September 3, 2009

Understanding the Psyche of the Greatest of All Time

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Over the course of the past 10 months, I have come to understand what countless others before me have undoubtedly realized: Cornell is hard. Keri Hilson tells us that sometimes love “knocks you down.” Well, the same can easily be said of academia and college life in general. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve wondered whether I belong at this institution of apparent super geniuses and overly-ambitious types whose desperation to get ahead would put most politicians to shame. The follow-up question has always been, do I actually stand a chance of matching up to such natural ability and/or motivation? Or am I merely incurring a quarter-million dollar debt for my parents –– in doing so quelling all their hopes of a peaceful (early) retirement in Bermuda? Freshmen, you will probably experience a similar feeling of inadequacy at some point in your Cornell careers; if not now, then at least after the first BIOG 1101 prelim.
Upon voicing such self-deprecating sentiment aloud, the default response I receive from my family, friends and overly-friendly casual acquaintances tends to be along the lines of: “Try not to let Cornell beat you down; after all, there is always going to be someone smarter/faster/stronger/more attractive, and by all accounts better than you.”
All things considered, this seems a suitable, if not clichéd, reply to give to a peer suffering from a twinge of self-doubt. However, although the aforementioned comment might be the norm, it is by no means unconditionally true. There is one realm where such logic fails as a cure for self-imposed criticism, and if anything only succeeds in exacerbating the situation. It’s the domain that is professional sports.
In between both Red Sox World Series wins this century being exposed as illegitimate, Michael Vick making an unexpected landing in Philadelphia, and Brett Favre being, well, Brett Favre, the sports world was abuzz this summer with talk of G.O.A.T.s –– and not the ones found on Ezra’s Farm (that’s the plot of land and barns located on the outskirts of campus by the vet school, for all you non-former Animal Science majors). Likewise, for the non-sports savvy, “GOAT” denotes “Greatest Of All Time.” Long before July’s epic Wimbledon final, sports journalists and former pros alike had been asked to weigh in on an ongoing debate that features at its forefront such names as Roger Federer and Tiger Woods.
Now, getting back to my original point … I’m no sports psychologist by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, the only exposure I have to the subject is three lectures’ worth of PSYCH 101 with Prof. James Maas. However, I can’t help but think that had Federer gone through his professional career lamenting that there was always going to be someone out there better than him at tennis, he would not be closing in on an unprecedented 16th Grand Slam title.
As far as I know, RFed has yet to publicly proclaim himself the greatest tennis player who ever lived. To be fair, I don’t think there’s been a journalist bold enough to pose the question. Regardless of any verbal confirmation, it’s pretty obvious that Roger considers himself worthy of the No. 1 ranking. This is, after all, the same man who commissioned Nike to make him a white jacket emblazoned with the No. 15 in gold lettering –– before he even advanced to the Wimbledon final. Now, I’ve always been one to call out “Rog” when his confidence borders on arrogance. There’s been many a press conference remark that I’ve taken issue with, and his “15” jacket was unquestionably in very poor taste. Anyone who disagrees need only have taken one look at a crestfallen Andy Roddick sitting courtside, trying to appear composed after he had played the match of his life and fallen just short of dethroning a god.
However, even I must concede that Federer’s “I’m the best” mentality and unrelenting on-court demeanor is what has enabled him to rebound from a subpar 2008, and ultimately stand alone in tennis history. If John McEnroe of all people is willing to declare Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all time, then who am I to argue.
On a similar note, Federer’s close friend (and Gillette Fusion commercial costar) Tiger Woods has found himself at the center of a nearly identical debate. Ignoring Tiger’s recent string of un-Tigerlike performances, he remains on pace to shatter Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Thirteen years separate Woods from the age at which Nicklaus won his last major, and he needs only four victories to equal the most gifted man ever to set foot on the green. Once again, I could be wrong, but when Earl Woods was teaching his two-year-old son the ways of the sport, I highly doubt he spent much time, if any at all, explaining to a young Tiger that he would consistently have to contend with competition that could drive a ball farther than him, or align a put better –– all while looking trendier doing it. Woods Sr. had the right idea, for as we now know, no such persons exist who can even come close to matching Tiger’s accomplishments.
Besides raw talent and unwavering commitment, what differentiates the Tiger-Roger tandem from their athlete counterparts is their mental toughness and conviction that no one can play their sport better than they can. This same perspective is exemplified in other sportsmen, albeit a select handful. Take Michael Phelps, for instance. As Speedo’s favorite endorser stood on the brink of Olympic history, do you honestly think he was staring at the Australian opponent next to him in lane five, silently wondering if this man was going to outrace him and single-handedly derail his quest for a record eight gold medals? This may very well be pure speculation on my part, but I suspect that Michael’s head was otherwise preoccupied with such sentiment as “Yes, I’m the best, and no I ain’t positive, I’m definite / I know the game like I’m reffing it.” (As much as I would love to take credit for such lyrical ingenuity, I must admit I borrowed from Lil Wayne’s hit single “I’m Me,” which also happens to be Phelps’ pregame music of choice.)
Moving on to another sport, last week at the world track and field championships in Berlin, Usain Bolt reaffirmed his status as the fastest man alive. To put it even more simply: of the six billion individuals who comprise the world’s population, not one of them is faster than Usain Bolt. More modest, yes. Faster, no.
In short, I propose it’s about time we take a cue from the aforementioned examples; it’s time we stop telling ourselves that it’s okay if we fail or come up short, citing as our default excuse that there are always going to be people better than us. I know I for one will be looking to realign my perspectives. I intend to equal my fellow Cornellians, if not by GPA or other standards of academic achievement, then at the very least by my mastery of social drinking habits. So, I say to all my friends/acquaintances out there: the next bar night, rooms party, formal, or other social gathering characterized by drunken debauchery … I will match you, shot for shot. Alright, so that’s still up for debate –– much like the legitimacy of certain so-called G.O.A.T.s. But, as the proverbial “they” say, in sports everything is debatable.