Our Town: The artistry of the great athlete

Our Town: The artistry of the great athlete
Tiffeny Milbrett, the soccer great, who like Pele and Marta, exemplified artistry and creativity, every time she played

When Wayne Gretzky was asked if he considered himself an artist, he said “Absolutely” and went on to say: “I was an entertainer, an artist and paid to win.” He, along with Pele, Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan were featured in the documentary film “In Search of Greatness,” which explored the unique secrets possessed by the truly great in sports.

The question of whether great athletes are artists is an interesting one. A big part of my life as a sport psychologist is spent observing and working with truly great athletes. When I watch Michael Jordan make a move under the basket, I think of Mikhail Baryshnikov on the dance floor. When I watch Buddy Marucci, the great amateur golfer, swing a club, I immediately hear the voice of Bing Crosby.

When you are face-to-face with truly transcendent athletes, there is no doubt that you are seeing artistry of the highest order. To be up close and personal with Tiger Woods as he practices hitting perfect two irons that travel about 250 yards and land like gentle butterflies is both shocking and mesmerizing. Or as Susan Sontag once said while watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance, “it is the blow of the sublime.”

The great athlete can captivate and hold the attention of an audience just as great artists do. I once was at a dinner club at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco with my son and we were lucky enough to meet and watch Wynton Marsalis and his band with their straight-ahead jazz. Up until then I knew nothing about jazz and honestly didn’t care for it much.

But watching him play was pure hypnotic magic. And this ability to capture attention and to hypnotize people is also something the great athletes do all the time. Wayne Gretzky was so good because he had the ability to hypnotically confuse the guys who tried to defend him. It takes a powerful mind to do this.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was pumping iron, he was the most successful body builder in the world, winning the Mr. Olympia trophy six years running. In the documentary “Pumping Iron,” he showed how he was able to captivate, confuse, discourage and eventually defeat Lou Ferrigno, his closest competitor. This is a man with utter control of his surroundings. Recently Gary Player, the golfing legend, was at my golf club and when I asked our assistant pro what Player was like, he told me “it was like he controlled the entire environment.”

Great athletes are great artists. Schwarzenegger took ballet lessons to learn how to move in a more compelling way when he was on stage and transitioning from one pose to the next. Great artists and great athletes both have an obsessive devotion to excellence and the ability to work nonstop.

My son was a set designer and once worked with Madonna. He told me that she was a pure workaholic and extremely demanding of all who were on her team. Tiger Woods’ fanatic perfectionism and work ethic is legendary.

Patrick Reed, who many say has the best hands and best short game in golf, was once asked by a TV interviewer what it feels like to have such natural talent. He responded: “Actually, anyone can have a natural and pure putting stroke. All it takes is practice six hours a day every day for about 10 years. And then puff, you have all the natural talent you want.”

I recently asked Gilad Bloom, former No. 1 ranked tennis player out of Israel and an accomplished jazz musician, whether athletes ought to be considered artists and he told me:  “Any sport that is played at the highest level is an art form. Just like any great piece of architecture is art and why a Lamborghini is art. But the big difference between art and sports is that in art there is no loser. In sport, at the end of every match there is one winner and one loser.”

And perhaps the greatest fusion of athleticism and art is exemplified by the warrior poet, Mohammed Ali. He was vicious in the ring but massively entertaining and witty outside the ring. Here is the poem he recited at a press conference before the fight with George Foreman, the fight that he was supposed to lose. It went like this:

“I’ve wrestled with alligators
I’ve tussled with a whale
I’ve handcuffed lightening
I’ve put thunder in jail.
You know that I’m bad
I’ve murdered a rock
I’ve injured a stone
And I’ve hospitalized a brick.
I’ve run through a hurricane
And did not get wet
And when George Foreman meets me
He will pay his debt!”

So, to the question of whether great athletes are artists, I rest my case.
Wayne Gretzky to Bing Crosby. Frank Sinatra to Michael Jordan. Jerry Rice to Bruno Mars. Pele to Baryshnikov. All these are warrior poets who worked very hard, had an unrelenting passion to win, had God-given talent, a little bit of luck and support, and somehow managed to transform their entire fields. And aren’t we the lucky ones to be here to see it?

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