The Art of Sports and the Sport of Arts

The Art of Sports and the Sport of Arts

[the following is a supplemental piece from How The Arts Were Won: Episode 3, a Pipeline Artists featured podcast]

In the upcoming episode of "How the Arts Were Won," featuring guest Jack Baric, Emmy award-winning filmmaker (Bloody Thursday) and founder of the new sports empowerment company GameChange, we discuss the correlation between arts and sports and the “crossover mindset” shared by these two arenas. We get to talk more about it all in the show with Jack, but I am going to touch upon some of the aspects we discussed here as well.

To be honest, I had never given the comparison any thought before now—my co-host, Matt Misetich, on the other hand, apparently has been preaching the gospel of the similarity between sports and arts for years. But I’m not sure why I never even made the connection.

When I was an undergraduate student, earning a bachelor’s in music from The University of Texas at Austin, the Darrell K. Royal football stadium in all its gigantism and glory loomed over me on the daily—right next door to the music complex, in fact. The 7th largest stadium in America was and still faces the glossy but modest Bass Concert Hall and the College of Fine Arts. Most of us “serious” students of the arts were so busy glaring at the stadium and all the money it represented that we never really stopped to think that maybe we were placed adjacent to the athletics department for a reason.

Maybe we had similar life challenges and objectives and fears as those athletes.

Perhaps, from a surface-level, it does seem kind of absurd to think that a cellist and a quarterback have anything in common. But a closer examination of what it means to be an athlete or an artist and what each requires suggests that the principles that work for sports, apply to the arts, and vice versa. Ultimately, both arenas are for entertainment, and while one may be seen as more objective and results-oriented, subjectivity and creativity exist across the spectrum of sports and arts.

Make it Look Easy

Sports quite obviously require great amounts of physicality and athleticism. It may come as a surprise that arts (virtually all of them, not just dance) have very physical components as well. Even something as sedentary as playing the piano involves the whole body. A well-executed performance of a Prokofiev sonata or Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 means more than just learning the notes and having the power to pound a nine-foot Steinway. To play these crazy octaves at a crowd-pleasing speed and with an absence of tension requires stamina, precision, and most of all proper use of the body.

When I perform on stage or even when I am sitting down at home on my Yamaha C7 to practice, I am making many calculations and drawing on years of training, developed touch and technique, muscle memory, and agility. It’s not something that came overnight or even with a few minutes a day of practice. When I was at the height of my conservatory training, I used to play four hours a day every day—and I loved doing it for the sake of doing it. I didn’t need a competition to drive me. I had wonderful teachers who helped steer me in my passion.

When I did start competing, being judged by world class concert pianists, one of the best comments I ever received on my adjudication sheets was that I had great technique—a compliment to my teachers more than to me. I didn’t realize how much that “great technique” I had worked on so much kept me from great injury. When I was 14, moving from local to state to national piano competitions, I would see these Asian men, older than me, stronger than me, taller than me, dressed in their tuxes, rubbing ice packs on their hands before their performance slots. I found out they had all developed repetitive strain injuries or tendonitis and the like.

To me, it was curious. I had never experienced pain playing, and I wondered if that was because I always had cold hands and couldn’t feel the pain or if I didn’t practice enough. (Can’t spell “passion” without “pain,” right?) Then again, I was there, wasn’t I? In the same room as these all-stars. I learned to ignore those overworked guys whose parents were driving them relentlessly for no reason (it’s what I call the Yo-Yo Ma mentality, but let’s not go there).

My teachers told me practice hard, practice a lot, but remain relaxed. If you can’t make it look easy, they said, then you’re doing more than you need to. I give my students similar, more pithy advice now: “Practice doing less.”

When I watch LeBron James play, he makes it look easy. When I hear Kelly Clarkson sing, she makes it sound easy. To get to that point takes work, and even then, it’s still one point in a continuing journey. If you listened to Kelly Clarkson’s first album, she sounds so different from any of her recent work. If you watch LeBron’s first games, he looks different than he looks on the court today. Check out every single one of Miles Davis’s albums, "Kind of Blue" sounds nothing like "Sketches of Spain" which sounds nothing like "Bitches Brew."

Whether its sport or arts, there must be evolution, self-discovery, practice—lots of practice—and fun. You have to have fun, otherwise what’s the point?

It's About the Bounce Backs

To succeed as an artist or an athlete, it’s not necessary to have an “all or nothing” mentality, and in fact it probably hurts more than it helps. It can drive you initially, pedal to the metal and all that, but eventually you’ll hit burnout, or you’ll get tired, or you’ll start feeling that everything you’ve worked for is for nothing, and you’ll start questioning your whole life.

Firstly, nothing is wasted. Everything you do, learn, or try teaches you something and somewhere down the road may open a door or prove useful.

Secondly, as human beings we are not one-sided coins. We have many interests, so it’s not healthy to be single-minded and do nothing but ____. At the same time, a real passion warrants time and energy and investment. Young people often don’t know what their passion is or how to develop one until a teacher or coach shows them what is possible.

As an example, when my son Ben was 11 years old, a former basketball coach randomly noticed him at a burger joint where we were lunching, observed his height and lithe, lanky frame, and said jokingly, “You got an agent yet?” I was like, what? “Basketball,” the man explained, and I noticed the polo he was wearing that identified him as a coach at a local high school.

