It all started while catching up on my Joe Posnanski reading.

You may know that I am a huge fan* of Joe Posnanski’s work.  In my opinion, he’s a wonderful writer who just happens to make his living in sports reporting.  He’s on my blogroll – some honor, right?  (RIGHT.)  And I’ve permanently borrowed his “posterisks,” small asides/digressions that he tosses into the flow of his essays.

* For example, this would be a “posterisk,” subject: “huge fan.”  Obviously this doesn’t mean that I’m fifteen feet tall or weigh 3400 pounds.  But like all good metaphors, it accurately conveys my enthusaism for his work in a way that a phrase like “I am an enthusiast” would miss.  My enthusiasm for his work is 15′, 3400 lbs, maybe… give or take an inch.

So I was surprised to hear a false note in one of his recent bits, on the Nadal-Federer French Open Final.

Pos was talking about willpower and intimidation.  It’s interesting to me as a novice in the noble art of stat-fu… the talk of willpower among professional athletes.  The classic narrative, when great contests are decided, is that the winning team or individual (or an individual member of said team) simply “wanted it more.”  Another version is when an overmatched team wins on the superlative effort of one player, who “willed them to victory” or “refused to lose.”

Such phrases are literally a total load of hooey.  Superior talent and even superior performance sometimes comes out the loser in any individual contest.  I don’t see how willpower is any different.  It’s pretty much guaranteed that the losing players all wanted very badly to win.  I’ve been on both sides of that equation many times on my own small level, and I have to say that I have never NOT wanted to win those games or championships.  In fact, there was a stretch on one of my teams when we were champions in four straight seasons, with a couple of tournament wins thrown in for good measure.  I like to think I know myself and my teammates well enough to say that we didn’t stop wanting to win after the first couple.  We didn’t go into them not particularly caring if we won, because we had won championships and tournaments with other teams before then.  And when we were finally beaten, it wasn’t because I or any of my teammates had decided that we just didn’t really want to win any more.

On the elite level, I can’t help but think that this is even more true.  The weekend warrior ranks likely DO have guys who go into games not particularly caring.  They’re in it for fun and exercise.  They don’t want to have hurt feelings (or joints) going all-out, ruthlessly, for the sake of a t-shirt and a plastic trinket.  Bless their hearts.  As I’ve aged, I’ve finally approached that golden mean where I care intensely while it’s happening, and then I can write off the outcome, good or bad, after it’s done.  (Not immediately, not perfectly; but I don’t break out a baseball bat and beat the sap out of a tree in the yard after a tough loss… any more.)

Now, some guys are wired differently. Bill Simmons tells the story of meeting Tiger Woods for fifteen minutes for an ESPN promo of one of EA Sports’ golf games (named for Tiger, of course)… they played a few holes of video golf for the cameras, and while Sports Guy lined up a gimme putt, Tiger casually (but completely seriously) said, “You’re gonna miss.”  And he started making little “yip” noises to get into Simmons’ head – during a photo-op video game.  Simmons realized that Woods’ “must win” switch was crazy-glued to “ON”.  He also missed the putt.

But – and just like people, arguments always have a but at their tail end – something else Simmons wrote that day suggests that for those guys, it isn’t just superior willpower deciding contests.

We had an enlightening exchange about how he stays motivated after so much success the past 10 years. I made the point that he already has won all these majors, he’s clearly the best golfer, there wasn’t much left for him to do, right? He quickly countered with, “Win. Keep winning.”

And it wasn’t even as if he was offering a counterargument — he almost sounded like an alien who was sent to Earth programmed to destroy every golfer for the rest of eternity. When I wondered whether that same drive would wane, he quickly played the “You never get tired of winning” card, but convincingly, as though it was completely insane to think that he would ever want to stop winning. … Tiger can’t even entertain the notion that he would ever become bored of beating the crap out of other guys in golf. … As Tiger said, “Winning never gets old.” And he’s dead serious. You can tell when you’re talking to people how serious they are. He’s deader-than-dead serious about this. I’m now convinced he’ll win 30 majors. At least.

Now, it is completely insane to think that anyone would ever want to stop winning, especially when it is your career and your livelihood to win these contests, and your opponents are the best hundred or so people in the entire world at this profession.  They’re all elite – and thus, presumably, all have elite willpower.  But that’s exactly WHY I disagree with the conclusion, that the winners thus want it MORE than the losers.  Those other hundred people need to win too.  If anything, they’re the ones who need to win it more, because for all their talent and expertise, they are still not Tiger’s equal at golf.  They have to make up the difference somehow.

This, in fact, also explains why the myth endures.  Willpower is something entirely within your own control.  Even the best-struck golf ball, the slickest shot, the most perfectly-placed pass, the nastiest pitch, can go amiss.  In the long-term, talent wins.  (And in the longer term, time wins.  Tiger’s got 14 majors wins.  He may not even win #15, much less 30.) In the short-term, Yadier Freakin’ Molina hits a two-run homer in the ninth to win the pennant, while Carlos Beltran is caught looking at a brilliant curveball to end the game fifteen minutes later.  Beltran is clearly the superior hitter; just not on those two particular pitches.  And because of that, we need to say something like “Molina wanted it more” or “Tiger just refused to lose.”  On the one hand, it’s a way to come to grips with how a better player can’t always prevail; on the other, it’s a way to bring such elite skill back into the realm of the relatable for us mortals.  None of us is likely to hit a major-league home run, but any of us can be determined and put in our best effort.

