Close your eyes

Bode Miller, the NBA, and focus. Day 4 of hey, how about an upgrade? Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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Close your eyes

I almost had second thoughts about using “close your eyes” as the subject line for today’s newsletter, since I’m trying to get you to read something.

But, I want to talk about the group interview we did here on last December with Olympic gold medal ski racer Bode Miller, and something else that I was on the lookout for as a result.

(I hope to do more of these kinds of interviews going forward, with members invited to watch and participate. I envision a sort of podcast/talk feel that’s also like a small, virtual, group conversation. In the future, we’ll post the videos to YouTube, and write newsletter stories around the most interesting ones.)

Enough about process. After the interview, I wrote about Miller here, but I also wrote a separate story that stuck with me. It has to do with how elite athletes — or at least, this elite athlete, Miller — create artificial intensity to succeed at optimal times.

In Miller’s case, the key moment we discussed was from 2010: in the second leg of the Olympic super combined in Vancouver, which involves both downhill and slalom racing.

That was Miller’s third Olympics, and he was in seventh place after the downhill portion of the race. He’d never won Olympic gold before, and the pressure was on. Moreover, he explained, he “hadn't been skiing slalom well at all,” and felt that he had “no business competing with those top guys.”

Now, before we talked, if you’d asked me to guess what went through Miller’s head before a race like that, I would have guessed he’d focus on the course—maybe think about an especially difficult turn that he’d have to navigate.

Or else maybe he’d pump himself up by thinking about the long road he’d traveled to get there.

Nope, he told us during the interview. Instead he knew just what to do:

I was pretty experienced. I knew my best chance was to put my brain in that spot, very high intensity — kind of a "save my sister from drowning or from a fire” type of scenario, and then kind of surrender to the will of the billion or so people watching the Olympics.

I really was like almost in a trance. My technician was blown away. He was like, ‘I've never seen you like that. You were just hovering above, and your body was just going.’ … It was a one in a thousand chance.

I was really struck by that explanation. And then, I happened to read a lengthy interview with Brian Scalabrine, a former NBA journeyman player, in the New York Times.

The story was about what separates even run-of-the-mill professional athletes from super-talented amateurs.

Scalabrine and other former pros talked about how they’re constantly being challenged by top amateurs, who think they might be able to beat a past-his-prime player who spent most of his career as a backup.

Spoiler alert: They can’t.

What leapt off the page was the fact that Scalabrine used almost the exact same language as Miller to describe how he used to get into the zone to perform under pressure:

“People don’t understand how a little bit nuts you have to be to sustain an N.B.A. career,” Scalabrine said. “Especially when you’re not that talented. You have to be ready. You have to be up for the fight. You have to be like that every day. And if you’re not, you lose your livelihood.

He said professional athletes, even retired ones, have an extra gear that an average person cannot tap into. He referred to it as the “dark place.”

“I would always say things, like in a game, ‘If I miss this next shot, my kids are going to die,’” Scalabrine said. “I would say that to myself, just to get through, just to put the pressure so I can lock in and make the shot.”

Kind of the same thing, right?

I’m not exactly a great athlete — a recreational skier at best, and I’ll spare you the boring stories of my mediocre accomplishments from years ago.

But I was thinking about how this works.

My wild guess is that once you’ve reached the level of a Miller or a Scalabrine—and we should stipulate that these are only two examples, and that they competed at the top level, but they weren’t the absolute best at their sport—but once you reach that still-rarified air, athleticism is largely about muscle memory. The remainder is about channeling intensity.

Would it work in other fields? Not the same way, I’m sure. I can’t imagine that I’d improve my writing by thinking about running into a burning building while writing this article for example.

However, I do know that I can sometimes get into a very focused zone: productive, creative, amazed at times how disparate thoughts or phrases come together.

This is the point where I turn to you. There are a lot of accomplished people among our readers, and I’d be interested to know what tricks you use to reach high levels of intensity in your field. Let us know in the comments.

Oh, and I should add: Let me know who else you’d like to see interviewed in a group setting like this—athletes, authors, business people, just plain interesting folks? The world right now is our oyster.

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7 other things worth your time

  • President Biden gave his first address to a joint, but slimmed-down, session of Congress last night (not technically a State of the Union speech). A few highlights: his calls to tax corporate America and “the wealthiest 1% of Americans,” to build trust between police and citizens and “root out systemic racism,” and just the fact that for the first time, the two top officials behind the president — the vice-president and speaker of the house — were women. (BBC)

  • Biden proposed a big increase in tax credits for day care, and before long, this 1974 New York Times story about what supposedly “universal” (but not really) day care looked like in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War was trending. Short version, they had a lot of it, because there was no way a family could get by on a single income in the USSR. How’s this for an anachronistic description of the USA: “Repeatedly, Soviet citizens express astonishment when they learn that an American father can support a family of two, three or four children without his wife's working.“ (NYT, hopefully free in the archive, because it was quite interesting)

  • Astronaut Michael Collins, best known for flying on Apollo 11 and staying in orbit around the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface, died at the age of 90. (CNN)

  • “The effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office to obscure the pandemic death toll in New York nursing homes was far greater than previously known, with aides repeatedly overruling state health officials over a span of at least five months, according to interviews and newly unearthed documents.” (NYT, $)

  • One of the weirdest moments of the Academy Awards the other night was when the Best Actor award was announced for Anthony Hopkins in The Father, and the show then ended super-abruptly, with no speech or appearance from Hopkins, as if the producers had realized they’d left their cars double-parked outside. Weirdly, it turns out Hopkins’s people had “pleaded” the Academy to let him appear from the UK via Zoom if he won, but they were turned down. (ET Canada)

  • Rental cars are so insanely expensive in Hawaii these days, after the companies sold 1/3 of their fleets during the pandemic, that last month it cost a minimum of $722 per day to rent the cheapest car on Maui. Solution? Tourists are renting U-Haul trucks to get around. (CNN)

  • After the death of Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek, fans of actor LeVar Burton started a petition calling for him to become the new host. He’s now guest hosting in July, and confirmed he hopes to land the job permanently: “I'm eager to put my skills up against those of anyone else in contention and then let the chips fall where they may." (ABC News)

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: YouTube, plus me taking about 10 minutes to time it just right to get Miller with his eyes closed. If you don’t already subscribe to Understandably, please sign up for the daily email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. And, please consider a paid membership. (Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.)

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