There are two kinds of people: one who says that there are two kinds of people and one who says there aren’t. That’s a take on an old joke but it applies when people talk of Old School versus New School in the sports world.
But the divide is not so simple. If you take any sport and mention a contemporary versus a player in the past, you might end up in that age-old argument of how that old school athlete would fair today. It’s a fun idea that can also be combative. But the context is different. Motivation is different. The world is just plain different.
We recently lost two Hall of Famers and icons in their sports: In baseball, pitcher, Tom Seaver, and in football, running back, Gale Sayers. Their approach and demeanor may have hinted at Old School, but the metrics say otherwise. Today’s batters, no different than the ones Seaver whiffed in the past, don’t handle 95+ MPH fastballs any better than they did when he won the Cy Young in ’67. And todays’ combine scouts would drool at Sayers’ 40-yard dash, his sub 10-second 100-yard dash, his agility, and strength.
We could argue endlessly, but the point is there is no separation. Within the New School are Old School elements dressed anew. Evolution is Nature’s arrow. And within the Old School, the DNA was passed on to the New in essence, as rare and pure potential.
Greatness is greatness. No need to compare. But rather just appreciate for we are blessed to witness the sublime when athletes cultivate the gift in the context of the present. And we can appreciate, in pre-HD video, Seaver’s leg drive and unhittable heat, and Sayers breaking ankles before the expression existed.
Years ago, I performed the duties of Head Pro and Sports Director at a very large club. The facility featured racquet sports, handball, volleyball, and basketball, but the area that stood out to me from a performance perspective was the dance studio. Long before teams collected data and film on every aspect of the game, dancers had a simple effective form of feedback: mirrors. Over 40% of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to visual processing and equally important a dancer learning a performance could get the sense of the whole: how a move looked and felt from position to transition to position…
In a different vein, baseball crowned a new champion and data was as much a player as the athletes on the field. The broadcast was chock full of statistics, real-time measurements, and analysis. On a side note, I miss the days of “The Scooter,” Hall of Fame shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, who was the New York Yankees color analyst for years after he hung up his spikes. Rizzuto often talked about meals he had at different New York restaurants for innings at time. Spaghetti and meatballs flavored the broadcast. Today, conversation has been replaced by esoteric stats and games take nearly twice as long.
Dancers, data, and plates of spaghetti all go together on some level. And that is the point. Data and stats are important, but not as much as the intuition developed by athletes and performers at the highest level. And sometimes the best coaching takes place over a meal.
More and more the mind is being managed from a laminated sheet beyond the playing field. Junior-varsity catchers wear armbands with codes so they can decipher the pitch called by the coach in the dugout. Sport is evolving and pushing down the technology and information-gathering to athletes yet to experience puberty. Perhaps we should take heed of other aspects of society, such as education, to see where data collection and pushing expectations down to those not yet developmentally ready has gotten us.
Data matters and it’s nice to know that the number four hitter in the lineup eats fastballs middle in. But it’s not the endpoint. It’s an intermediary in a larger context. Performance, whether team or individual, is equally (if not more) influenced by what cannot be measured. We can’t build a whole by putting parts together. Athletes aren’t cars or toasters. The whole, whether team or individual is always more and of a different quality than the sum of its parts. Many times have we heard, “That team looks good on paper” only to experience the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.
Fifty years ago, a team transformed from hapless to miraculous. The “Amazing Mets” changed my life and Tom Seaver became my hero. Data offered that Tom Terrific threw 150 pitches in a ten-inning, game four, World Series win. Data couldn’t measure his heart, his desire, his commitment, nor could it measure that elusive team intangible: chemistry.
I think of that dance studio every time I teach and coach. Performance is helped by data. But ultimately, it’s about relationships: with yourself, with teammates, with coaches. The mirror is ever-present in reflection whether it’s staring back or in your mind’s eye. It doesn’t lie for you see your execution. You see the many dancers or athletes you admired and showed you the way. You see the intuitive genius possessing immeasurable bits of the data of process and experience, creativity, failure and success. You see the shaping of performance. You see, even if symbolically, what you think and feel, which according to many a sage, is what you become.
If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website atDrJohnPanepinto.com.