Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Jonathan Franzen and Test Match Cricket

I liked Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. In a flu-ridden Christmas it was one of the few things I managed to enjoy. Lines keep coming back to me. Sitting up last night listening to Alastair Cook and Ian Bell putting the Australian bowling to the sword I thought of Patty the top college basketball player in the book and the line "Success at sports is the province of the almost empty head".

That's the same as being "in the zone", isn't it? When your body is just doing the things it's supposed to do without needing you to instruct it, when the bat has arrived at the right place before you've consciously worked out where the right place is. As Louis Menand said of any golden age (and a Test Match hundred is a golden age), it's "the time when things work in such a way as to make you think they will work this way forever".

I suspect any form of performance must be pretty much the same. You can't act or sing or juggle if you're worrying about how to do it or trying to do it in a different way. Of all the adjectives that critics employ to show how much they approve of a particular performance the most inappropriate one must be "intelligent". The best performances are the work of an almost empty head. The intelligence was all used up in rehearsals.

That's why interviews with athletes are traditionally so unsatisfactory. They say "I put the ball in the right areas" or "it just came over and I hit it" because that's the truth. Thinking any more about it isn't going to make it any easier to do and they above all know how hard it is to do.


  1. David Foster Wallace touched on that sense of the absence of self a great athlete needs, in his essay on Roger Federer:

  2. No, not an empty head. The whole thing is about flow. Read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book about it. A worthwhile read.

  3. Reminded of this great article about choking in sports by Malcolm Gladwell:

  4. David Foster Wallace also covers this in an essay about Tracy Austin ('How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart) in 'Consider the Lobster'.

    He talks about how, "Great athletes are stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination" - that'll be those wince-inducing, post-match chats then.

    He's also with you in suggesting that what actually goes through a great athlete's mind during one of those career-defining moments is 'nothing at all' and this is why they don't freeze or choke - like the rest of might...