So – is willpower really the point, if everyone more or less has it?

Funnily enough, yes.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think that when people casually toss around the “he wanted it more” cliché, it’s unwarranted probably 95% or the time – and that includes the times the athletes themselves say so.  The thing is, on the elite level, willpower has already triumphed.  Out of the far larger group of people who have elite potential (and stay healthy), the precious few who capitalize on it are almost universally people of discipline and determination.  Merely by taking the field of play, before a single minute of the action that we invest in, they have proved that, indeed, they wanted it more.  And I further think that this is WHY we invest as well… we echo the larger investment that they have shown just in reaching that point.

And, that brings me finally back to Posnanski’s column today.  Among the many wonderful things he wrote was this clunker:

But there’s a whole other kind of intimidation — a much scarier kind to me — that comes from someone or something being inescapable. The thing that made the original Terminator such an intimidating movie character, I think, is that he would not stop. He could not stop. He was programmed to kill, and this goal took up 100% of his circuitry. He wanted to kill Sarah Connor more than she wanted to stay alive. That feeling of no escape is suffocating in ways that sheer force and will and power is not.

Fittingly, we have here another paradox in an essay outlining a number of them.  Pos is right that intimidation and willpower are different things.  In fact, I would go on to say that a lot of what people attribute to “wanting it more” or “refusing to lose” is actually a function of this intimidation.  Again, I have to refer to my own experience (sorry) and say that when I’ve been really on my game, I become convinced that nobody is going to beat me with a shot.  And that extra little bit of energy that is no longer invested in worry or doubt goes into my reactions, and there is a definite effect.  It is NOT that I suddenly began caring or wanting to win, but that I have gotten myself to a mental place where I can operate most efficiently.  I may still lose, but I will not be giving anything away, and you are going to have to be perfect yourself to make it happen.

Using the Terminator would make this a perfect illustration for Pos, except that he says that the Terminator wanted to kill more than the people wanted to live.  And THAT is the part of this that clunks, that actually threatens to undercut the whole distinction.  The whole point of the Terminator being a machine, never tiring, never stopping, is that NONE OF THAT has to do with willpower.  Strictly speaking, the Terminator doesn’t want to kill Sarah Connor, any more than your lawn mower wants to do a great job on the front yard.  It doesn’t want to execute its programming… or even not want to.  It isn’t happy to do it, or reluctant to do it.  It just does it.  It takes no pride in doing so with a particular elegance or flourish.

Sarah wants desperately to live – but the Terminator honestly couldn’t care less.  It wouldn’t be disappointed if you hacked its program and it suddenly “had to” stop attempting to kill Sarah Connor.  It would just stop.  This has nothing to do with “refusing to lose” for it; there’s no satsifaction in success or frustration in defeat.  And that is part of what makes this so intimidating… the implacability comes from no desire or drive; the Terminator hasn’t chosen to use his skills to become a perfect killing machine.*  When Kyle blows the thing in half, the remaining hunk doesn’t bravely drag itself around trying even harder.  It is neither brave, nor trying at all.  It just is: the Terminator is all verb, no adjective.  And the way we know this is, could anyone intimidate a Terminator?  The answer is obviously no.  The second Terminator knew as a mathematical certainty that it was inferior to the T-1000.  It went ahead with its program anyway.  What else could it do?  It wasn’t even resigned to its likely fate.  A human in that situation – like Kyle, like Sarah and John Connor – would be freaking out pretty much all the time.

* And you notice that Simmons used the term “programmed” when referring to Tiger?

We humans live on nouns and adjectives, so we tend to fudge the distinction.  We say that our will faltered when we make a mistake, or that our will was adamant when we succeed.  I think it’s more accurate to say that humanity is the deciding factor.  Here again the paradox, the big catch.  Only a creature with willpower can be intimidated.  You have to have a heart before you can lose heart.  And that brings us all right back to the beginning.  Did the winner want it more, did the loser first weaken when faced with the sinking feeling that nothing was going to be good enough this day?  Sometimes, but if so, it didn’t start with the will, but with something that the will can call forward and encourage.  And honestly, I don’t think that it ends with the will.  I think there’s a space between the will and the action, and the difference between success and failure is the size of that gap.  If by intimidation or stress or fatigue that gap widens, our performance suffers; close the gap and we can astonish ourselves with what becomes possible.  I also remain convinced that this capacity to strive, and to feel wonder at the result, is what makes anything worth the attempt.


One thought on “Willpower

  1. Dominik June 10, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Loved this. As you know I’m very interested in the mind/body aspect of sports performance, but I think “he wanted it more” pieces give the subject a bad rap. (And you may be on to something — it may be a language and space limitation more than anything else.)

    Just one example: The “doubts” you mention and the energy that’s directed/wasted in that area remind me of when an athlete is coming back from injury, and how suddenly what was rote and almost automatic is no longer. Mental energy/focus is diverted toward testing the body part and seeing whether it responds in the automatic way that it responded before the injury.

    To me that’s the easy example, but a larger/more obvious example of what can go on within any contest when fatigue, soreness and/or minor injury sets in.

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