Is Balance and Athletic Excellence Possible?

A handful of years back, Alan Ma burst into my office and firmly informed me, “If someone wants to be a great tennis player, there’s no such thing as balance!” While he’s among the top on my list if I wanted to develop a top 100 women’s tennis player, I found his statement perplexing. Perhaps he was right, “balance” is a trite notion that has little place in the journey of an athlete towards greatness. Yet upon further reflection, I’ve concluded that his intent was right on the mark, but the content of the message was wrong.

Let’s start with the intent – great athletes are consumed by a passion to play, practice, and succeed. This motivation has been well documented in self-determination theory and research. Nonetheless, theory and scientific research hardly paint a vivid picture of picture of an elite athlete’s drive and commitment. Perhaps it is more vividly seen in: the rich sharing of ideas about offensive and defensive play, excitement for the challenges of many minor league bus rides and talk of equipment specs by a 19 year old draft pick; the awe of a coach when discussing his captain having a smile on his face every day of a 70+ game season except for one (a day he tried to practice with the flu); the world-class wrestler who hustles away from appointments to get to the gym to practice alone day after day. On the surface there’s plenty of passion, but little balance to any of these approaches to sport.

Closer inspection however tells a slightly different story. These athletes, like most who reach their ultimate potential are fully engaged when it is time to practice and compete – there’s lots of sweat, occasional shortness of breath, a bit of pain, and, of course, emotion. This being said, unregulated passion does lead to injury, excessive exhaustion (i.e. overtraining), and poor performance. Perhaps this is where “balance” is they key. The 19 year old draft pick spent many hours daydreaming about his NHL career, yet at the same time could not wait for today’s collegiate game. The captain always brought a smile, but rarely shied away from critically analyzing his performance in order to be better the next day. The wrestler learned that enthusiasm for training and practice helps, but without rest, taper, and restraint the legs and wits just weren’t there when it was time to compete. Beyond these examples, it is wise to keep in mind that balance in a physical sense is more often than not a key to good athletic movement and performance.

I had the good fortune to get to know some of Coach Ma’s students. The best were always quite balanced – I’d often find then reading novels written by some heady authors, often they seemed to find the best museum in the cities in which they competed, their palates were far more sophisticated than mine, and many had already well thought out post-tennis careers (and all plans were the seemingly tough transitions to work or school away from the sport itself) – they always managed to “get away” from the court. This being said, I don’t think that I ever saw a drill or point “taken off” and I certainly would not have been foolish enough to stand between them and their goals.  It would be difficult to describe their passionate approach to play as balanced… nonetheless look close, it’s there and it’s crticial to their success.

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