The Distinctive Quality of Genius

“Talent hits the target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer was a nineteenth century German philospher, and his wikipedia page is bereft of any sporting accomplishments, but this quote resonates deeply with what distinguishes transcedent athletic performance.  Over the last several months, I have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers wherein he addresses the 10,000 hour theory as a pre-requisite for obtaining expertise in a given field.  I have read a well reasoned counter piece that notes the study behind the 10,000 hour theory lacked standard deviations, suggesting some innately gifted individuals can develop of level fo expertise in less that 10,000 hours.  Even in the best of circumstances, the development of talent is a process of deep practice over a substantial period of time, and not a divine gift from God. 

This explains the first part of Schopenhauer’s quote. Talent developed over time enables one to compete at a world class level.  The second part of the quote addresses what distinquishes performers at the world class level.  It is the target no one else sees, it is the gift of vision.  This gift can be literal.  Ted Williams, perhaps as he liked to refer to himself “the greatest hitter to ever live”, had 20/15 vision and could reportedly see the laces on a pitched baseball.  It can be in the fluid spatial relationships of soccer, hockey and basketball that explain the sublime passing of Xavi, Gretzky or Bird.

Pete Carril is the yoda of basketball.  Their is a clarity to his vision of the game that reaches life in general.  The first thing he looks for in a player is “can he pass?”  A passer who can see the open man is the same guy who sees where and when to screen, avoid picks, help on defense — in other words, he can see.  Vision, most readily apparent in passing the ball, but transferrable to every other aspect of the game, is what distinquishes players.

The pick and roll is likely the most effective action in basketball.  The basic premise is that the ball handler dribbles at the pick and after initiating contact the picker rolls to the basket.  Hours of clinics have been dedicated to  the various options out of this play and the techniques in defending it.  To watch Steve Nash or Chris Paul run a pick and roll is to behold visionary genius.  They do not simply “run” a pick and roll.  They “see” the pick and roll.  Both are adept at playing with their head up and at a tempo that enables them to identify the defensive technique employed against them, manipulate the pace and angle of the pick and roll to deprive the defense of the initiative, and see the options of the play as they evolve.

Dutchmaster Johan Cruyff, a visionary of the first order as a player and coach, is similar though far more cryptic than Carril in soccer.  He is noted for saying, “if you are running on the field, it is because you were out of position,” and most pertinent to this post, “the first yard is in the mind”.  Several years ago, I was at the Meadowlands to see a professional soccer exhibition.  A mediocre US Men’s National Team mustered a draw against a forgetable opponent.  What I haven’t forgetten was the second game that day featuring Italian club Parma, specifically Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov.  Stoichkov by that time had already starred for Barcelona’s dream team under Dutchmaster Johan Cruyff, and led Bulgaria to a thrilling run in the World Cup of 1994.  Stoichkov put on an incredible display of what Cruyff preached.  On each touch of the ball, it was strikingly obvious that Stoichkov already concieved what he would do, shoot, pass, or dribble before the ball arrived, but not in a rigid, pre-determined manner, but rather in the moment based on all he surveyed.  His play was composed, almost relaxed, but through his vision he dictated the pace of the game. 

Vision is genius even the confluence of man and machine.  I recently wrote about a three lap Moto GP duel between Lorenzo and Rossi, which was decided by Rossi’s vision.  As with most racing circuits, certain areas are particularly suited to passing.  Rossi won the race because he had the vision to see a pass in a segment of the track where passing was unlikely, hell no one had passed there all race.  Similarly, I watched James Stewart at the Daytona Supercross two years ago.  Just after the start-finish line, there was a two-tiered jump.  Throughout the heat races every rider in the field would hit the bottom segment of the jump and then bounce the back tire off the top segment to clear it……until the final lap of his heat race when Stewart accelerated into the lower segment and cleared the entire jump in one leap.  Through the final he remained the only rider to attack the jump that way and gained significant competitive advantage though a spectacular fall on another segment of the track prevented him from winning. 


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