What watching sports has taught me about mental barriers, maintaining perspective, and eating hotdogs

“Reality TV” is the greatest misnomer of all time. We’re led to believe that the contestants on The Voice are truly novice singers picked up off the street with no professional background or training, or that those cooking in Master Chef always happen to finish their dishes exactly as the time runs out. We are spoon fed narratives and storylines which are supposed to be relatable on some level, because these storylines are acted out by people ‘just like ourselves’, and they arise from ostensibly non-contrived situations. In truth, there is nothing real about reality television.

However, there is a form of television which offers unadulterated, uninhibited and unfiltered reality. A form of television where you can watch drama unfold in real-time, where you can see the underdog prevail over an insurmountable challenge, and where even the most unexpected is possible, and in fact, probable. I am speaking, of course, of sports television.

I’ve been an avid sports watcher since as long as I can remember watching anything on television. I recall watching Roger Federer win his 5th straight Wimbledon in 2007 in a five-set thriller against Nadal, with my dad and mom sitting in my living room, cheering him on. I remember watching the 2016 NBA finals in my high school common room, a group of my closest friends by my side, palms sweaty and fists clenched as the Cleveland Cavaliers clawed their way back from a 3–1 deficit to claim the championship, doing what no team had done before them. And just last week, I attended the Rugby World Cup fanzone with several of my friends, and watched as Wales snatched a triumphant quarter finals victory from the jaws of defeat, much to the dismay of the numerous French fans gathered at the open-air venue in Central.

Watching these historic and truly dramatic moments unfold in real time have been some of my favourite personal experiences, but what these moments offer are more than entertainment and excitement. Often times, sports creates a microcosmic representation of the tribulations we run up against in our own personal lives. And it is during these times of personal challenge that we should look to sports, to see what wisdom they can afford us. I’m going to be sharing some of the greatest lessons I’ve gleaned from watching sports. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill platitudes like ‘never give up’ or ‘don’t underestimate your opponent’. Rather, these are lessons I believe humankind may not have had learned were they not first seen through the diorama of sporting competition.

They say your mind is your greatest obstacle. And whilst this is clearly true at some figurative level, sports has shown that this is true even against the most literal interpretation.

In the history of sports, there have been numerous ‘insurmountable’ challenges which have arisen; thresholds which no living human by any rights should be able to surpass. However, many of these thresholds have proven worthless. They are mere imaginings which have inhibited our own progress; figments of illusory limitations which limit what we are and are not able to achieve.

It was supposed to be impossible to run 100m in less than 10 seconds, until Jim Hines did it in 1968. It was supposed to be a physical absurdity that a man should run a mile in under 4 minutes, until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. And until this year, it was supposed to be rational sacrilege, an unmitigated affront to all reasonable physical expectations, for a human to run a marathon in under 2 hours, until Eliud Kipchoge had the audacity to prove otherwise.

What this shows is, yes, things may seem impossible until they are actually done. But more important than that, is that once we reconcile ourselves to the fact that a feat is actually within the realm of possibility, it becomes far easier to accomplish that said feat.

Since Roger Bannister first broke the 1-mile world record in 1954, over 1,400 individuals have ran a sub-4-minute, with even some elite high school kids accomplishing the same feat. The record now stands at 17 seconds below 4 minutes, a time which even Roger himself may have found preposterous. It is enticing to chalk this up to mere technological and physiological improvements: athletes now have access to better shoes, better tracks, better nutrition, better training, better science. But before any of that could have happened, this all started with the conviction that the accomplishment was indeed possible.

Similarly, Kipchoge’s sub-2 hour run wasn’t technically legal for the record books, as they delivered water to him via a cyclist, and had pacemakers who ran with him who took periodic shifts. Nonetheless, the object of this exercise wasn’t to set an official world record, but for Eliud to prove to himself that such a feat was, in fact, practicable. Perhaps next year, at the 2020 olympics, we will see the first official sub-2-hour marathon.

Indeed, related research has actually shown that if a person believes that they are capable of performing a higher number of pushups, then they in fact can perform a higher number of pushups, even after holding constant for physical factors. The takeaway here is that we should set seemingly unattainable goals for ourselves, for even if we never reach them, we may still take ourslves further than previously thought possible.

This next part of the article is going to require a bit of wilful suspension of disbelief on your part. Let us assume for a moment that speed eating constitutes a sporting event (because it’s really a coin-toss as to whether you would agree with such a statement).

Let me now introduce you to Takeru Kobayashi, known to his friends as Kobi. For his full time job, he eats hotdogs. He eats a lot of them, and very quickly. He also happens to be one of the very best at doing his job.

Back in 2001, the world record for eating hotdogs in 12 minutes was 25 and 1/8th hotdogs. Pretty impressive, considering how big a hotdog actually is, and how hard it is to swallow bread. Kobi is a small man, standing at 5'8" and weighing only 130 pounds. It’s hard to fathom a stomach of a man his size even holding that many hotdogs simultaneously. At his first hotdog eating contest at Coney Island in New York, Kobi did something unprecedented. He ate more hotdogs in 12 minutes than anyone before him. How many did he eat? 26? 27? 29? 30?!

No. At his first hotdog eating competition, Kobi consumed a ludicrous 50 hotdogs in 12 minutes. He had effectively doubled the preceding world record. That would be like a first time marathon runner coming out tomorrow and finishing a race in under an hour.

But the real question is: how did he accomplish this? Was he possessed with some inhuman oesophageal strength, or blessed with an inordinately expansive stomach? Was he taking illegal muscle relaxers, or did he have a preternaturally wide mouth? Or had he been, God forbid, cheating?

In fact, Kobi had destroyed the world record by reframing the challenge. He had observed many of the previous tournaments, looking for deficiencies in how competitors ate hotdogs, and searching for gaps he could exploit.

What he found was that it was massively inefficient to eat the sausage and bun of the hotdog simultaneously. Rather, he would consume only the sausages first, whilst dipping the buns into water (which you were allowed to do). He would then drain the water out of the bread and smush it all into his mouth. He now saved the time of having to drink water between bites, and also separated out the food into their different textures, making each part more efficient to chew and swallow.

What Kobi has shown is that sometimes addressing a challenge often requires a recalibration of our perspective. Sometimes, the real challenge is not coming up with a new answer, but asking the correct question. Instead of asking how he could eat more hotdogs, he contemplated how he could make a single hotdog easier to consume. Granted, this is a subtle shift in perspective, but it sufficed to grant him abilities so surreal that most thought he was cheating.

“The thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide, “I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me,” or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings is really great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves”

Takeru Kobayashi

As the final whistle of the 2015 Rugby World Cup Finals blew, and all the fans in the stadium wearing black erupted in unison, one man on the pitch wearing yellow heaved a sigh of disappointment. This man was David Pocock, the chiseled, intimidating man who played flanker for the Australian side which had just lost. His face was smeared with blood and sweat; remnants of the valiant effort he had just put forth.

But before he walked of the pitch, there was something he wanted to do. He walked over to the referee, Nigel Owens, and put his arm around him, and thanked him for the great match. Even in the face of his most painful defeat, he was able to countenance true sportsmanship. His humility here, even in the face of agony, is a reminder that sports are all just a game, lest we ever take them too seriously.

Self-taught data scientist and university student from Hong Kong, using data to tell stories and spread the truth

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