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Athletes and time

This is an excerpt from Athlete's Clock, The by Thomas Rowland.

Athletes, it hardly deserves stating, are no strangers to the importance of time. Sometimes, in fact, time is the very point of the sport. How much time elapses while you run 100 meters as fast as you can? In other sports, time regulates the duration of the competition. How many times can a group of five unusually tall players throw a ball through a round hoop in 40 minutes? Indeed, without a clock, most competitive sports would become quite meaningless. Yet, in other events, such as tennis or baseball, the timing of muscular action largely defines athletic skill.

Athletes are also keenly interested in their repeated performances over time. They become fixated on batting averages, fighting records, or field goal percentages. When repeated performances are unexpectedly poor, we talk about athletes being in a slump. When Michael Jordan sinks six three-pointers in a row in the NBA finals against Portland, he's on a hot streak. What explains these runs? Since the athletes have typically experienced no physical changes at the time, we say they are more (or less) mentally focused. We hear them described as trying too hard or, when on a roll, just letting it flow. Getting hot is something all athletes strive for (and would be willing, no doubt, to give a lot to know the secret of why it was happening).

It comes as a bit of surprise, then, that people who know a lot about the statistics of randomness are quick to pooh-pooh such explanations. Being hot or in a slump, they say, is just a matter of chance.

Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University teamed up with Stanford colleagues Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky to analyze the success of streak shooting of the Philadelphia 76ers professional basketball team during seasons from 1980 to 1982. Their findings? “Variations in shooting percentages across games do not deviate from their overall shooting percentages enough to produce significantly more hot (or cold) nights than expected by chance alone.”5

What they're saying is that if you flip a coin many, many times, you will eventually witness 10 heads in a row. Not often, but by chance, it will occur. And if you shoot a ball at a basket a large number of times, at some point, you will sink 10 in a row. Neither of you is more mentally focused. You're both in a groove, but only by statistical chance.5 (What bothers me about this analysis is that it seems that the people who have hot streaks always have names like DiMaggio and Jordan!)

Sometimes, too, athletes take great efforts to slow down time. Witness the interminable bouncing of the ball or tugging at the pants of my favorite pro tennis players (who will remain unnamed here) before they finally serve. Or the Yankees and the Red Sox, berated by umpires for taking their sweet time. Not to mention golfers on the PGA tour who dawdle on the back nine. The most obvious, though, are the basketball teams in the era before the shot clock who tried to protect their lead by stalling out the final minutes of play (see chapter 3).

Athletes, too, are very conscious of how time is best proportioned as they construct their training schedules. This periodization, or pattern of training, appears to influence gains in performance and permits peaking for big events. Athletes need to decide just how many weeks they should use high- and low-intensity training, how many days a week to devote to speed work, how many days of rest they should take, and how many days they should taper before a big competition.

All that training gets funneled down into those small particles of time we call competition. That's what it's all about. Athletes have taken their genetic gifts, done everything in their power to enhance them, and now—in just a few clicks of the clock—they must realize them.

This phenomenon is seen through moments in time that, often in dramatic fashion, serve to define the essence of sports itself. Carlton Fisk willing his drive to left field into fair territory during the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. John Landy glancing over his left shoulder as Roger Bannister passed by him on the outside in the final lap to win the mile of the century in Vancouver. Michael Jordan in full flight above the rim. Here, time is stilled—at least in memories and photographs—and moments are imbued with powerful meaning for the world of competitive sports.

Some have attributed spiritual qualities to such moments. In his 1999 book The Tao of the Jump Shot (Seastone Publishers), John Mahoney writes, “Although the jump shot is a dynamic movement of energy, there is one unique point, a nearly measureless instant, during which the athlete remains frozen in space. The point of release, born in a moment of stillness. . .”

Sometimes, rarely, remarkably, athletes seem to transcend the tyranny of time altogether. Like Roger Bannister on the final straightaway: “There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim.” In the throes of supreme physical effort, they've been transported somewhere else, someplace where even the clock doesn't matter. Victor Price, in his short story “The Other Kingdom,” wrote about this:

As they entered the straight they moved into a purely physical kingdom. Nothing mattered now but to keep going. . . . It was a wave of feral aggression, a lust for power and at the same time a sacred terror, as though he were pursued by some fierce and inescapable beast. Life existed now only as far as the finishing tape. The element of time expanded and contracted simultaneously; a seriousness on the threshold of physical agony, where the actions of this one man were determining the fate of all men, and none of the rules of life applied anymore. There was no good, no evil, no success, no failure. There was only the man eternally running. . . .6

(Alas, for most of us mere mortals, crossing the finishing line of a race is more likely to be accompanied by waves of nausea, hunger for air, cramps, and the longing for a warm shower.)

More Excerpts From Athlete's Clock