Sunday, February 10, 2008

Happy New Year!

For those of you who don't know, we are entering the year of the rat based on the Chinese lunar calendar.

Last night I participated in a Chinese cultural show here in Maryland to celebrate the Chinese New Year (I'm center in the traditional Kung-fu uniform, and the two in the yellow tee-shirts are two of my students).

It was an interesting experience.

It reminded me of something that we, as sports fans, tend to take for granted...

The ability to perform in front of a large group of strangers.

From a young age I participated in organized sports - little league started when I was in Kindergarten or first grade, when I was in third grade I was in youth soccer, by fifth grade I was playing street hockey in a league, by the time I was thirteen I was training in karate and fourteen, participating in tournaments. I ran track in high school, and played football and soccer. There was always some sort of crowd watching the games, at the tournaments, or at the track meets - whether parents, local community reporters, or other family members, or participants waiting between events, it didn't matter who - there were always spectators.

In spite of this, I had an issue with stage fright while growing up. I was horrible at delivering oral reports for this reason. It didn't occur to me at the time that my ability to perform in the athletic arena should have been no different. Except for the fact that execution on the athletic field had always been in front of a crowd. Execution in the academic arena had not.

I digress.

I bring this up because neither of the two students that performed last night were athletes. I spent as much time before the performance assuring them that there was nothing to worry about as I did tweaking their form. And in spite of all the panic and worry they showed before going on stage in front of several hundred people, the two performed well.

I think it's easy to forget that performing at the highest levels in professional athletics in front of huge crowds comes with a pressure most of us never feel.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not making excuses for the highly regarded who fail at the highest levels of athletics when the pressure is on - particularly since that is the living they chose and they have trained to get to that point, usually their entire lives. I can get where a highly regarded prospect coming into Major League Baseball can crash and burn - until they hit the majors, they're never in front of a crowd in the minors like they see in the majors (unless the guy plays for some team in Florida). I'm less understaning of football wherein most division I college teams play in front of crowds larger than the crowds they see in the NFL - which is why I have to tip my hat to Giants tight end Kevin Boss, who went from playing in front of crowds no larger than 6,000, to crowds larger than 60 thousand.

Then you have other sports - like Olympic gymnastics, figure skating, tennis, and sometimes even golf and soccer - where an enormous amount is expected at an unrealistically young age. Then we end up with people like Freddy Adu and Anna Kournikova who are considered disappointments in their respective sports before they even reach the age of 21.

My personal favorite whipping post of the young crowd has been Michelle Wie. But if you go back and look at what I have said about her, it usually relates to the special treatment she gets at the hands of the press and the tournament sponsors who grant her exemptions as though her career has shown that she has earned the special treatment. Ultimately, though, it appears that her problems come from how she has dealt with the pressures that have gone along with the expectations, both internal (from her family), and external (the media and fans) that she has faced.

As for the teams that I follow...

It's a hard thing to play in places like New York or Boston, where the media and the fans will absolutely crush a player - and it takes a special mentality to pull it off.
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Chris Stone said...

I don't really know much about sports so I might be really off base, but, this was kinda what I was thinking about in regards Eli Manning. Eli seems a bit oblivious... and if that's true... he might (unfortunately) develop into a very good QB. A reporter asked his dad how Eli handled the controversy (about something), and his dad said he didn't think Eli was aware of it.

Kevin Smith said...

The interesting thing to me is that the pressure even differs from city to city - It's why there are people like Edgar Renteria who have really strong careers, but crash and burn in places like Boston. The demands and pressure are just different.

Teresa said...

Cool photo. Year of the Rat, eh? I will have to remember that.

There was an article in our paper before the Super Bowl comparing the fan and media firestorm, if you will, that Eli has to endure compared to Peyton. Indy is small, everyone loves him, no one calls for his head on a platter on an hourly basis. Peyton said he was not sure he could do it and that he was uberproud of Eli for doing it. I know I couldn't.

This wimpy Midwestern girl could not live on either coast!

Kevin Smith said...

Thanks re: photo.

It's funny you mention what Eli has had to deal with in NY. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I have dealt with watching prospects get traded for veterans that leave at the end of the season, only to see the prospect become a top player (ie - Jeff Bagwell) and dealt with all the "what if we kept him" speculation that goes along with it. Of course playing in places like Houston or Florida (in regards to baseball) as opposed to Boston is night and day just as the difference between qb-ing in Indy versus NYC.

David Sullivan said...

When I play in golf tournaments its way different than playing nassau's with my buddy's.

Pressure wise, I'd rather play a $50 Nassau with no one watching than a amateur qualifying tourney with a handful of people watching.