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When athletes do the math, calculate genius

When athletes do the math, calculate genius
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First Published: Thu, Sep 22 2011. 09 51 PM IST

Added appeal: A YouTube film, Tested to the Limit, shows Cristiano Ronaldo can connect with a moving ball in darkness. Nikola Solic/Reuters
Added appeal: A YouTube film, Tested to the Limit, shows Cristiano Ronaldo can connect with a moving ball in darkness. Nikola Solic/Reuters
Updated: Thu, Sep 22 2011. 09 51 PM IST
Let’s kidnap Sachin Tendulkar. Haul him into a laboratory, attach electrodes to his head, sensors to his body. Conduct what we might call a living autopsy of genius. Use science to calibrate his art. Measure his reaction time. Gauge when he decides to go forward or shift back. Break down the subtle cues he’s looking for in the bowler’s stride/action/grip. Dissect the complex decision making going on in his head.
The ball is short. Relax. Move. Back. Arrange feet. Align bat. Hit through square. Bisect fielders.
Now.
What we see is beautiful to behold, yet what he is thinking, analysing, doing, is hard to fathom. It is why I still find great athletes incomprehensible. Their speed of idea, rapidity of choice, intuitiveness is bewildering. The athletic mathematics they are capable of is baffling, their soaking of pressure is confounding, their concept of time is startling. LeBron James, after a game-winning basket with the clock almost exhausted, calmly said, “A second is a long time.”
Added appeal: A YouTube film, Tested to the Limit, shows Cristiano Ronaldo can connect with a moving ball in darkness. Nikola Solic/Reuters
My second is fast. His second is different, slower, stretched. He is not alone. At the Australian Open practice courts you can stand close to a player, maybe 10-15ft. When Roger Federer unfurls forehands, I stand at the other end of the court. As if he is hitting to me. The speed of his precise shot is terrifying. Yet Rafael Nadal gets to it. And returns it with interest. It made me understand that they—like Novak Djokovic, the resident clairvoyant of the courts—operate on a different clock.
But really I want to know HOW. How fast are they deciding, hands moving, mind calculating and reading signals? Matthew Syed provides terrific explanations in his book Bounce, but I want to know more. I want to see genius, particularly, taken apart, disassembled as one might a Lamborghini.
My attempts have been sadly amateur. Once, 14 years ago, over lunch, I tried to challenge Viswanathan Anand’s memory. I showed him small pictures of chessboards, selected by a friend who plays the game, with the pieces set in particular patterns. No date on the picture, no competition mentioned, no frame of reference.
This is what happens.
First picture.
Anand looks up, chews.
Two seconds later: “That’s Lasker’s study.” It’s from 1892.
Second picture.
Two seconds.
“Fischer-Najdorf, 1962.”
He eats. My mouth is open.
Genius deconstructed is delightful. I know this because I’ve just watched a 45-minute film on YouTube on Cristiano Ronaldo titled Tested to the Limit. Of all the tests, some telling us his leap for a header is equivalent to an average NBA (National Basketball Association) player, or that he’s faster over a zig-zag course than the Spanish 100m champion, one segment is stunning.
To test his perceptiveness, his ability to read the play and a body, a researcher crosses a ball towards Ronaldo in a laboratory. But as soon as the ball is in the air, the lights go out. Total darkness. Invisible ball. An amateur who attempts the test loses track of the ball and misses the header by a distance. But Ronaldo connects twice: First, he will complete a diving header into goal, the second time on a short cross he will connect on a semi half-volley.
Then they toughen the test. They switch off the lights just as the researcher kicks the ball so there are even less cues on ball flight. Still Ronaldo connects. It is an act on the edge of what separates magic from genius. As the voice-over states, human reaction time is 200 milliseconds and by 500 milliseconds Ronaldo’s subconscious has interpreted the kicker’s body language, worked out the direction of the ball, calculated speed and trajectory, and programmed his body to reach it at the optimum moment.
This film made me think of Tendulkar. Made me wish we could unlock some of his secrets, go further in understanding what makes him Tendulkar. And not just him. I’d love to read a detailed analysis on Tiger Woods’ strength. I’d like to know how Lionel Messi holds the ball till the last nanosecond, what he looks at, before releasing it towards goal. Numerous studies have been done of some athletes, but they mainly remain the preserve of protective coaches and shy scientists. Rarely to be revealed to us. Or more likely to the opposition.
Yet, for all the new and brilliant insights science offers, even while we know the human mind computes at a staggering pace, we can’t quite sever genius into totally comprehensible pieces. No strength test, no psychological experiment, no body-fat study can reveal it all. Can we know precisely why Tendulkar’s hand-eye coordination is faster than others, why he is picking up more cues and quicker, why his decision making is sounder, why he wears pressure better? Is practice explanation enough? Are genes?
Furthermore, for all the laboratory calculations on Tendulkar and the counting of straight drives he owns (Federer reportedly has 27 different forehands), for all this unravelling, there is this: On the day, when the crowd heaves, when a team pleads, when cameras aim, when another champion confronts him inside the real arena of insane sport, we will still wonder—HOW? That art of Tendulkar will remain beyond science. Forget all else, some measurements of the human heart, from which we mythically and romantically believe bravery arrives, may forever—and thankfully—be outside our understanding.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with
The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at gametheory@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Sep 22 2011. 09 51 PM IST