone else. The proper response to a kid who dreams of being a professional athlete isn’t “you’re too small”: many NBA stars, including Michael Jordan, had late growth spurts, and besides, two-time MVP Steve Nash is just 6’3. Besides, if this boys believes you, he might blame God or his parents for his mediocrity, and 10 years old is still a little early for that phase. Instead, ask him if he’s willing to exercise or practice for several hours a day from tomorrow until retirement.
If he’s not, it isn’t necessarily a character flaw. I thought I wanted to be a basketball player, too. When I was 10, my father said to me “you’ll never be 6’6” (which offended me because my avatar in NBA Live ’95 was exactly that height) but more importantly, “If you did, you would be outside practicing every day, not inside playing NBA Live.” In reality I didn’t like basketball enough. I would be bored if I had to do it from 9 to 5. An essential part of being able to train a lot is the seeing yourself improving and taking satisfaction in it. Otherwise you get exhausted. So the kid needs to find his passion first.
Now look at yourself. You should be a lot closer to having things figured out than this hypothetical child is. You aren’t a professional athlete, but shouldn’t you live like one?
I’ll talk about my own efforts for the next two paragraphs, so if you don’t care then you can skip ahead*.
I love languages. They seem to come easily to me. I’m in training at the International Chinese Language Program in Taipei. Jet lag and cold weather have conspired to get me out of bed at 5 AM each day, but I like that because I have a half hour to lift weights and I can make breakfast and check emails and news earlier. Mass is from 7-7:30 as always, and I have class from 8-12, the same time slot as before by request. This term, I’ll continue zither and karaoke lessons, but I’ll replace my weekly two-hour calligraphy lesson with an hour of piano practice and an hour of Japanese listening practice [read: watching Detective Conan] because I missed having both of those in my life. I have other hobbies to keep my mind fresh and my conversation interesting.
I’m picky about nutrition and keep my own schedule so I often go out hunting for pieces of the food pyramid on my own. In transit to school and dinner, I listen to Chinese dialogues. I write this multi-language blog to entertain you, to build my portfolio, and again, because language is my thing. I can do it all day. The rest of my time, which is a few hours a day in the afternoon or night, goes to homework. I try to go to bed early because I’m not a Greek god who needs no rest like Rahm Emanuel or my friend John. And that’s my life. It’s simple. John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” Thinking of myself as an athlete on a regimen is a lot more encouraging than thinking of myself as a hamster on a wheel.
How do people stay sharp when they also have families? (*Welcome back, by the way.) Right now, I’m on my own most of the time. That likely won’t last forever, but not everyone can balance work and family, as many unhappy children of “great men” could tell you. One of the most astonishing things about Tiger Woods, I think, was that he had time for so many women when I don’t even seem to have time for one.
Children require time: even if you love them very much, they’ll feel close to the people who are around them the most, whoever they are. And they’re unpredictable. They could run away or bust their heads open anywhere at any time. Luckily for us, our mother and grandmother were both at home to
put out fires help around the house. I hope my own kids are so well taken care of. This brings me back to Charles Barkley: his mother and grandmother did it all. There are people around all of us who do the same. And if we want a flashier role model…
“Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” -George Will