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Beyond a charmed life, astonishing discipline


About fifteen minutes ago in Beijing, Michael Phelps, with help from his three relay teammates, exceeded Mark Spitz’ seven-medal Olympics record, or should one more accurately say obliterated it:  seven world records.  Amazing.

As I’ve followed the ongoing gold + gold + gold + gold + gold + gold + gold + GOLD saga, along with probably two billion others, I can’t say my reactions are any more sophisticated than anyone else’s:  I believe this record will last for a generation.  I think his mother’s reactions to all this have been moving.  I have admired Phelps’ tenacity and also his modesty in articulating his accomplishments; he has phenomenal poise for his age and the ever-present attention he has received on the world stage.  I thought the exchange broadcast last night between Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps actually rose to a level of eloquence I would never expected from athletes not particularly used to verbalizing their experiences.  And whether one credits the fast pool, the fast suits, or the reemergence of the fast underwater dolphin kick, the pace at which world records have been so regularly superceded is something I never thought I would see.

What makes such feats of excellence so compelling for the vast worldwide audiences watching?  I remember watching Mark Spitz as a young kid, not really aware of what it all meant but I did understand that he had created an extraordinary record, his accomplishment soon darkened by the killings in Munich which were, by contrast, frightening and incomprehensible.  To an eleven year old excellence seemed logical and terrorism nonsensical.

The other day one of the NBC short profiles essentially presented Phelps as this generation’s Bionic Man; the main focus was on his lucky genes, which have given him the perfect body for speed swimming:  big feet, big lungs, big hands, huge pumping heart, tall torso, a rubbery limber frame.  While these factors cannot be denied, I prefer to appreciate his discipline and focus, his thousands of hours of concentrated practice, for I think this is the main inspiration one should derive from all the hype and pathos oozing from the international media coverage.

The focus that leads someone to practice for four or six or ten hours a day to move more speedily through water than anyone else, or better hurl a hammer, or more perfectly navigate two suspended rings or the balance-defying challenge of the narrow beam, or for that matter more beautifully play a Schubert concerto or construct a cathedral or produce the perfectly written Japanese sentence or invent a cancer cure is inspiring and also, in a way, absurd.  The vast attention given such accomplishments reflects this irrationality – the woman or man who someday cures lung cancer will never in a lifetime garner the acclaim Phelps has attracted in the short time since he heard the American anthem played tonight.  And where is the justice in the vastly disproportionate reception Phelps got last night, as opposed to the other fellow (do you remember his name?) who lost by only a 0.01 second fingernail?  Phelps will inspire maybe more than 100,000 American children into the pool – and that is a good thing – but wouldn’t it have been better to inspire those 100,000 children into taking biology classes?

Perhaps not.  Several years ago, Bill Readings ridiculed the ubiquitous excellence rhetoric that pervades higher education, which he said had led to the situation of the University in Ruins.  Excellence, he argued, was an empty signifier that actually represented a failure of vision, a euphemism that covered many of the sins of the increasingly corporatized university and the triumph of business talk, a term no one can quite refuse but that stubbornly defies specification.  But sometimes I wonder whether the admittedly unspecified scramble to compete in the excellence game is really so terrible, since out of the never-ending press releases and hype also arises an urgency to accomplish the unique, and tonight, perhaps, on some college campus someone is thinking through how it might be organized to become the Michael Phelps of neuroscience or literature or debating or history.

Competition can easily turn destructive, and in so many dimensions of human endeavor idealizing the instinct to win makes no sense, even as we slap Academy Awards and Guggenheim Genius and Grammy honors on artists and intellectuals who are not actually competing (this sense of absurdity was often expressed as a criticism several years ago of Charles Murray when he attempted a quantitative/qualitative analysis of Human Accomplishment).  But connecting children to activities in which they can succeed and then fostering their eagerness to succeed in them makes a difference whether they make the professional football team or get a Nobel Prize or fall a fingernail short.

