Tag Archives: philosophy

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.”


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.

The lay athlete, brands, and the dilemma of ornamentation.

Whenever I cross a runner who’s decked out in brand names, their sunday trip to REI or Sports Authority billboarded on their bodies, I worry for their knees.

Brands have become a way of differentiating ourselves socially—of carving our identity as separate from the person next to us, and yet displaying that we share (at least) one common belief: consumerism. Continue reading The lay athlete, brands, and the dilemma of ornamentation.

(Re)defining the notion of “sport” through an argument from biomechanics.

In my opinion, a “sport” is any activity for which an increase in the relevant hip extension abilities is a necessary component of developing greater performance in that activity.

(“Hip extension” is the ability to move our thighs back and forth. When we consider what function the act of moving our thighs back and forth has in relation to the whole system, hip extension amounts to the ability to push on a surface or object with our feet by using our thighs and butt as the primary movers).

But why would I define “sport” that way? Because I’ve looked at which activities we tend to label as “sports,” which we don’t, and which fall somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, I’m interested in what ideas we use to categorize these activities. In my opinion, the idea that most people use to categorize activities as sports—or not—is whether hip extension (the ability to move our thighs back and forth) is a central component of that activity.

Admittedly, I believe that when they categorize activities in this way, most people aren’t aware that their parameters for defining a “sport” are tied much more closely to the presence and importance of hip extension, than, say, to whether it is goal-oriented or physically strenuous.

However, for most people, a big part of calling something a “sport” comes from the notion that it is—or must be—physically strenuous. But that alone is not enough: although we certainly consider football, baseball, the decathlon, weightlifting, and sprinting to be sports, what about going to the gym and lifting dumbbells?

As opposed to the first examples, lifting dumbbells seems like “working out,” or like “exercise,” but not like a “sport.”

Why is that?

And for that matter, how about ballet dancing, yoga, and other forms of physical expression?

This is where the line begins to get murky, and, in the opinion of some, with good reason. Yoga and dancing are, at first blush, not goal-oriented. There is no competition involved. And yet, the intuitions of many people would squarely place these disciplines within the boundaries of the concept of “sport.”

Those intuitions strongly correspond with the knowledge that dancers and practitioners of yoga have: that these arts are as goal-oriented as “typical” sports—if not more. Most “sports” have a single goal: winning in one form or another, whereas these pursuits have a multitude of goals. Posture, consistency, and strength are all goals of dancing and yoga. But let’s look at a deeper difference (or similarity—however you look at it): other sports also value posture, consistency and strength. It’s impossible to become an elite athlete in just about any discipline without mastering these. Except that they are placed in service of an external goal. For dancing and yoga, the aesthetic qualities that appear through function are ends in themselves.

So, there seems to be quite a bit of overlap between dancing, yoga, and “typical” sports, even on commonly-contested grounds. But let’s discuss a more interesting topic: why do some people have such strong intuitions that these activities are sports? In other words, what is it about yoga and dancing that prompts people to try and classify them as sports in the first place?

Superficially, the argument is simple: there’s something about the mechanical particulars of yoga and dancing that should put them in this category, alongside running and football. After all, they are somehow different from, say, chess, (which is more “typically” goal-oriented).

To throw a kink in my argument, the International Olympic Committee does consider chess to be a sport. I don’t—and not because I don’t think it’s worthwhile. I’d call instead that chess is an athletic endeavor (the greek word athlein means “to contest for a prize”). I don’t include chess in my list of sports because I’m interested picking apart the intuitions that underlie the common usage of the term “sport,” which emphasizes the physical use of the body.

In that sense my argument does massage institutionalized notions of what a “sport” is.

However, we can still make the argument that chess is physical, in ways that are both obvious and non-obvious. The obvious, of course, is that we use our hands to move the pieces. That observation is also uninteresting. But there is also the non-obvious: in The Art of Learning, former chess champion Josh Waitzkin talked about how his rivals would often tap the board in a certain rhythm to quicken his thought process and make strategizing more difficult. In other words, competitors in chess often find themselves in physical battles of some sort. But enough to term chess a “sport” (beyond its obvious status as an athletic endeavor)? That’s a long shot.

Then what makes yoga and dancing different from chess, but similar to “sports”?

Simply stated: hip extension.

