On Sports Outliers, Blogs, and Trolls

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Good health is more important than good skills.

Keeping a journal is good discipline but keeping a blog going is as hard as keeping a rally going in the third set, running through the wall at Mile 20, holding that pose, or doing that final set of push-ups or curls.

And trolls are like hecklers — tolerable to a point.

That's some of what I learned in the 11 months and 3 weeks since I started a book that became a journal that became a blog that did a U-turn back to journal and book culminating, I hope, in a national age-group championship or at least a respectable finish in the admittedly obscure sport of squash.

As I said at the beginning, it's a small sport but it's a big nation.

I wanted to learn more about how and why athletes fail, and get better, or don't get better. And I did.

A year ago I resolved to get in better shape for my 60th birthday in preparation for competing in the 2010 national championships, to write about it daily or at least several times a week, and to tell the truth. I had never made such a specific New Year's resolution. I was inspired by my upcoming milestone birthday, the growing popularity of the blogosphere in my company and personal reading habits, and several books about extreme athletes or outliers in everything from Scrabble to running to tennis.

And I was as fascinated by failure as I was by success, and I was certainly as familiar with failure, if not moreso. The mental part was more interesting than the physical part. If you can't do a double flip then you can't do a double flip. But if you can do a double flip — or hit a crosscourt backhand or run a six-minute mile or make a 20-foot jump shot or sink a 10-foot putt — but you don't do it consistently, then it's probably a mental failing.

I tried to make contact with the best athlete in my high school 45 years ago, a boy who won both the state tennis championship and second place in the state basketball championship and was good enough to play in the Big Ten in both sports but chose not to. He was certainly big enough and good enough, but he did not. I wanted to find out why. Had he heard enough cheering? Did he go to too many practices and burn out? Did he get scars from that second-place finish to a team that humiliated our team? Did he get back into sports after he got older? I had that chapter all figured out, but I never heard from him, and it seemed foolish to pester him with a second request.

I read dozens of books and articles about high performance and the inner game, the mental game, the outliers, the quest, the breakthrough, the secret to success, you name it. I read one called simply "Keep Eye On Ball." Was this the essence of sports wisdom? I talked to people in Memphis who were my age or a little older or younger and had either been great athletes in their youth or become good athletes in middle age or, sometimes, both. And I talked to people who have won national age group championships in the racquet sports that I play.

And I wrote about it a lot. For five months I kept a journal, starting each entry with my weight and the number of pushups I was able to do that morning. The goal, which I finally made, was 192 pounds (a loss of 6 pounds) and 60 pushups (a gain of 10). I kept track of my level of motivation, which was reflected in both my regular writing and my physical measurements, as well as a stupid but difficult sports trick that I mastered after many hours and months of practice. When my daughter filmed it and put it on youtube, a friend made a joke about it, and I have not spoken to him since. I played in a Southern regional tournament and did OK but not all that well, but I got to see the competition.

The writing was easy and sometimes it was fun. After a few months I took over a dead blog on the Memphis Flyer's website called Get Memphis Moving. It seemed to have the potential to bring in some readers and possibly some revenue to our struggling little journalistic enterprise without compromising honesty or integrity. The idea was to make my quest a metaphor for everyman's quest (or everywoman's quest).

That part was not easy. Websites are everywhere, blogs are like noses — everybody has one — and traffic generates more traffic and comments generate more comments. There is a name for this which I read in the book "Free" that I forget. Forming communities around a common interest, like doing a double flip or hitting a kick serve or a straight drive or holding the downward dog pose, is harder than it looks. Runners tend not to care about racquet sports and vice versa. Yoga devotees tend not to care about golf, and vice versa. And so on.

I did it for about six months and then I got pissed off and apathetic. With some pleasant exceptions, the people I hoped would comment did not comment and the people who did comment were sometimes wiseasses or trolls. In my regular column, City Beat, this comes with the territory and I don't let it get under my skin. But with my personal quest I did. Hey, that other stuff is somebody else's life and everybody has to make a living, but this is my life, something I really care about. It was like working on a project or something in the privacy of your garage and having a stranger walk up, watch a while, and then tell you how crappy your project is. I wasn't getting any more money for blogging about my quest, and it wasn't making any money for the printed paper that is our cash cow (if it wasn't devaluing it) so what was the point? And so I stopped, or for a while at least.

I think the writing part, however, helped the mental part which helped the physical part. I was able to stay competitive with players 20 or 30 years younger than me and play four or five times a week. On a good day I felt like I could beat anyone my age, anywhere, because they could not possibly be as good as the younger players I play with. Probably a fatal conceit, I know. I went through losing streaks and slumps, but I had winning streaks too, and thinking about it as a quest improved my concentration.

Then my body failed me. I have had two knee surgeries in the last 12 years but my knees held up all right. The problem came in my left foot, and I can pinpoint the place, the location, the opponent, and the moment that it happened. I looked it up on the Internet and it is called a neuroma, a nerve inflammation at the joint of the toe and the foot where athletes push off. My shoes had probably worn out from the inside. The pain would go away usually if I took several Advil and warmed up for a while, but it always came back within a day or so. And pretty soon four times a week was twice a week or less. I bought and tried every shoe insert known to man. Only rest helped.

When the damn thing got better I tore my rotator cuff for the second time in two years. I played three times in less than 24 hours and should have known better after I had trouble sleeping on that shoulder for several weeks before the injury. So much for "asymptomatic" and welcome to "impairment of normal everyday activities" like combing your hair or putting up the dishes. More rest until 2010.

The secret? Train, of course, but be lucky. Your physical parts are going to wear out some day if they have not worn out already. I have new friends every year with man-made knees and hips and memories of when they used to be able to play the games they love. The age-group sports champions are the last men and women standing. They're outliers not only in their exceptional abilities but also in their exceptional good health. Like they say, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

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