Studying which factors best explain long term interest and performance in an academic subject, Harackiewicz and Elliot et al., found that while a student’s interest in mastering course content does positively correlate to subsequent enrollment in related classes, it was the prospect for perfecting performance that better predicted its improvement.  Another quite unrelated indication of this came several years ago the College Entrance Examination Board segregated out students who had studied music and art, acting, and related topics like art history and theater appreciation.  Students whose interest was animated by those topics scored, on average, fifty points higher on the math SAT.  Now of course this is complicated – it may be supportive families who widely expose their children to all these topics that deserve the credit for the cognitive gains that emerge in all subjects when kids are motivated to practice and try harder (this is a question explored by Crozier, who reviews the long-standing assumption that talent “runs in families”).  But practice does seem to make perfect.  Writing in the context of musical performance, Woody has noted (19) that

Music researchers have presented convincing evidence that cumulative practice – not innate talent – sets expert performers apart from lesser-skilled proficient musicians.  They estimate that by the age of twenty-one, the best student performers have accumulated around ten thousand hours of practice, compared to about half that amount for the next level of proficient musicians.

It seemed striking to me that whenever asked about the secret of his success, Michael Phelps always reverts to talk about long-term commitment and planning, but in fact this is a shared predisposition for those who are asked to explain their exceptionalism.   To name just one example, nationally selected Presidential Scholars credit their success to their own hard work and well roundedness (Lamont et al.).  And the payoffs that come when someone is induced to disciplined work are not all that dissimilar whether they occur in the pool or the symphony hall.  As Kate Hays has argued (pg. 300),

“The artist’s counterparts of tennis elbow or swimmer’s shoulder are clarinetist’s thumb, cymbalist’s shoulder, flutist’s forearm, and violinist’s neck” (Lubell, 1987, p. 253)…  [And] because the performance arena is common ground between athletes and performing artists, it is not surprising that the primary psychological concerns confronting both groups also share similarities…. The practitioner who understands performance issues in relation to athletes is in an excellent position to transfer that knowledge base to other performance domains…  The emphasis on flawless technique and performance puts an extraordinary demand on performing artists.  Whether as student or professional, the artist’s life is permeated with judgment about performance.  Auditions, lessons or classes filled with critique, performance itself, and reviews – all of these often focus less on aesthetics than on perfection.

Whether Deborah Phelps (now a middle school principal) consciously considered all of this when she encouraged her young son Michael’s endless curiosity (as a kid he always “asked 25 zillion questions”), when she deflected the concerns that he was ADHD by agreeing to his young request to come off Ritalin, when she came to the realization that although Michael couldn’t sit straight for a five minute algebra tutorial he would patiently wait “four hours at a meet waiting to swim his five minutes’ worth of races,” or as she watched him this week shatter world records as a now-mature international swimming sensation, her quiet work to nurture his competitive instincts and to channel them into the necessary discipline of sustained practice has paid off in stunning fashion tonight.

SOURCES:  Kate F. Hays, “The Enhancement of Performance Excellence Among Performing Artists,” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 14 (2002): 299-312; W. Ray Crozier, “Individual Differences in Artistic Achievement: A Within-Family Case Study,” Creativity Research Journal 15.4 (2003): 311-319; Judith Harackiewicz, Kenneth Barron, John Tauer, Suzanne Carter, and Andrew Elliot, “Short-Term and Long-Term Consequences of Achievement Goals: Predicting Interest and Performance Over Time,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92.2 (2000): 316-330; Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences [800 B.C. to 1950] (New York: HarperCollins); Denis Dutton, “Of Human Accomplishment,” New Criterion (February 2004): 33-38; Robert Woody, “The Motivations of Exceptional Musicians,” Music Educators Journal (January 2004): 17-21; Michéle Lamont, Jason Kaufman, and Michael Moody, “The Best of the Brightest: Definitions of the Ideal Self Among Prize-Winning Students,” Sociological Forum 15.2 (2000): 187-224.

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