I turn to a discussion in a book by editor Ian Jeffreys, Developing Speed. Jeffries writes:

“During a sprint, forces are developed initially through the hips, then the knee joint, and finally through the ankle joint. Therefore, activities that maximize the triple extension abilities of the athlete should play a large role in the training to enhance speed and acceleration. Exercises such as the squat, Olympic lifts, and hip extension exercises such as the Romainan deadlift should form the basis of a strength and power program for speed enhancement.”

In other words, one of the most important components of increasing the level of performance in sports is to develop the hip extension characteristics necessary for that sport. Different sports will need different hip extension characteristics, such as strength, flexibility, explosiveness or dexterity, but they all center on hip extension.

This brings us back to my definition of a “sport:”

A sport is any activity for which an increase in the relevant hip extension abilities is a necessary component of developing greater performance in that activity.

For clarity’s sake, let’s reiterate this backwards: if developing some kind of hip extension ability is not necessary to become increasingly skilled in some activity, it is not a sport.

For reasons that I will discuss in the future, the center of gravity (and therefore the mechanical center of the body) lies in the hips. In order to achieve proper flexibility, and range of motion of the entire body, practitioners of yoga must emphasize the flexibility, range of motion and strength of the hips (as well as the core). But no amount of core strength and flexibility will allow a yoga practitioner to climb the tiers of difficulty—that can only be achieved by increasing the relevant hip extension abilities: flexibility and strength.

The same goes for all varieties of dancing. Expressing the body against the ground (and fine-tuning that expression) is centered around the speed, power, and explosiveness of hip extension.

The hips are present in all sports: martial arts, wrestling, even arm wrestling. Hence the following saying:

“Have you noticed that whatever sport you’re trying to learn, some earnest person is always telling you to keep your knees bent?”

-Dave Barry

(Bending the knees stretches the gluteus maximus, such that all subsequent movements depend on its contractions).

In conclusion, I believe that because we have intuitive (and often completely unconscious) knowledge that certain activities engage the mechanical center of the body (the hips), we lobby to categorize those activities as “sports.” 

Let’s embrace complexity—and work to understand it.

Some of the posts on this blog will be highly technical; others will be tailored for the beginner athlete and the layman in systems. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that for a western athlete, performance is achieved through knowledge.

Therefore, my mission for this blog is to acquaint the casual athlete with technical concepts in systems thinking, sports psychology, and biomechanics. As I alluded to in this post, the vast majority of us don’t have the necessary upbringing and the cultural surroundings to “simply run.” It must be learned. It is vital that we not only learn the knowledge of how to run, but that we internalize two ideas: firstly, that we must learn to run uninjured and free—that for many of us this freedom will not just “appear”—but also that learning, that is, developing ever greater and more complex knowledge of running, (and not just stronger muscles), is where true speed lies.

After all, the body has limits. There are limits to muscle power, and lung capacity—genetic ones, even. But limits to learning? Not so much. Our brains, and our creativity, are the greatest equalizers. He or she who can rely on pure muscle power born from genetics, go ahead. But for the rest of us mere mortals, well, there are many, many variables that we can manipulate: food, energy, sleep, hormones, love, how our feet strike the trail, the sharpness of our mind, the ferocity with which we speed by a fellow competitor—all these are fair game. The physical, the mental, the emotional, the spiritual.

There are systems aplenty to manipulate, if we want to achieve excellence.

But we must learn how to use these systems. We must step outside of our comfort zone, and allow ourselves to transform by the weight of our knowledge, coupled with the weight of our training. And with enough time, dedication, and attention, we too will become exemplars of speed.

Let’s not be overwhelmed by new knowledge. Let’s not back away, and let’s not stick to the familiar. Let’s embrace the complexity of the body. Let’s become comfortable with it—and get to know it. The body is a system, and as such it is highly sophisticated. But that sophistication is built out of astounding simplicity. The more that we get to know how sophisticated the body is, the more its predictability, and its hidden simplicity, will stand out to us.

But there is no way to that end, except through knowledge.

(And perhaps through meditation—but that’s another story).

Ultimately, the purpose of this blog is to make complex systems and biomechanics concepts amenable to the layman, and to the beginner athlete. But excellence is not achieved through sound bites. Performance is not achieved through inspirational remarks. It takes time, deliberation, and attention.

And most of all, in my opinion, it takes an understanding of, and a comfort with, complexity.