Tradeoffs

From David Foster Wallace's 1995 essay, The String Theory:

… it's better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we'll invoke lush cliches about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one's mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way "up close and personal" profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what's obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It's farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world, is very small.

Hat tip to Tim Carmody filling in at Kottke.

Comments

He's talking about himself, right?

Is this true only for athletes?

Do grad schools advertise their success rates? Of course not.

"Is this true only for athletes?"

No, it's true of the very best in any field.

And I'm not so judgmental, or so convinced that my lifestlye preferences are the "right" ones, to think that this is a bad thing.

Andrew, as someone looking for a PhD program I'm seeing a lot of schools that do advertise placement rate - and those that don't "advertise" that their placement rate must not be worth bragging about.

Granted, placement rate doesn't include drop-outs.

Sadly, I notice that David Foster Wallace's world is rather limited right now.

"Granted, placement rate doesn't include drop-outs."

That is what you should be interested in.

"This could easily be taken as a screed against cultivating comparative advantage"

Not a screed, but hopefully an education about specialization and its costs. One of the advices my advisor gave is to specialize in one thing and let that thing take care of everything else. He's not an economist. This was in response to a student working on his own car. There is a lot of truth to this, but there are limits and also some self-serving motivation. It's no skin off my advisor's nose if our auto mechanics take us for a ride because we don't know enough about cars to audit them. How many professors have no idea how to manage their finances? At least athletes have confidence their specialties will be in demand.

I have been thinking how much like professional sports grad school (and a lot of other things) is. It is probably hard to motivate people to make the necessary sacrifices if you give them realistic expectations. I would to make a terrible advisor.

Given the number of journalists who demonstrate a complete lack of critical thinking skills (I think especially of one NZ journalist, who when writing of Helen Clark, then-Prime Minister, wondered what it meant that a woman could only rise to the top of NZ politics by being childless, despite that our previous PM, Jenny Shipley, also female, had two children), I am inclined to think that athletes aren't missing out on much.

In the past year or so, we've been told that 78% of NFL players are personally bankrupt within two years of leaving the League; 60% of NBA players are personally bankrupt within five years of leaving their game. (Don't recall the source, but these numbers circulated widely upon release.)

My guess is that "remedial English" and "remedial math" programs at the post-secondary level were born of the specific needs of college athletics recruiters; such remedial programs were manifest idiocy when implemented decades before Wallace writ his essay, and they remain manifest idiocy as long as they remain in place.

I wonder if Harvard's Howard Gardner, ingenious theorist of "multiple intelligences", ever excelled at fencing, or whether he sincerely believes athletic skill and ability constitute an "intelligence" with any applicability outside of athletes' chosen domains.

Most people are boring and vapid, including, most likely, me. Big deal.

Loren says "Should my uncultivated basketball skills then warrant similar pity and contempt from the point of view of a talented player?" Of course. They have women throwing themselves at them. I doubt you do, despite your highly developed verbal skills. And basketball players would laugh to see you struggle to get even fraction of that kind of attention. I'm serious about this.

So Wallace watched all of the Rocky movies. :)

One problem is that professional athletes must give multiple mandatory interviews, after (and often before) practically every single match. Sooner or later you run out of things to say and inevitably end up repeating yourself and mouthing vapid clich├ęs.

It doesn't help that the questions are almost always broad and banal, unoriginal and unimaginative and soundbite-seeking. It doesn't help that for competitive reasons almost all meaningful questions (about strategy, fitness, opponent's exploitable weaknesses, and so forth) are off limits.

Imagine a college professor being asked daily, "How are you getting your vocal cords ready for today's lecture?"

"I doubt you do, despite your highly developed verbal skills. And basketball players would laugh to see you struggle to get even fraction of that kind of attention. I'm serious about this."

Which is what makes it all so sad.

Horse hockey!

Pro athletes are first and foremost in the postition they are because they were born with incredible physical abilities not because they have devoted their entire existence to the sport. Some pro athletes are actually quite lazy.

And the idea that they do not have interest outside of sports is equally silly. Some favorites are, golf, women, weed, cars, charity work, religion. Pretty much reflective of the broader society (minus the weed).

But on top of those mundane pursuits you have had pro atheletes become senators (Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley) state house members (Heath Shuler) become Rhodes Scholars (Chad Pennington, Myron Rolle) and a big time college athelete became president (Gerald Ford). Reggie White was a minister and Rosey Grier wrote a book on needlepoint http://www.amazon.com/Rosey-Griers-Needlepoint-Men-Grier/dp/0802704212.

Big time athletes are like everyone else, the only difference is that they have been given incredible physical gifts. Yes they have chosen to devote a lot of time to formation of skills in a certain career, but I doubt anymore than other successful people, remember it is thier job and they only play and practice about half the year. They do train in the off season, but I doubt that is anywhere near a 9-5 endeavor (you can only lift weights and run for so long and if you shoot jump shots for 3 hours a day you have taken a bunch of shots).

Wow, imagine cruising one of my favorite blogs to find that an excerpt from one of my very favorite sports essays has been excerpted, and that excerpt focuses precisely on my main point. I've mailed that bit about star athletes struggling to appear well rounded.

I think it's a mistake to interpret the intent of that as being insulting of athletes. IMO, it's important just to notice the social sacrifice that comes when a talented youth devotes his or herself to world-class excellence. It's not about judging, but understanding. IF you have kids and they have athlete role models, remember that those athletes probably have insight about hard work and competition, but not about what it takes to be a well-rounded individual of high character. Tiger Woods, anyone?

I can't recommend strongly enough to folks that they click through and read the whole thing. There are plenty of rich insights therein. The info about the tiny marginal factors that separate the truly great from the merely world class, for example.

RIP DF Wallace, for sure.

Regards

The Cranky Critter

Cranky, yes, thanks, we should think of Tiger Woods and his varied outside interests. Exactly my point.

Agreed CC, when I thought of pro athlete I thought of Football, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey player not the individual/skill sports.

The individual/skill sports might be more all consuming than the others. If you limit the thesis to these sports I can see it more.

I've read hundreds of interviews with pro golfers. Interviews with active golfers are uniformly vapid, while interviews with retired ones are frequently insightful and hilarious. In general, it doesn't pay to rock the boat while in the heart of your career.

This reminds me of a long David Foster Wallace article in the Atlantic about a talk radio host at KFI. The central theme was how much smarter DFW was than the talk radio host. Yet, the primary example DFW came up with to demonstrate this was that the radio guy was convinced O.J. Simpson was guilty while DFW wasn't so sure!

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/04/host/3812/

BKarn wrote "Which is what makes it all so sad." It's only sad because deep down, you know it's worse to be a virgin than an idiot.

After the event interviews and press conferences aren't designed for deep thought and trenchant analysis. They are part of the event and supposed to be entertaining and a source of material for newspaper/magazine/blog articles and TV clips.

"Was the punch Two-Ton Tony hit you with in the 6th a hard one Champ?"

"Hard enough to knock me down"

But to get to the top in a very competitive game, one does need to specialize and focus on the things that promote successful performance in relevant arenas.

Not just athletes, but everyone should learn something about financial planning.

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