Expansive Sports

I posted a short version of this in August; since then, I’ve expanded it as a chapter for the revised book, The Expansive Athlete.


It’s been a wonderful year for sports books.

The last 12 months have seen the publication of three instant classics: Bill Rodgers’s Marathon Man, Alberto Salazar’s 14 Minutes, and Phil Jackson’s 11 Rings: The Soul of Success.

A strong current runs through these books: they’re all about expansive sports, the notion that positive energy, positive attitudes, and a focus on the individual lead to success.

Jackson’s account of his remarkable NBA career as a coach and player takes us inside his relationships with superstars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O’Neal, and many others. This memoir doesn’t have a boring page. It’s wonderful.

How did Jackson persuade so many stars to cooperate – to become warrior-brothers, instead of sports prima donnas? More on Jackson in a moment.

In an earlier chapter, I propose that sports championships are won by those who embrace expansive attitudes. Examples from today’s sports pages include the Seattle Seahawks, the Nike Oregon Project, and the African elites.

Soon after I read 11 Rings, I chanced on “Lotus Pose on Two,” a wonderful article by Alyssa Roenigk in ESPN The Magazine that describes how coach Pete Carroll transformed the Seattle Seahawks into the best team in the NFL.

His [Carroll’s] dream was to fundamentally change the way players are coached. The timeworn strategy is, of course, to be a hard-ass – think Bear Bryant banning water breaks, Vince Lombardi screaming and yelling, Mike Rice throwing basketballs at players’ heads, Nick Saban berating his team on the sideline. Carroll craved a chance to reimagine the coaching role in the NFL. “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?”

What happened is that on December 13, 2012 the Seahawks demolished the San Francisco Forty-Niners, their most dangerous rivals, by a score of 40-13.

The lopsided victory doesn’t begin to tell the story. “Demolished” is too piddling a word. Crushed, annihilated, obliterated, shamed, humiliated, destroyed, astonished, devastated.

The Seahawks were tigers playing with mice. And the Forty-Niners were a very good team – at the end of that season, they came within four yards of winning the Super Bowl.

Great coaches know that an important key to success is caring for the individual athlete. If the players are unhappy, feel disrespected, or are divided, the team will have greatly reduced chances of succeeeding. Contractive attitudes kill energy.

Of course, the energy of the team begins with the energy of the individual. Good coaches know that every player is unique and needs individual mentoring. Jackson:

My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just as a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions. Derek Fisher is a prime example. He began as a backup point guard for the Lakers with average foot speed and shooting skills. But he worked tirelessly and transformed himself into an invaluable clutch performer and one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached.

Pete Carroll found success by the same principles. From the ESPN article:

 The big idea is that happy players make for better players. Everyone in the facility, from coaches and players to personal assistants and valets, is expected to follow Carroll’s mantras regarding positivity of thought, words and actions. “Do your job better than it has ever been done before,” he tells them. Yelling and swearing are frowned upon, and every media interview with a player or coach ends with a thank-you to the reporter….

The Seahawks coaches closely monitor their players’ lives – from their sleep patterns, to their personal goals, and how they’re able to deal with stress. “Depressed? Worried about a loved one? Sick pet? The staff wants to hear about it….” The coaches are expected to adapt to the system, too:

That includes assistant head coach Tom Cable, the former hothead coach of the Raiders. “I always coached how my coaches coached me,” he says. Working alongside Carroll, 48-year-old Cable says he finally feels as though he’s working with players the right way. “If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am,” Cable says. “I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he’s going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.”

Another lesson of these three excellent books is the value of being centered in the moment. Jackson:

At the start of every season I always encouraged players to focus on the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.

A final lesson is that external rewards aren’t enduring. The satisfactions of a sub-3-hour marathon or even an NBA championship depreciate over time. But the joys of the moment are eternally available. Phil Jackson:

Some coaches are obsessed with winning tro­phies; others like to see their faces on TV. What moves me is watch­ing young men bond together and tap into the magic that arises when they focus – with their whole heart and soul – on something greater than themselves. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s something you never forget.

During the Niners game, Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson’s poise was ethereal. He seemed to smile with an inner peace. Wilson is fan of the team’s obligatory meditation practices; coach Pete Carroll believes meditation helps the players stay calm and efficient under pressure, able to ground themselves during the chaos of a game.

“Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice,” [offensive tackle Russell] Okung says. “It’s about quieting your mind and getting into certain states where everything outside of you doesn’t matter in that moment. There are so many things telling you that you can’t do something, but you take those thoughts captive, take power over them and change them.”

