Challenge Conventions, Win Honestly, and Other Sports Lessons Worth Learning
Even if you're just a fair-weather fan, sports can teach you a lot about winning at life. By Anders KeltoMar 9, 2018 12:06 PM
Some people think sports are boring and predictable. One team wins, the other loses, fans freak out, end of story. And, sure, competitions might be a healthy distraction from our difficult lives, but they're not much more than that. Or are they?
As someone who grew up playing sports and loving great stories, I've always regarded the athletic narrative a bit differently. Hidden among the dramas of competition are beautiful, timeless human stories -- tales of hope, tragedy, love, pain, perseverance and failure. Stories that tell us a lot about ourselves and the world we live in.
When I set out to create the new Audible Original series GameBreaker, I wanted to tell those kinds of stories -- the kind that are really about something much bigger than sports. Along the way, I learned some important and surprising lessons I was eager to share. These are things that extend far beyond the stadiums of athletic competition, into the lives of everyday people.
Sometimes, Kids Are Their Own Best Teachers
The fastest swimmer in the world used to drive his coaches nuts.
As a kid, Anthony Ervin would often ignore his swimming instructors, go to the far end of the pool, and play games by himself (or with his friends). Sometimes, he would pretend to be a sea otter or a dolphin, imitating how they moved through the water. Other times, he would try and figure out how to swim feet-first or freestyle upside down.
"It used to drive the coaches crazy," said his mother, Sherry Ervin, shaking her head.
Anthony's emphasis on creative experimentation, and his insistence on doing things his way, continued into early adulthood. As a teenager, he skipped a lot of practices. He did short workouts, focusing on what he believed was important. In short, he did all the things great athletes shouldn't.
But his approach paid off at the 2000 Olympics when the virtually unknown 19-year-old won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle, using a technique never before seen in swimming. A technique his coach Mike Bottom calls a "shoulder-driven freestyle."
"His success changed the sport," said his former teammate and fellow Olympic champion, Gary Hall Jr.
Key to Ervin's success was Coach Bottom, who has a master's degree in counseling and teaches courses in sports psychology. Bottom understood that the best way to help the precocious teenager realize his potential was to give him freedom to experiment and more control over his own training regiment. Basically, Bottom says, he had to get out of the way.
"When I stepped back and said, 'What would you like to do today?' it opened their eyes to a new relationship," Bottom said.
I thought of Bottom and Ervin recently as I was teaching my 7-year-old niece how to swing a tennis racquet. Her instinct was to grip it with her hands in the wrong position. I laughed, and corrected her. But when she stubbornly insisted on doing it her way, I eventually relented.
Maybe she'll fall behind the other kids for now. But who knows--maybe she'll discover a new way of playing tennis that will revolutionize the sport.
Ordinary People Really Can Become Extraordinary
Jenn Shelton was a supremely average athlete growing up. In high school, she ran track but never qualified for the state championships. In college, she got cut from the cross country team.
"You know that kid where you're like, 'That kid's got heart'? That was me," Shelton said, laughing.
But today, Shelton is one of the top distance runners on the planet. In 2007, she set a world record in the ultra-marathon (a 100-mile race), a record that stood for nearly a decade. Her secret weapon isn't genetics or performance-enhancing drugs, it's something much simpler -- her attitude toward pain.
After getting cut from her college team, Jenn logged thousands of miles on her own, driven by a physical and psychological need to move. She often ran 20 miles a day, five days a week, on hard sidewalks. And somewhere along the way, she developed an incredible tolerance for -- or what she might call an indifference to -- pain.
"It's like it just doesn't matter, I don't engage with it," she said.
The ability to tolerate pain is key to winning races of these distances. One's cardiovascular and oxygen delivery systems often matter less than, say, the ability to ignore a blister or block out sweeping waves of leg and back pain. Jenn's competitors marvel at her ability to keep running in almost unthinkable conditions, with a smile on her face.
"Jenn's like, I'm hurting and I'm in pain or discomfort, but let's have a party right now," said Scott Jurek, one of the world's top ultra-marathon runners.
We often look at successful athletes and assume there's something superhuman about them--and often, it's true. But Jenn Shelton's story reminds us that for every LeBron James and Usain Bolt, there's an ordinary person who bootstrapped their way to the top.
And that's just as true in life as it is in sports.
Cheaters Prosper, But Honesty Wins
Professional cyclist Phil Gaimon was so opposed to performance enhancing drugs that he literally got a tattoo of a bar of soap on his right bicep, alongside the word, 'CLEAN.' Whenever Phil would cross the finish line at a big race, the 32-year-old would show the tattoo to the camera to remind people that some pro cyclists really aren't cheaters.
Like many pro riders, Gaimon's career was negatively impacted by Lance Armstrong's doping scandal. It drove major sponsors away from the sport, alienated fans, and reduced payouts. In the years that followed, Phil's income was so meager that he wrote a book about his career called "Pro Cycling on Ten Dollars a Day."
Then, in 2016, Phil went on a mission that transformed his career.
After reading about a convicted doper who was beating ordinary cyclists in a popular GPS-based cycling application called Strava, Phil suspected the former pro was doping again--his times were impossibly fast. So Phil began beating the guy's times one by one, and posting his results on Twitter and Instagram.
"The reaction was just enormous," said Peter Flax, a journalist who reported on Gaimon's unusual endeavor.
Gaimon's popularity in the Los Angeles cycling community skyrocketed, and he eventually launched his own YouTube channel. Among other things, he now tries to beat the times of other suspected dopers. And his quest for justice has become so popular that he has support from major sponsors like Oakley and New Balance. Meanwhile, his former nemesis has quietly stopped using the app.
Phil's story is a reminder that, while cheaters often prosper, honesty wins out in the long run.
"The justice is only symbolic," Gaimon said. "But people still want it to be done fair and clean."
To hear more stories about athletes who will shift your perception of success (and failure), listen to the Audible Original Series, GameBreaker, in full.
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