Wednesday, 28 April 2010
Last night my extended post about school, influences and looking for shortcuts sparked off some interesting comments over on my Online Climbing Coach blog. They prompted another post from me about the subtle but critical difference between ‘chasing numbers’ in sport and actually improving. Commenting on that this, Gian questioned how the two can have such different implications for enjoyment of sport, since after all “numbers are meant to be a description of difficulty”.
Simplified numbers or statements often are used these days to form the whole story about sport, and that is one of the reasons it’s so fraught with commoditization, unfairness, predictability and cheating. In big sports, a lot of money and time goes into finding ways to keep on top of drug cheats, so far with arguably little effect. In my opinion, it’s attacking from the wrong end. Attacking the incentive to cheat would work many fold better, and the weapons of war are the pens of the marketers of sport and the media that consumes it.
Numbers are an index of difficulty of a climb (or some other task), but not an index of performance. To get a fair idea of how impressive a sport performance is, we usually need two, sometimes three bits of information sandwiched together. A climbing example:
One bit - “He climbed that E7”
Two bits - “He onsighted that E7”
Three bits - “He onsighted that E7 in the rain”
One bit headlines are always more attractive for media and they resort to it more and more in all corners of media. It’s a short term way to get more hits (and a long term route to implosion but that’s another blog post). Two bit headlines at least are needed by everyone to keep sport working. When I say everyone, I mean athletes themselves as well.
Using numbers as a one bit index of performance is drain on the motivation in the long term and an continued improvement is destined to stall big time! “I’ve climbed E7!” is not enough, because the two bit headline in the background might be “I’ve climbed E7 but it was a soft touch...or it was a fluke…or I fasted for a week...or I cheated”
For athletes, the improvement is most motivating and hence sustainable if the number is the secondary part of the headline:
“I climbed well, got over my fear, and climbed that E7”
“My footwork is much better this year after all those drills, so I knew I could get that 7a”
“I really disciplined myself to rest properly, and I’m stronger for it”
That kind of thinking shows how there’s more to taking satisfaction from improvement than the number. It’s not a lot more - just one or two extra bits of information - but crucial. Sports don’t need to be super complicated to be motivating, but rounding everything down to the lowest common denominator all the time is very toxic for motivation.
Footnote: I do a lot of headpointed trad routes, and a few people get very concerned that folk out there might not properly weight the performance of, for example, 'E11 headpoint'. Sure, a few inexperienced onlookers might not understand the significance of the second bit of that statement. I don't think this small group are really worth worrying too much about. As for the rest of us, I think people are smart enough to get their head around the idea that the number takes on a different meaning if you climbed in headpoint style.