This article originally appeared
in Esquire in 1987.
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How do you become a master? Ask someone who is one. We sought out 14 athletes who would be considered by their peers to be supreme masters of their craft. We talked to everyone from cyclists and golfers to gymnasts and triathletes. What they had to say about mastery was at first glance surprising for its consistency.
Masters, it seems, love what they are doing, work like crazy, spend an inordinate amount of time on the basics (the "bullshit tricks" as one describes them), and never give their final attention to whether they win or lose, since their real opponent is themselves.
But in the end it is not surprising at all that a body-builder and a tennis player and a diver would say the same things about mastery. We are, after all, describing the many manifestations of a single path: taking the human mind and body to its greatest possibilities, its finest moments.
Greg Louganis owns diving. He carries it around in his pocket the way you or I might carry a good-luck charm.
Diving has two events, platform and springboard. These two events are so different that no diver had ever competed successfully in both until 1976. In the Olympic trials that year Louganis came in first in both events. He went on to win a silver medal in the Olympics. At the 1978 World Championships in Madrid, Louganis won gold medals in both events. From that point on, the Louganis litany takes on a nearly frightening constancy: in 1980 he again took first in both events at the Olympic trials. In 1982 he again won both gold medals at the World Championships in Guayaquil, Equador. And he did it by "taking straight 10's"--getting a perfect score. That was another thing no one had ever done in international diving competition. He did it again the next year, then again the year after that. In 1984 he again took first place in both events in the Olympic trials, and this time he took both gold medals in the Olympics. His platform diving score--710--set a world record. At last year's World Championships in Madrid, he again took the gold medals for both events. And he's still getting better at 27, preparing himself for his third Olympics, next year, with two workouts a day, 50 to 100 dives in all, six days a week. Just last December, in Boca Raton, Florida's "Mission Bay Diving Challenge," he set a new world record with a platform diving score of 717.
In the face of all that success, it may seem odd that the fear of failure rises to the top of the discussion: "When I'm standing up there on that platform, 10 meters above the water, all those thousands are watching, sometimes millions on TV, and I don't have a hell of a lot on. There's a row of strangers down there, with cards, who are going to judge me on a scale of one to ten--I could take that really personal. The last thing I tell myself before I dive is: `Whatever happens--if I do a cannonball--my mother will still love me.'"
So: first, let go of failure. Then the flip side: let go of success.
"In Guayaquil, that first time I pulled straight 10s, I did my first dive--an inward one-and-a-half pike. I came up, and there was the row of 10s. The crowd was going nuts. I got back up on the tower, and suddenly I was afraid--if the next one wasn't perfect all those people would be disappointed. On the next dive, I could feel that I was holding back--it was an armstand cut-through reverse one-and-a-half--and I didn't do well.
"In success or failure, you get in trouble holding back.
"I'm a real perfectionist. But that's the irony. In order to do it perfectly, I have to let go of perfection a little."
Let go of failure. Let go of success. Let go of perfection.
"For instance, in diving, there's a `sweet spot' on the board, right at the end. I can't always hit it perfectly. Sometimes I'm a little back from it. Sometimes I'm a little over. But the judges can't tell that. I have to deal with whatever takeoff I have been given. I can't leave my mind on the board. I have to stay in the present. I have to be relaxed enough to clue into the memory tape of how to do it. That's why I train so hard--not just to do it right, but to do it right from all the wrong places.
"Much of diving is in the mind. And the older I am, the more experience I have, the better and the more precise I'm going to be."
Triathletes are a special breed, and the Ironman Triathlon, in the summer heat of the desert Kona Coast of Hawaii, is their most special breeding ground: a 2.4-mile ocean swim, then a 112-mile bicycle race, followed by a marathon. In 1985 Joanne Ernst won the women's division and was named Triathlete of the Year--the first woman to garner that honor. In the last three years she has placed in more than 80 percent--and won more than half--of the triathlons she has entered. When we talked to her about mastery, she knew exactly what we meant: "Take Mark Allen. He's a top triathlete. Among other things, he's won the Nice Triathlon five times. But he doesn't race that often, and when he does, his primary interest is not in winning, but in finding out how fast he can go and how good he can be.