Throughout Jackson’s career, especially his first years with the Chicago Bulls, he was often teased for his new-age beliefs, including his attempts to get his players to meditate. Jackson felt that his Zen practice helped him be a better coach. Michael Jordan wasn’t much interested, but Steve Kerr and others felt that meditation helped them.

Bill Rodgers’ autobiography, Marathon Man – My 26.2-Mile Journey From Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World, may be the best elite runner’s bio since Ron Clarke’s The Unforgiving Minute (1971).

Rodgers won Boston and New York each four times. He was a natural, a guy the other stars were in awe of, for his beautiful running form, his tremendous talent, and his boundless energy.

Marathon Man is rich with insider stories of the glory years of US running, told in “Boston Billy’s” genial style. Rodgers doesn’t try to impress us with his distant successes. But he’s an unabashed flag-bearer for his approach to training and racing. A lesson he hopes we’ll take from the book is that training is most successful when it’s fun. Rodgers believes that enjoyment comes by running hard and cultivating mental relaxation.

I think we run best when we are calm and relaxed; at least, that’s what I’ve found. I focus better when I’m calm and relaxed. I have a better idea of what strategy to employ; I can hear what my body is tell­ing me; I can hear what my opponent is telling me. Because marathon racing is so brutally competitive, so physically intense, so mentally chal­lenging, it’s imperative to keep your head. You need to maintain a clear picture of what’s happening in the here and now.

Rodgers didn’t hammer himself daily in training; most miles were run at a leisurely (for him) 7:00 to 6:30 pace. He trained almost exclusively on a 1.5-mile loop around a small lake. Not being able to enjoy nature while he ran was unthinkable. He felt that by helping him keep a positive attitude, nature contributed greatly to his success.

Rodgers doesn’t gloss over his years as a penniless grad student who lost his way and sought refuge in cigarettes and booze. The down time provides a dark backdrop for the ascending light of his return to running. Plodding through life with heavy feelings of depression and meaninglessness, Rodgers ultimately found redemption in his work with the mentally ill, and in his relationship with his wife, Ellen.

Rodgers had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). It manifested as a spaciness that was part of what made him loveable. The upside is that it helped his running.

Most normal people could not run for over two hours without a single break in concentration, but my condi­tion gave me an abnormal talent for immersing myself in a single activity I enjoyed, in this case running. Once I went into this zone of hyperfocus, I shut out the rest of the world. I could have been running through an artillery range with live mortars going off around me and it wouldn’t have bothered me. Being able to lock it down for 26.2 miles while disregarding the messages of worry, confusion, and insecurity that can infect the mind and deplete the body gave me a special edge. Which was kind of funny because, the rest of the time when I wasn’t running, my mind was all over the place. Everything has a flip side, I suppose.

The atmosphere among the top American runners in the early 1970s was informal and collegial. Rodgers believes it’s a mistake to dismiss the value of that closeness.

While American athletes train more in groups now, the sense of unity and shared conviction is nothing like in the days of the Greater Boston Track Club. If you want to see the tight club mentality of the seventies running boom, you need to travel to Kenya and Ethiopia. It’s no surprise they now dominate the distance events. Meanwhile, this common spirit of enthusiasm and devotion to the cause, and to one an­other, is missing among our best distance runners. We need to change this if we are to recapture an era of American marathon success.

Alberto Salazar’s 14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life is a bit of an odd duck, viewed alongside the books by Rodgers and Jackson. The title refers to the day Salazar collapsed on the Nike campus and his heart stopped beating for 14 minutes. His strong Catholic faith provides a framework for his life story. While some readers prefer their sports heroes to be agnostic, or at least tight-lipped about their religious beliefs, Salazar’s faith helped him transform from a maniacally driven marathoner to a coach whose continual concern is doing what’s best for his athletes.

Salazar is emerging as one of history’s greatest running coaches. Nowadays, it seems that being accepted by the Nike Oregon Project, which he coaches, is a near-guarantee of success. Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, coached by Salazar, won gold and silver at the 2012 London Olympics. Farah won the 5,000 and 10,000 and Rupp took silver in the 10K.

Salazar’s faith helped him see that life is bigger than running. It’s a lesson that Jackson, Rodgers, and Carroll learned in their own way. Expanding our awareness to include the welfare of others gives our lives meaning, and lays an optimal foundation for success. Salazar:

Certainly, compared to the contri­butions of others, running around a track faster than a rival, or running from point A to point B ahead of another man, doesn’t amount to much. To the degree that those races pointed me toward a deeper faith, how­ever, or inspired others to evaluate their lives in a more meaningful light, they have value. I had been gradually building toward that insight for years, but my near-death experience in 2007 drove it home indelibly.

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