Tag Archives: sports

Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t understand why anyone would play tennis

Deeply weird article by Malcolm Gladwell about his plan to save high school sports, which he sees as breaking down under the pressure of premature specialization and elitism.

To the extent that we cater to the 90th percentile, we make a sport psychologically forbidding to the 50th percentile. I mean, if your high school has four tennis players who have been honing their topspin forehands and kick-serves for 10 years, why would someone who grew up playing with their siblings on public courts on the weekends want to try out for the team?

Well, CJ plays high school tennis. He plays junior varsity. He didn’t have to try out. There are elite players on his team, including the fourth-best player in Wisconsin. So why does he play?

Hold that thought. Gladwell makes a similar point about the sport he himself competes in, cross country.

If you were a mediocre runner, would you go out for the Corning cross country team? I doubt it. You couldn’t keep up in practice. And you wouldn’t matter. Corning sent eight runners to the state championships, and its eighth-place finisher, a young man named Ryan, was over 2 minutes slower than its best runner. Was anyone even watching when Ryan crossed the line? A sport that focuses its reward structure entirely on the top five finishers limits attention to those top five finishers. By the time Ryan came across the line, the championship was already decided.

But by this point in the article, Gladwell has already explained why you’d go out for the cross country team!

I won’t belabor the obvious about cross country. It is insanely fun. Races take place during the glory days of fall. The courses are typically in beautiful parts of the country. Cross country meets don’t feel like sporting events; they feel like outdoor festivals—except everyone is fit, as opposed to high. Everyone should be so lucky as to run cross country.

But for Gladwell, this is somehow not enough. You have to matter. But why? Mattering is overrated. Kids play sports because sports, as Gladwell says, are fun to play. CJ’s games don’t matter to whether his high school wins the state championship. But they matter to him! The coaches make an effort to match players against kids from the opposing team with roughly similar skill and that leads to good games, games you care about while you’re playing them.

Gladwell proposes a weird Rawlsian scheme where your cross country team’s performance is heavily dependent on how well your slowest runners do. OK, you could do that, and then it would all come down to Ryan. But is that what Ryan wants? I don’t think CJ wishes the varsity team’s fortunes depended on whether he could land the jump serve he’s just starting to learn. That sounds incredibly stressful. I think it’s fine not to matter, and if we teach kids there’s no point in playing unless you’re part of the final score, we’re teaching them something kind of bad about sports.

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Caring about sports

When I was younger I cared about sports a lot. If the Orioles lost a big game — especially to the hated Yankees — it ruined my day, or more than one day. I remember when Dr. Mrs. Q. first found out about this she thought I was kidding; it made no sense to her that somebody could actually care enough to let it turn your whole ship of mood.

CJ is different. It has been an emotionally complicated last few years for Wisconsin sports fans, with all the local teams being good, really good, but never good enough to win the title. The Badgers losing the NCAA final to (the hated) Duke. The Brewers getting rolled out of the NLCS by the Dodgers. Of course, the Bucks, the team with the best record in the league and the two-time MVP, getting knocked out of the playoffs. And today, the 14-3 Packers losing the NFC championship to the Buccaneers. And I gotta say — CJ, while watching a game, is as intensely into his team as I have ever been. But after it’s over? It’s over. He doesn’t stew. I don’t know where he got this equanimity. Not from me, maybe from Dr. Mrs. Q. But I think I’m starting to get it from him. Maybe it just comes with age — or maybe I’m actually learning something.

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Bring back Olympic tug of war

The IOC has voted to remove wrestling from the Olympics, to be replaced with a new sport in the 2020 games. I can’t say I’ve ever watched Olympic wrestling, but I approve of it.  The point of the Olympics is elemental trials of athleticism;  running, jumping, lifting, gymnastics.  And wrestling.

Here is how you tell whether a sport belongs in the Olympics.  Does it have a strategy?  Then it doesn’t belong in the Olympics.  The strategy for an Olympic sport should be “be stronger or faster than your opponent.”

OK, yes, I know wrestling has strategies.  It’s a border case.

The point is that an Olympics which has golf and rugby but doesn’t have wrestling is moving away from being the Olympics.  Which is why it’s of paramount importance which sport the IOC chooses to replace wrestling in 2020. Fortunately, there’s one sport which typifies the Olympic ideal, which already has a rich history in the Games, and which is currently unfairly excluded.  And that is tug of war.

Tug of war is doing great in India.  It’s doing great in Ireland.  And the 2014 outdoor world championships are being held here in Madison, a suitable consolation prize for the cycling events we didn’t get when Chicago lost its Olympic bid.

Tug of war!  You pull as hard as you can.  If you pull harder than the other country, you win.  If the other country pulls harder than you, you fall down.  That’s Olympics.

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The much-deserved death of the perfect 10

Slate just re-posted my 2008 article in praise of the new gymnastics scoring system.  I stand by it.

“The new ‘open-ended’ scoring system was designed in part to prevent us from outgrowing the rules,” international gymnastics judge Judy Schalk told me via e-mail. Before the new system, just about all elite competitors performed routines difficult enough to bring the start value up to a 10.0; sailing over that threshold earned you no more points than barely clearing it. With the new system, gymnasts have the incentive to keep making their routines tougher and more complex. In every other sport, the competitors in Beijing are superior to their predecessors and get better scores to prove it. Why should gymnastics be the only sport without world records?
With the new system, gymnastics comes into compliance with the Olympic motto. That’s “faster, higher, stronger,” not “more graceful, more beautiful, closer to perfect.” It’s no coincidence that the Olympic sports that have historically chased the latter ideal are the same ones in which the women’s game overshadows the men’s: gymnastics and figure skating.
Figure skating ditched the perfect 6.0 after crooked judging in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics embarrassed the sport. The old scoring system already had many discontents, most famously great French champion Surya Bonaly, who showed her disdain for the judges at the 1998 Olympics by landing a backflip on one skate. It was illegal, it carried a mandatory deduction, and she was the only woman in the world who could do it.

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Sports dude dialectic

Sports dude on minor league baseball:  “This is what baseball is really all about.  No overpaid superstars, no lockouts, no steroids — just kids playing their hearts out for the love of the game.”

Sports dude on women’s basketball:  “Sure, I’d like to get into it, but it’s just not that interesting to watch players at a lower level of athleticism.”


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Irrational likred

Deane Yang asks in comments:  “What athletes do you especially like?”  That’s actually what I was going to post about today anyway.  A short list, excluding people who play for teams I follow:  Rickey Henderson.  Manny Ramirez.  Barry Bonds.  Jim Thome.  Nomar Garciaparra.  Edgar Martinez.  Randall Cunningham.  Ricky Williams.  Jake Plummer.  Gus Frerotte.  Surya Bonaly.  Arantxa Sanchez.

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