"I think you can see it in any field: the people who make the greatest contribution are internally driven. I set my own standards, and they are high. If I win, I'm not happy unless I feel I met those standards. I might win by 15 minutes, but I'll be unhappy if I feel, for instance, that I let up a little on the run. If I met my standards, I'll be happy even if I lose. I'm only happy after a race about one time in five.
"You can tell who's like that when you're racing. Such people are willing to take a lot of chances. They are willing to push it to the limit. Sometimes you go over the edge; sometimes you crash and burn. Someone who is only trying to win won't always push it that hard. People who have this kind of motivation get hurt more often in races, but less often in training. We don't tend to overtrain. For instance, Mark Allen, Dave Scott and I have about the best and most consistent records in triathlon. But we don't train as much as a lot of people. If you take your training seriously, it almost never pays to chastise yourself for doing too little. The most common mistake is to do too much."
How do you know how much to train? Like Sheehan, she points to intuition. She listens to her own body. "I adjust everything to my own life. I run my own schedule, not someone else's."
And she listens to her failures: "I benefit much more from the races I've lost than the races I've won. I learn more about myself, about my weaknesses and how to work on them.
"For instance, in 1984 my race plan was based on what I expected my competitors to do. After the bike segment I didn't feel I was in the right position. I was handicapped by my own expectations. In the marathon I dropped out mentally, and I came in fourth.
"In 1985, I had learned that lesson well. Everything else seemed to be against me. I was weakly prepared. I had tendonitis in a hamstring and I had only been running about 16 miles per week. People told me I was a crazy fool for even entering. But I ran my own race, and I won.
"You have to listen to yourself. And not just to your body. You have to ask yourself where you want to go, what your goals are. When you find that direction, take it. Choose what you enjoy for its own sake. People who listen to themselves are more likely to succeed."
When he was 10 years old, Bart Connor walked into a gym in Evanston, Illinois, and got excited. A mere eight years later, Connor stepped onto the mat at the Montreal Olympics. He is known for his precise technical execution, and for a performance that is rhythmic, elegant and clean. A member of three successive Olympic teams, in 1984 he won two gold medals, one on the parallel bars and one in team competition.
Like Louganis, he talked first about the fear of failure. It doesn't get any smaller, he says, as you get better: "When you're young and hungry, you're not afraid to lose. The more you succeed, the more people expect, the more your enthusiasm for winning starts to drop and your fear of losing starts to rise."
What do you do with this fear? Acknowledge it, push it aside, let it go.
"A master has to be able to do that. Take Greg Louganis. After all he has accomplished, I don't sense that he has gotten afraid of losing. He could `water back.' He could `phone it in.' But he doesn't. He always reaching for that harder dive, that farther risk. He chucks it out there every time.
"Scott Hamilton, the world champion skater, always goes `balls out.' In fact--and this tells you something about the mind of a true master--his bitterest memory is the night that he took the gold medal at Sarajevo. He had it sown up. He would have had to skate into a wall to lose. And he's bitter now because he feels he cut back on the difficulty; he didn't take the big risk.
"But there is a mastery of competition as well as a mastery of craft. For instance, in the Olympics, the last event in the team competition was the high bar. When it got to me we had only a .2 lead on the Chinese. Things were very tight.
"As an athlete, I want to know what would make the best performance. As a competitor, I want to know what it will take to win. I had been working on a fantastic release move. But I only got it perfect about 75 percent of the time. If I used a simpler release move, I might get a 9.8. If I used the harder one, I might get a 9.9. If I tried for the harder one and failed, I might lose half a point. The risk was too great; I used the simpler one.
"I pay attention to the details like that, whether they're details of strategy or details of craft. It's very important to me as an athlete, and now in my life, how I was encouraged to learn to do the little things well, the technical things, the fundamentals. When I got to the higher levels, it was the little things that allowed me to stand out--toe point, leg extension, my carriage on the floor. It's not like a trick.
