Sunday, April 19, 2009

Geeks and Sports

Our society values sports. There are a lot of good reasons. Sports
teach teamwork. It is fun to be a member of a team or to root for one.
Sports help keep you physically active and healthy. They teach you
to follow rules and to play fairly. They give you an avenue for
competition. People who excel at sports become role models.

It is also obvious that many see sports as a civilized form of
warfare. When well played, a game has all the advantages given
above. When played badly, bodies and egos get bruised. Many geeks have
experienced the shame of being picked last for the team because they
are viewed as less physically "talented" than their mates.

What is physical talent, and is it really important? For any given
game, certain skills or physical attributes are useful. For example,
in baseball, it is ability to throw a fastball, to sprint, and to
catch fly balls. In basketball, being tall is an advantage, because
the basket is 10 feet from the ground. But people have been getting
taller, so perhaps that advantage is shrinking. In Tae Kwon Do, the
flexibility to kick somebody in the head is pretty important. A fifth
dan black belt who breaks five bricks just doesn't seem human! For
sports, physical talent seems important. Hard work goes a way toward
physical improvement, but talent is just something you're born with.

We don't really need physical talent to be physically healthy. Average
flexibility is plenty for routine tasks, and you are rarely called
upon to do the splits at work. Your body stays happy if you just walk
half an hour a day. In fact, working your body too hard leads to
untimely wear and tear, stress, and injuries. Any Pilates teacher will
emphasize that you should build a strong "core" but teaches you to
move about as effortlessly as possible. Pilates was originally
developed for rehabilitating injured dancers but is widely popular for
maintaining general fitness. Competition is discouraged.
So, we see this disconnect between physical talent and physical
health. We want both, of course. But if we want to participate in
sports, what's to be done if we don't have the former? Enquiring geeks
want to know.


1. Consider a sport that can be done either alone or on a team. A good
example is bicycling. You can start out by riding to work alone and
then work your way up to riding a multiday tour. Or, if you want to
try racing, you can enter time trials, where the competition is
against the clock or against your personal best. If your personal
best looks competitive, you can try a triathlon. If to your
surprise you find that you actually have some talent (and a good
VO2max ratio), you can try team racing.

2. If you want to take up a sport, first find out what the average
timeline is for reaching the desired level. You might have more
patience if you knew that high-level karate black belts have been
working on their technique for 15 years or more. It is likely they
weren't born with talent but with much work, perseverance, and five
years, they learned how to kick. Or, you may decide to pursue
another sport that requires a lower learning curve.

3. Balance your sport with some "healthy lifestyle"-enhancing
activities such as hiking, yoga, Pilates, vegetarian cooking, or
meditation. These will help improve your ability to focus on your
vision for yourself (both on the field and at work) as well as to
relax and recondition you. Don't forget to stretch. Hey, keep

4. Don't spread yourself too thin. Professional golfers know they get
better by swinging a golf club. Bikers have to put in the
miles. Most don't try to do three sports in hopes of making
themselves better bikers. Weight lifting may be complementary, but
I'd put it in the category of item #3.

5. Cut yourself some slack in the self-esteem department. Many geeks
are actually in very good shape; they've just never had the
opportunity to compete either in a team or solo sport. If you've
been bullied or just don't like the war-like aspects of sports,
note that seeking some sort of success in sports will be rewarded
in our society. It's called "looking for love in all the wrong

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