Wisdom in athletic performance

Knowledge is hidden in vaults. Wisdom, in plain sight.

It always pains me when I see broad, juvenile claims being made in the media, such as the one I saw in a recent issue of Men’s Health Magazine, which trumpeted the alleged discovery of the secrets to Bruce Lee’s mastery of speed. No way. The path to competence may be to engage in certain exercises, and certain modes of training. The path to excellence, however, is in how you perform them—and in order to find the right how, you need to find a why.

In other words, you need philosophy.

See, we know this implicitly, even though we don’t like to accept it explicitly. That is why Sun Tzu’s The Art of War will always be a mainstay in military academics. The why behind a particular strategy, or a particular tactic, is intrinsic to its correct application. Philosophy and application cannot be separated: a different philosophy will always yield a different application.

When I pull out some quote from, say, Bruce Lee, I often see people adopt expressions of fitful contemplation—and then proceed to completely ignore the advice. Why? In my opinion, because they are victims of a rampant and damaging view that philosophy is somehow the frill on an otherwise functional garment.

It’s not.

But I’ve discussed Bruce Lee far too often in the past. So let’s go with another example: a famous quote by Muhammad Ali, on the topic of how he fights. Ali once said,

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

I credit my brother Aaron for the interpretation that follows.

A lot of us—myself included—look at that sentence and say: “ah, cool,” and pay it no more attention. But it deserves that attention. Perhaps we think that Ali was waxing poetic, or he was appealing to his sensitive side, or he was mad, or perhaps just plain lying, to give himself an edge over those poor idiots that took his advice. My brother (and I), however, think that this advice encapsulates exactly Ali’s defensive style, at least as pertains the phrase “float like a butterfly.”

Why?

It turns out that the flight of butterflies, and Ali’s style of defense, share peculiar similarities. Butterflies tend to fly in an erratic, random pattern, probably in order to make their path unpredictable to predators—say, bats—who want to eat them. If you study how Ali ducks and weaves, you’ll notice that it is quite unsystematic. In fact, he seems to be taking a hint from the random flight of the butterfly in order to make himself inordinately difficult to pin down. No doubt, much of the success of his defensive strategy hinged on the fact that he was floating like a butterfly in particular.

In other words, Ali’s formulation of that piece of advice was born not of some inner muse, but of deep contemplation and study of the natural world, and of how it interfaces with his preferred art form: boxing.

Ali’s success was a result of his fighting style, which was a result of his philosophy. And that philosophy—like Bruce Lee’s philosophy—was hidden in plain sight. He probably hid his strategy in plain sight because of his confidence that it would go unrecognized by his opponents—they would hear that sentence and simply not understand what they were hearing. Secrets aren’t just hidden in plain sight.

To put this in perspective, consider what happens when you look out at the horizon. Given our body of knowledge, and the way that we understand the world, we see the horizon as evidence that the world is round, while people before Pythagoras, given how they understand the world, would take the very same phenomenon as evidence that the world is flat. The difference isn’t in the phenomena that we see, but how our mindset—also known as our paradigm—causes us to take the same phenomenon as evidence of two different things. In essence, for people that didn’t know how to interpret the horizon, the evidence that the world was round was hidden in plain sight.

What makes the masters masters is not their adherence to a particular exercise routine that nobody’s heard about. What makes them masters is a mindset, a particular way in which they understand their art. And when the rest of us think—and insist to ourselves—that the answer must be in some detail we missed,  (rather than considering that we missed the detail because we’re in a frame of mind that is not conducive to asking the right question) then we generate a situation of self-sabotage: in effect, the best remain the best because they understand that the key is in philosophy, while the rest of us remain only competent because we’d rather focus on something that “feels more grounded.”

This differential in ability is created not because the masters have a particular secret that we’ve missed, but because they have a general secret that we’ve missed. Furthermore, this differential in ability becomes cemented when our belief that we’ll develop our abilities by searching for particulars stops us from searching for fundamentals—because fundamentals are the things that drive us to search for particular details, and to neglect others.

Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali counted on the fact that their training, their preparation, and their fighting was done under the right philosophy, and that their philosophy more accurately described the world than the philosophy of their opponent. (I’ve written about how Bruce Lee’s advice—“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be”—can be taken quite literally on all levels of athletic study, from the psychological to the endocrine to the mechanical).

It is this multilayered wisdom that we need to take into account when we think about why we do what we do. As runners, training pure aerobic power, energy return, and muscle resilience is not enough. There must be a philosophy of application, that helps us leverage that biological machinery in the most efficient way. That is why we have to consider—or meditate on—the full array of the implications of a saying such as “the best runner leaves no tracks.” And if we train under such considerations, our athletic (and personal) development will be faster still.

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