[the palaverist]

Sunday, February 28, 2010

[how to fail like an olympian]

When you watch the Olympics, it can be easy to forget just how ridiculously good these people are at whatever bizarre thing it is they're doing. Take, for example, figure skating. Early in the evening of the ladies' long program, long before Kim Yu-Na and the other medal contenders took the ice, there was Tuğba Karademir, a Turkish skater who ultimately came in 24th.

Now, I have never been the 24th-best person in the world at any particular skill, as far as I know. It's an extraordinary achievement. And yet, watching her skate, it was absolutely clear why she was in a different class from the top five or six skaters in the world. So when you're watching the coverage of a medal contender in the slalom who misses a gate, or of a bobsled team that plays it conservatively and can't shave off that hundredth of a second they need to take the lead, you go, "Yeah, that was a mistake," and you forget how insanely difficult it is to do whatever it is the athletes are doing in the first place.

And after a couple of weeks of that sort of thing, today I went to my Korean dance class, and I imagined what it would mean to be the best in the world at it, or one of the top ten or twenty. For one thing, it would mean practicing more often than once a week for 90 minutes. My dance teacher is an extraordinary dancer, and part of how you get to be that way is to do it a lot. And then there's the level of detail: spending a week or a month or six months concentrating on just the right way to get your torso to expand and contract, or how to extend your fingers to draw out a line.

Beyond that, as I fumbled my way through my little bit of choreography, I started thinking about how much concentration is a part of athletic success. Sometimes, as I dance, some move I've just done half a dozen times will suddenly desert me, and I'll be shrugging my shoulders when I'm supposed to be twirling already, or my arms will be flopping at my sides because I've forgotten where they're supposed to be. Again, this is incredibly far removed from the kind of mental effort that serious athletes make, but I felt like it was an inkling, at the very least, of how it is that someone who's done a routine a thousand times in warm-ups can suddenly flub it in competition.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

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