"Whenever you have 10 finalists lined up, you have to know that any one of those guys could win. There's something that lets you pick out one guy and say, `He's the best.' It might be a special trick. It might be just his smile. But often it's the details. When I was coming up I didn't go for `the big trick.' I was always the kid in the corner working on the bullshit tricks, working on my form.
Mastering the basics gave him the gift of focus. "I found comfort in it. It allows me to stay calm and clear. When you're on the bars or in the air you're taking in a thousand pieces of information. The ability to focus allows you to process them.
"To learn how to focus you have to learn how to relax, how to breathe deeply, how to block out all the outside input, such as who is in the audience, what this meet will do to your standings, and so on.
"A young athlete doesn't have the experience to know that the excitement of the meet can be a problem in itself. That kind of energy is great if you can channel it.
"You deal with that by visualization. Two years before the Olympics, Peter and I would be practicing. It would be late in the day, we're tired, the last guys in the gym. Peter would raise his hand and say, `All right. This is it. It's Pauley Pavilion, 1984. We're ahead. And I'm the last guy up. Here goes.'
"We'd do that over and over again.
"You have to learn not to be afraid to be yourself. I kept trying different styles. One time I would go in with a real aggressive attitude. I would do great, and I would think, `That's it! I've found my style.' The next time I tried that aggressive style, I'd get my ass kicked. So then I'd decide my style was calm and unaggressive. It took me a while to learn that Bart Connor is not this aggressive, tear-em-up kind of guy.
"Don't worry about the hot dogs. Whatever field you're in, we all know guys who can cut the big trick and get away with it, guys who can walk away with points you feel they don't deserve, guys with no discipline in the gym who learn things quickly, go off surfing for three days and then come back to the gym and just blow you away. But they're flashes in the pan, because they have no foundation. I wear those guys out."
In the brief history of triathlon, Dave Scott has run the grueling Ironman six times and won it five, including 1986. It's not surprising that he is interested in endurance, in comebacks, in the long run: "Most athletes, at a certain point, step up on that pedestal. Then if they drop even a little they get the pins knocked from under them. After I won the Ironman the first time, in 1980, it happened to me."
He skipped 1981 because of an injury. By February of 1982 he felt he had to prove that his win wasn't a fluke. He raced with one eye on the competition and the other on the press, and came in second. But 1982 had two races, as the Ironman moved from February to October and from Maui to Hawaii. So he ran again this time "out of spite and vengeance. And I won. But afterward I found that I was still looking for something to drive me. Spite and vengeance weren't enough."
The next year he won again, by a mere 33 seconds, and felt he didn't deserve it. He no longer knew why he raced at all. "Winning the Ironman, even winning it three times, somehow didn't give me the gratification that I needed."
But something else happened that year. He got to know a woman named Anna. She said something no one else had: "Dave, you haven't reached your potential yet. Why don't you see what you can really do? Do it for yourself."
Eventually he married Anna. But he also took her advice. "Take this year. I came back in `86 after winning in `84 and skipping `85. And I found myself labelled `the old man of the sport.' People were saying, `What's he doing? He's just going to embarass himself.'
"I could have taken that for my motivation. I could have run to show them they were wrong. But I didn't. I did it for myself. I have run over 150 triathlons, and never until that race did I feel physically and mentally strong throughout the whole race. I won, and I broke the Ironman record by 22 minutes.
"What made that possible was that I was satisfied with myself. I had nothing to prove. I could relax. It's true in baseball, in diving, in anything--always the best guy looks smooth and relaxed.
"That relaxation is so important. Everyone strives for perfection. Everyone visualizes the perfect race. But there are so many variables in triathlon--the water temperature, the transitions, the wind. There is never a perfect race. I have to have a game plan, but I have to be able to relax and deviate from it. I have to relax and not fight the elements.
"That's what makes the real difference. Physically I don't think I am any better than any of the other top 50 guys out there. But mentally I am tougher and will prevail.
Called by his gymnastics teammate Bart Connor "a master and a great champion," team captain Vidmar won three medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. His two golds came on the pommel horse and in the team competition. In the all-around competition a tiny hop on his dismount from the parallel bars cost him the gold medal by .025 points. His average, even for that silver, was 9.89, the highest all-around score in the history of American gymnastics.