My son had never thought about playing basketball before then—neither had I, though I have always loved the sport as a spectator. However, once I found a program and enrolled him, Ben was definitely hooked. That was almost two years ago. Now, my nearly 13-year-old is chasing six feet and still loves playing basketball. He has stuck with it. But he hates shooting drills. Hates them. I keep telling him, “Practice the thing you hate and it will become the thing you love,” which incidentally I also tell my music students. But he resists. He resists practicing in general.

I always wanted him to do this for fun, however, I see how upset and angry he gets at himself for not performing better. He loves his coach, loves the game, and doesn’t want to quit. So, I told him, you’ve gotten to the point where it’s time to make a decision: either stay mediocre or choose to grow. And to grow, you have to practice.

Funny enough, my son being in basketball has helped me become a better piano teacher. Everything my son’s coach tells him, I end up telling my music students. For example: “It’s not about how hard you fail, it’s about how fast you bounce back.” I love that phrase because it applies to life as much as to arts or sports. A rejected query, lost game, humiliating performance …

It’s about the bounce backs.

If you’re going to learn an instrument or play a sport, put in the time for yourself. There is certainly space for casual engagement in sports and arts, but at some point, as I just told my son yesterday, if you think you have a passion for something or at least that you want to be good enough to contend with others in that field, then you have to put in the work.

For the record, I gave him an out, a free pass to stop playing, but to my surprise, he countered with a 50-day challenge where he plans to go all in every morning and then report to me if this is what he really wants to do, if he still loves basketball by the end. I’ll let you know how it turns out …

Subjectivity vs. Objectivity

Assuming you get to the point where you are a true professional, where your passion meets progress and yields performance, how is success measured in the field of arts versus in sports? Arguably, progress is objectively measured in sports. Measurable by numbers, by actual yards. But a concert, for example, how is its value measured, what is its “score”? Can the audience really be trusted to “value” a performance, a piece of art, a written work, etc.? I would say no, but at the same time, since arts and sports are for entertainment, if you fail to entertain the audience, then are you fulfilling the objective, objectively speaking?

Still. It is clear that there is more readily observable objectivity in sports than in arts ... 100,000 fans at a Cowboys / Broncos game are going to accept that their team lost or won, depending on whatever the scoreboard says. These same 100,000 people may go to a concert or an art gallery and all disagree on whether the concert was good or whether the artist was deserving of exhibition.

Yes, subjectivity certainly exists in sports, but in arts it is the rule.

This is probably why I like watching sports movies so much. I get to experience the relish when all the work and blood, sweat, and tears culminate in one perfect game or moment. The people cheer, and I get a taste of what it’s like to appeal to the masses.

I crave this sort of concrete assessment of me as an artist. It’s something I’ll never get, but that ambiguity comes with the territory.

You have to be OK with not pleasing everybody. You have to learn to take the criticisms, get what you can out of it, and then move on without shouldering the bad feelings and rejections like a sack of potatoes. But in order to let go, to bounce back after a failure or setback, you have to build up mental fortitude. I don’t think I have to say that this is also the case in sports. You miss a free throw, you fumble, you foul out, whatever it is, you have to be able to reset, refresh, and power forward. And like with everything, it gets easier with practice.

The Process is the Prize

On the first page of the quintessential Hanon piano exercise book, originally published in French in 1873, you will find the following note in the introduction written by Charles-Louis Hanon himself:

The study of the piano is now so wide-spread and good pianists are so numerous, that mediocrity on this instrument is no longer acceptable. Consequently, one must study the piano for eight or ten years before performing a piece of any difficulty, even at a gathering of amateurs.

Did you catch that? “Mediocrity is … unacceptable.” And if this were the case, or the perception in 1873, how much more does this apply today? Today, when technology has enhanced and enabled the learning and production of sports and arts so as to turn the pool of contenders into a veritable global flood. There are so many excellent athletes and artists in any field across the spectrum, that you can’t just be decent anymore, or even good to single yourself out.

You have to be exceptional.

And being exceptional means more than just working hard, it means being malleable, adaptable, driven by the pursuit of passion rather than the pursuit of perfection. If you live for the process—the process of becoming, of improving, of developing both in your field and as a human being—then you’ll be good for the long haul.

If you want to succeed, to be able to make a living doing what you love, then you can’t dwell in mediocrity or be OK with OK. Put in the time, put in the work, know that there is no finish line, even when there is a literal line, and invest in yourself. Yes, that probably means money, which might be impossible for some, but as Jack Baric said rightly, if you don’t invest in yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?

Whatever you do, don’t quit. If you love the game, the art, the sport, remember that it’s not about external validations. A win today is forgotten tomorrow, anyway. Be thankful you get to play, you get to write, you get to paint, and the rest will take care of itself.

Per my illustrious co-host’s recent tweet:

The arts isn’t based on a true meritocracy, whereas you could argue sports is. But it isn’t. Luck, timing, and opportunity are just as important with athletes as they are with writers or filmmakers et al. Your big break is always going to be at the mercy of someone else who judges your talent, merit, and most of all: your potential … [Y]ou have to be really good and keep being really good until the universe aligns.

OK, maybe it’s not the most inspirational thing Matt has ever said, but he’s right.

Strive for excellence and good things will find you. But, don’t aim for a “big break” or a trophy moment. Enjoy what you do and do it a lot.

As for me, I couldn’t care less about the accolades. I live for the process. Ultimately, sports or arts, arts or sports, remember your passion and be thankful you have one.

That is how you “win.”

*Feature Image: "How the Arts Were Won" by Emily Barnes

Michelle Daniel is a professional musician, podcaster, and writer based in Austin, TX. She works for The University of Texas at Austin where she has created and produced podcasts of global repute.
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