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What Athletes Think About
I HAVE ALWAYS WONDERED what runs through the minds of athletes under the stress of competition. Does an automobile racer ever want to drive his car off the grid onto a country road and escape? Do long-distance runners enjoy a particular sagacity because of the time available to turn the world’s problems ever over in their minds? (a jogger I knew memorized almost all the poems of W. B. Yeats in a year of running around New York’s Central Park Reservoir.)
Range of Ritual. What professional athletes actually do think turns out to be astonishingly varied? Sometimes pre-game tension is so great that an athlete is physically sick. Hockey goalie Glenn Hall was ill before many games. Diametrically opposed was the self-satisfying optimism of soccer star Pele. In the New York Cosmos locker room, it was Pele’s ritual to lie on the floor with his feet elevated on a bench, one towel neatly folded under his head, another shielding his eyes. Half in, half out of his cubicle, he would begin a sort of waking dream pleasurable scenes of playing barefoot on Brazilian beaches, playbacks of triumphs of his astonishing career that he planned to emulate. The more important the game. The longer his dream. On the occasion of the first huge crowd the Cosmos spent 25 minutes under his towel and then scored three goals against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Tom Matte, the former Baltimore Colt running back, had a different ritual. Before he set off for a game, he always took his dog. Whitey, for a walk in the woods where the two of them would commune. Matte hated the tension he knew was building up in the locker room-it made him sleepy and slack limbed-so he avoided it until the last possible moment.
Yet Muhammad Ali’s locker room just before a fight was not unlike what I imagine the levee of a French king to have been. The place was packed, and he put on a performance.
I can only exclaim at the range of preparation exercise. Bill Russell, the great Boston Celtic basketball center and coach, imagined himself as, say, a deputy marshal coming into a Western cowpoke town full of desperadoes and clearing them out in a long sequence of derring-do. (Eventually, such mental contrivances seemed foolish, but the inability to indulge in them, Russell felt, eroded the intensity of his game skills.)
Balks and Beach Balls. Many golfers visualize a kind of aerial map of the fairway. Just before they hit the ball, they think exactly where they are going to put it on the map, much as if they were painters leaning forward to dimple the canvas with the white of the ball. “I think I’ll put it just there.” Jackie Stewart, former world champion automobile racer, once told me that as he sat in his car before starting the engine he would imagine his body inflating like a “beach ball.” Then, letting the air out, he would feel himself relax into a slab of slack rubber that seemed to fit the contours of the racing machine, becoming part of it-an exercise that not only helped him prepare his mind but relaxed him physically.
Once action begins, the athlete must focus totally on it. When his attention began to drift with the race not done, Stewart would “bite back in,” persuading himself that things were beginning to go wrong with his car. Torturing himself with theoretical problems induced a rapt attention to the matter at hand.
As Olympic gold-medal winner Micki King executes a “back dive, pike position”-what a layman would call an upside-down jackknife-her expression is strained; intentness and concern show in her eyes. Small wonder! She is three stories up. She will hit the surface of the pool at about 30 m.p.h. She is aware that a number of untidy things can happen-from barely noticeable faults to major loss of control: a disorientation so devastating that the blue of the sky is confused for that of the water, or even a “balk” in which everything comes unstuck and the diver suddenly flails in the sky like a cartoon character who steps blithely out of an airplane to discover that he is a mile high.
All-Out Focus. The antidote to these nightmares is total concentration on what she is supposed to do: to watch her hands reach and touch her toes, then to make myriad adjustments and finally to hit “clean,” producing the ripping sound which spectators cheer and judges reflect in their scoring. Even after years of diving Micki King marvels that the brain can do all this in fractions of seconds.
Concentration is often so extreme that the athlete has no awareness of the crowds, the fanfare or, in a team sport, the identity of opponents. Dave Casper, Houston Oiler tight end, speaks of his mind being so intent on assignments that he’s unaware of the score.
