(last updated on April 29, 2014)
I’ve never been a sporty guy, largely this is because I felt stupid about sports in school. It was assumed that you already knew how to throw a baseball, what “offsides” meant, and generally what the rules of the various popular sports were. At least, that’s how I perceived things…I have also always tended to look for logic in situations where it wasn’t called for. Our family didn’t watch or play sports either, for whatever reason…it was not one of our traditions.
Fast forward 30 years, and I’m being more health conscious. For one thing, the Spring Dating Season for 2006 is upon us once again, and it feels like this year might be THE YEAR for something. So, it’s time to shape up! I have been losing weight through diet, but have hit a plateau, which indicates to me that I need to burn more calories through increased physical activity to push through; this is a basic tenet of The Hacker’s Diet, which provides the process to monitor your progress using quantitative methods. And on top of that, a friend introduced me to the idea of the mind-body connection: if your body is in tune, your mind will follow! Apparently it doesn’t work the other way, otherwise I’d be in better shape. :-)
Moments of Athletic Awareness
There was actually one time in my life when I enjoyed sports a tiny bit: my senior year in high school. For every year prior to 1985, my PhysEd record was pretty dismal. I can imagine it saying something like, “Dave is an indifferent participant, unwilling to engage with the activity. He can not run with or throw any sort of ball, and has difficulty grasping the rules of common sports.” That changed in my senior year. Maybe it was because I thought all this forced labor would come to an end, so I loosened up. Previously-unseen talents burbled to the surface: years of riding bikes up the cursed hills around my house had made my legs incredibly strong, which was a complete surprise to everyone (including myself). I legpressed a freakish amount of weight in front of an astonished crowd, which gained me a modicum of recognition. I remember the class athlete coming up to me afterwards and asking me how the hell I had gotten myself to do that, and him telling me that was great. And then there was the time I was being guarded by this kid I didn’t like during the Basketball part of the year. He mocked my stale skills, and in response I looked him straight in the eye and made a blind airhook from midcourt…straight into the basket! In your face! IN YOUR FACE! I then proceeded to have a very good time, feeling what might have been flow. At the end of the year, when we were getting our report cards from the coach, the PhysEd coach looked looked at me and said, “You did good this quarter. You’ve earned this.” First time I ever got anything greater than a “C-” in P.E.
That was the last time P.E. mattered in my life, and I dodged all forms of physical sports activity. However, I was introduced to watching sports in two instances:
- In grad school, my housemate Charlie introduced me to the joy of watching baseball. Up to then, I had found it a tedious waste of time, but Charlie knew all the players and their histories. He had an engaging way of scowling at the screen, muttering about streaks and slumps. He was more than happy to fill me in on the rich history of the game, his family’s love of going to games, and his enjoyment of playing sports as a kind of homage to his love of the game (he used to pitch at M.I.T.) I got to know the players, following the games one after another until I knew when to groan and when to holler, when a player should have known better and when he’d done something truly remarkable. So I was a Mets fan for a year, despite Charlie’s warning that the Mets were an “advanced team” to be a fan of—he suggested choosing a team that won more games.
I worked for a year at Electronic Arts Florida, working on football games. Going into the company, I knew a lot about computer graphics production but absolutely nothing about football. So, I learned a lot about football on the job; this was a pre-requisite for testing the game and making the graphics properly. I had to watch football games and read about strategy so things like play icons would make sense. Though I got out the game industry after shipping that game, to this day I can’t help but notice what’s new during football game broadcasts: “Damn, Notre Dame has a new endzone graphic and also added a skybox…I need to do a screengrab. Wait…I DON’T WORK ON THIS ANYMORE”. Anyway, I can now follow the game, and as a result I have started enjoyed it. Having the knowledge has made a difference, though at the time it was just work.
Familiarity Breeds Interest. Competence Follows.
What I’m realizing today is that just that bit of familiarity has transformed my attitude toward sports. Not being good at something really bugs me, but as I’ve learned to observe and make adjustments to my assumptions, it’s become a lot more fun. Right now, I’m getting a lot out of basketball. I never thought I’d like this game; even watching it on TV used to bug me because the game is so…squeaky. My opinion completely changed when I saw a real professional basketball game at the Boston Garden last year. We were close enough to see the players from a court-level perspective, and I was amazed at the physicality, coordination and timing on display. I bought a basketball and went to the court for the first time last year, and now that Spring is here I’m trying to spend 30 minutes a day doing this. I’ve only been doing it for about two weeks, but here are some of the benefits I’ve noticed:
- The biggest surprise is that my shoulders feel so much better…practicing those free throws apparently is doing good things for them. Before, I was starting to feel a kind of creakiness in my upper body, and after doing the 30 minutes a day it’s starting to go away. Amazing. Stretching feels good too.
I am starting to dribble like I’m “doing it on purpose.” The key insight came from when I was dribbling rather badly, and it reminded me of the first time I tried Salsa dancing. In couples dancing, the idea is that one person leads and the other follows; this requires signalling between the dancers that subtly yet immediate. I was terrible at it, but once I stopped caring about how bad I was compared to the seasoned dancers twirling around me, I had a great time. How this relates to dribbling: when I was at that pro basketball game, I was struck by the rhythm of the players, who moved their bodies in syncopation with the ball. I thought maybe dribbling is like dancing with the ball. To my surprise, it worked. I focused on where and when I put my feet down, not worrying too much about the ball. The ball tended to follow without too much additional concentration, and fluidity improved noticeably. Now I’m wondering if the same principle applies back to leading your dance partner: focus on your rhythm and motion, and then the partner follows. It’s a fascinating idea.
Shooting baskets is a lot of fun too, because it forces me to think in 3D-space, coordinating muscles to impart the correct set of forces to launch the ball in an optimal arcing pattern. The feedback is immediate and highly tactile, and I’m starting to appreciate that this is what I’m missing from the computer work I’ve done. While programming and interactive design does give more feedback than a lot of work activites, it doesn’t hold a candle to throwing the big orange ball into a basket 30 feet away and over your head. That I think it’s incredible that people can do this at all is a sign that I’m spending too much time with technology, and have been living too much in my own head.
p>I still have quite a bit to learn about jumping and manuevering, but I am newly-cognizant of the depth a relatively simple game (from the rules perspective) can have. The challenge of moving one’s own body, especially for someone who hasn’t been in tune with it for most of his life, is incredibly interesting and fun. It’s not too late for me to learn. I’m looking forward to getting a nice pair of basketball shoes for their actual purpose, and seeing what it’s like to play with someone else.