Vidmar echoes Scott when he speaks of desire: "Your effort is directly proportional to your desire. A lot of people go for things only because a teacher told them they should, or their parents, or their boss. People get into something for the money, the fame, the medal. They can't be effective. That's not the thing to do.
"When you discover your own desire you're not going to wait around for other people to find solutions to your problems, you're going to find your own. I set goals for myself, but underlying all the goal-setting and all the work was the fact that I enjoyed it. I thought gymnastics was fun. And I had no idea that I might someday be an Olympian."
Then what's the best way to practice? "You don't have to have the perfect practice plan, just a good one that you stick to. How many diets do you need to lose weight? Just one that you stick to.
"The key is repetition. People want to get around that. But champions only win by the tiniest fraction. The champion is going to be the one that gives it that little extra effort, who stays in the gym 15 minutes longer than anyone else. Just when you feel you've done enough, that's the moment to push a little farther. Then you can walk out of the gym with no regrets.
"Don't rush your practice. Don't get enamored of the `big trick.' Don't forego the fundamentals. You may not be as good as the others at first, but later everything will be so much easier." To become a master at anything you must nurture "a very active patience."
"In Los Angeles I was the last performer in the last event of the team competition. The score was so close. The pressure was tremendous. I felt it was up to me to bring home the gold for the everybody. I looked over at my coach, and he said, `Okay, Pete, let's go. It's just like the gym. You've done this a thousand times.'"
Carew is considered one of the great artists of baseball. It has been said that in his hands, that stick is no longer a baseball bat, it's a paint brush. He grew up using sticks for bats and balls made of foam rubber covered with tape. He didn't play high school ball because he had to hold down two jobs. But one day while playing ball in a city park across the street from Yankee Stadium he was spotted by a Twins scout . The scout invited him into the stadium for a tryout. The tryout was short: after a few minutes Twins manager Sam Mele said, "Get him out of here and sign him before the Yankees see him." His artist's brush brought him year after year of over-.300 hitting. In 1977 he was naemd Most Valuable Player for batting .388, the highest average of any player since Ted Williams retired. In 1985, approaching 40, Carew became one of only 16 players in major league history to get 3000 hits.
For Carew, natural ability is not necessary. It can even be a problem: "I have seen so many baseball players with God-given ability that just didn't want to work. They were soon gone. I've seen others with no ability to speak of who stayed in the big leagues for 14 or 15 years.
The difference is work, driven by desire: "It doesn't mean doing what you have to do, it means doing what you want to do. You have to want to do the work. When I was playing, I didn't have to suit up until 5:30. But I was there every day at 3:30, swinging that bat. I always felt that there was something else I could work on, something else I could learn.
"I was really competing against myself. My inner feelings kept saying, `Let's do it a little bit better.' Because there really are no limits.
"This is why I was so successful at swinging that bat. The desire and the discipline gave me a special kind of focus. I have been able to adjust my swing from one pitch to another, and even during the windup. Maybe I was reading subtle signs in the windup and in the way the pitcher looked. Maybe it was a kind of extra sense for reading what location the pitcher was about to throw to.
"God gave me that talent, and I had the desire and discipline to make the most of it."
John Howard is the world's fastest self-propelled human being. In July, 1985, at the age of 37, in the desert heat of the Bonneville Salt Flats, he rode a bicycle at 152 miles per hour. To be exact, 152.284. Fast.
He has been racing since 1965. He has competed in 3 Olympics, from 1968 to 1976, won a gold medal at the 1971 Pan Am games, and held six U.S. National Championships in everything from road racing and time trials to off-road racing. At 30, he got tossed off the Olympic team because he was "too old." ("I told the coach,'But I'm still the best.' He said, `That doesn't matter anymore.' I got depressed for a while. Then I realized that he had done me a favor. I was burned out on cycling. I needed a new challenge.")