Henry Aaron’s intensity was such that even when he hit the historic home run which broke Babe Ruth’s record, rather than watching the flight of the ball, enjoying what his skill had produced, he turned immediately and set off hard for first base. That’s what a player is supposed to do. He knows that too often the ball fails short and stays in play; if the batter has been staring at it, willing it over the wall, he is bound to lose a number of strides on the base paths.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of how concentrating removes an athlete from a general awareness was when Bob Beamon made his amazing 29-foot, 2.5-inch broad jump at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. In an event in which advances are made in quarter inches, and very rarely, he jumped more than a foot over the previous record. But Beamon was not aware at the time that he had done anything of particular interest. He hopped out of the jumping pit knowing simply that he had made a good jump. He looked at the scoreboard, where the distances were marked in meters, and began laboriously transposing into feet and inches.
The crowd’s roar startled him, and he turned to see people emptying out of the stands and coming toward him. He looked back over his shoulder to see what they were running for-perhaps the winner of a sprint race on the far side of the track. The he realized they were coming for him. Suddenly he was aloft on their shoulders. It was frightening, he said, because the reason for their excitement was unclear-as if he were a football coach on the sidelines suddenly hoisted on the shoulders of his team in the third quarter, with that team down by a touchdown. Beamon kept calling down from the shoulders of his supports to find out exactly what he had done.
Jim Beatty, the first man to run a sub-four-minute indoor mile once told me what can happen if a distance runner lets his mind wander. Competing in Moscow in a Soviet-American meet, he began thinking about where he was going to eat that night-perhaps not surprising in a strange city-and when he focused back he suddenly could not remember whether he had heard the bell signaling the last lap. (the bell is loud enough to pierce through the roar of the crowd to the upper reaches of a stadium.) “ I had to turn to teammate Jim Grelle, running just off y shoulder, and as, ‘Jim , where are we? Is this it? ‘ Jim looked surprised but said, ‘Yes.’ I went into my kick and pulled five yards ahead before poor Jim had a chance to react. If he’d had the wit to tell me we had another lap to go before the bell, he could have produced his kick and soared by me.”
Rock and Row. Athletes use many gimmicks to make them concentrate harder. Eddie Collins, the famous second baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics, always stuck his gum up on the button of his cap when he went to the plate. But if there were two strikes on him, he would step out of the batter’s box to pry the gum loose and pop it back in his mouth-to make himself bear down. Tennis players carry on a steady inner monologue, usually punctuated by a shout of recrimination at a missed shot. Few who have watched Billie Jean King play have not heard the strident, bitter cry of “Idiot” accompanied by the hard stamp of the foot-too devastating an insult to be directed to anyone but herself.
Free-spirited soccer goalie Shep Messing told me that concentrating on the black-and-white-diamond ball for the 90 minutes of play especially if the ball spent long intervals at the other end was such an exhausting business that he needed a break from time to time to keep “from going nuts.” When the ball is out of bounds at the far end or there is a corner kick there , he turns around and talks to the goal posts. It gives him a chance to wind down, if only for a few seconds.
“Oh,” I said “well, what do you say to the goal posts?” “I Joke at them. I say, ‘Be there when I need you.’”
Perhaps the most involved inner monologue was practiced by Art Larsen, the 1950 U.S. tennis champion. He imagined that he was being advised by an eagle who soared above the court during play. When a point was over, the bird would drift down onto larsen’s shoulder and whisper instructions on court strategy, and what he had noted from up there. Spectators could see the sudden tilt of Larsen’s shoulder as the imaginary bird landed, then his nod as the bird soared off and he prepared to serve.
Many athletes sing to keep their minds in order. Jack Nicklaus find that a single song, hummed in a flat monotone, stays with him through a golf tournament. He told me, “We won an awful lot on ‘Answer me, My Love.’” And on a river race in Argentina, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad sang “Row, Row,Row Your Boat” over and over again.
Chris Evert Lloyd also sings to herself-disco rock usually, but only when she has an easy match. If she is extended by an opponent she stops singing and begins to remind herself how wonderful it is to win and then conversely, how she will feel if she loses-that she will let not only herself down but also her family, her friends and even “the flag,” as if a loss at tennis were close to a national disgrace. She pumps herself up thinking of the disparity between these two possibilities.
What do athletes think about when it’s over? Of course, the reaction depends largely on victory or loss, and the closeness of the score. Sometimes even reaction to victory is qualified. Sherpa mountain climber Nawang Gombu, asked what was running through his mind as he stood on top of the world, having just conquered Mount Everest, smiled slightly and said, “How to get down.”

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