So he went out and won the Ironman Triathlon in 1981, set a world endurance record (riding 512 miles in 24 hours) in 1983, made a comeback for a seventh national cycling championship the same year, and then began the 2 1/2 year effort to break the speed record.
How did he do all that? "I learned to listen to my dreams."
Your dreams? "You have to set up a successful pattern of making things happen for you, by using such tools as creative visualization, neuromuscular patterning and energetic breathing.
"It works for me because I make it happen. I program my subconscious mind to believe that I can do it. I use the mind almost like a video camera. I draw on my past experiences to meditate on doing the event.
"When I was training for the speed record, I did everything by the book--the motor pacing, the sprints, the time trials. But it just wasn't coming together. I was tremendously frustrated. I had a talk with a friend of mine, a big-wave surfer. He told me that I should meditate. I should create the image of riding the bike on the Salt Flats. I should push away all the negative possibilities and concentrate on the pure sensation of riding that bike at whatever speed I wanted. I realized that the images in my mind had been images of failure; we had so many problems at Bonneville, and we had nearly crashed in an earlier attempt in Mexico. So I tried it. I meditated. I visualized the whole ride. And one night in my dreams a number appeared: 152. That was absurdly fast, but I trusted it, So I meditated on exactly how that would feel.
"The pressure was on for the next try. It would be the last. We only had a certain number of days. On the last available day, on the last run, I hit 152.284. Just like in my dream."
But that's technique. For him, as for many another master, techniques is driven by love and desire: "For any of this to make sense, you have to love the activity itself. If you look on it as competition, if you look on it as work, you won't get anywhere. You have to appreciate what the bicycle can do for you; you have to look forward to your training runs, to the blue sky and the fresh air. You have to find gut-level enjoyment in the act itself.
"I learned that lesson. I used to work. Now I play."
The first Professional Bowlers Association tour, in 1959, had only three tournaments. A young fellow named Dick Weber won two of them. At 57, he is still competing and still placing in national tournaments. The proud owner of 28 major titles and a plaque in the Bowling Hall of Fame, he is the only bowler to win major titles in four different decades.
Here as elsehwere, the magic combination is desire ("It's a must,") and an obsession with the basics: "When I was starting out, I would bowl incessantly, 15 to 20 games a day, not to improve my score, but to improve my feel for the game. I would try to feel my backswing, try to feel my speed, to feel the coordination of my movement with my footwork, feel my release, different speeds and angles and wrist positions. Over and over. If you can't keep the basics in mind, you won't make it."
The great Celtic coach beats the same drum: work is more important than talent. "You might have a certain amount of talent, but I would ask, `What are your work habits? How do you respond to coaching? How will you improve on your talent?'
"Take Larry Byrd. He doesn't have the speed. He doesn't have the height. But he works and works, shoots and shoots. Byrd is highly motivated. He sets inner goals for everything. He'll say, `I should make four out of five from this position.' If he doesn't meet his goal, he gets mad at himself and sets to analyzing what he is doing wrong. He sets goals for the week, for the month, for the season."
So the secret is just a lot of work? "The amount of work is not so important. The thing is to do the right work. That's where good coaching comes in--to guide you, show you the details, the little rules of thumb."
So: a lot of work, plus a coach who knows the sport, who wins games? "More than that, you need a coach who will utilize your individual abilities. A lot of coaches have systems. If you play for them you have to fit into their system. A great coach will devise his system around his athletes. He will use their special talents and bring out the best they can offer."
Remember that high school coach theat always demanded 100 percent? Listen to tennis great Arthur Ashe: "Don't try 100 percent. It's better to try 95 percent. There must be some relaxation, some diminished state of tension. Take Bob Beaman's phenomenal long jump record in Mexico City in 1968. By his acccount, before he jumped he felt calm, serene, devoid of tension. After he jumped, until the officials measured it, he had no idea that he jumped a full two feet farther than the world record.
"We have a natural tendency to invest more energy when we are under pressure. But when the tension rises, two things happen: the feet can't move, and the diaphragm collapses. It's automatic; it's in the genetic code. So when you get to the big points, concentrate, but play just as if you were playing your next-door neighbor."
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