Friday, November 8, 2013

Physical Creativity & Athletic Innovation

I have always loved the Fosbury flop. It made no sense, looked absurd and yet creates an amazing physical combination of torque and lift that revolutionized the high jump. Its creator Dick Fosbury stunned the world with this ungainly approach when his self-invented style helped him win an Olympic championship. Now every major elite competitor uses it. His contribution reminds us about the unique and under-appreciated aspects of physical creativity that pervades athletics. 

As in art, sports and athletes experiment and create  new possibilities for motion. Athletes push boundaries, experiment, try out new ways of doing actions and increase our understanding of the potential of our human physical and mental range.

The Fopsbury flop illustrates one of the unique aspects of creation in sport. A player or coach/player invent a new and unique body configuration that the sports world has not seen before. This body alignment achieves a purpose within the sport—it involves pure kinesthetic innovation. When it works other players can copy and adapt and deploy the same configuration. These kinesthetic innovations are replicable and adaptable by other players. This fits with Howard Gardener’s still controversial claim that bodily intelligence exists with its own dimensions of bod awareness, integrated perceptual, physical and emotional imagination and discipline.

I will emphasize this physical creativity and innovation. I am not talking about coaches who introduce new systems like “West Coast” offenses or “Triangle” or “Motion” offenses. Nor am I talking about the endless tweaks in games and techniques on the margins, rather I am aiming for the innovations, the actions of a person and that person’s body that reconceptualizes what the human body can do and how humans can achieve goals.

I also don’t want to talk about the unique singular achievements of physical genius that might reside in a extraordinary athlete or artist such as a dancer like Nijinsky. Too often these moves reside alone, singular and almost curious in their linkage to one person’s sole genius or moment in time. I also don’t want to talk about evolution of techniques and styles that go with “bigger, faster, stronger” athletes pushing boundaries of technique and adaptation.

Sometimes these moves might involve adaptation or discovery of possibilities in new technologies such as the rise of a two handed backhand—an absolutely unique and stunning technique tied to new racket design. Tennis style and innovation, for instance, has much less to do with kinesthetic innovation than adaptations to the technology of rackets such as today's fascination with top spin brought on by new stringing technologies. Bigger baseball mits might change how some fielders adapt. The world of golf has to be tightly regulated because it has been so susceptible to shaft, head and ball technologies that change the range and accuracy and focus of the game. 

I think you see the plethora of physical creation and innovation in games with the fewest technological intermediaries such as basketball and soccer. Gymnastics highlights the same dynamic more in the floor routines than in the more disciplined and constrained work. I once would have said that about swimming until shark skin laminar flow transformed the sport and forces strong regulation of its suites.

This physical and kinesthetic innovation is noticeable in established sports and gets proof of concept by its ability to spread through the system and have other athletes adopt it, practice it, customize it and extend it.

This creation does not come from nowhere. Elite athletes practice, prepare and refine skill. They study the style and technique of other athletes. Elite athletes push their bodies and test nutrition and exercise and conditioning. Good athletes  think about their sport, and often alone in the gym or field, they practice new “moves” or silly moves or just play and enjoy it; they may just stumble upon an new way to achieve a physical goal just by playing.

I think that American basketball of all the established sports generates more physical creativity and innovation than all the other major American sports combined. Partially this arises from the continuous upwelling from the “play” of the street where a culture of glory and one upsmanship pushes young athletes to experiment and demand more of their body. Latin American soccer generates similar impressive innovations in soccer styles. Young athletes aggressively seek to go where no one has gone before.

A couple examples suffice. Think of something as simple as the the one hand jump shot which in the nineteen fifties made an entire way of playing basketball obsolete inside three years. More recently, think of how the invention of the  crossover dribble freed up infinite possibilities of driving, It not only freed players but revolutionized offenses. These simple feel like the norm now, but at birth these creative, unique inventions lead to new ways of configuring a body against the norms. The cross over had been emerging and then Allen Iverson perfected its possibilities which spread to the entire game.

Julius Irving inaugurated a new way of seeing the airborne possibilities of a driver as well as how to perform around the basket. His style and innovative moves opened a huge range of angles and scoring unknown before. Michael Jordan would carry these experiments in flight, angle, body control and hang time to unimaginable heights that are now integrated into the life of every AAU players. 

This is what I mean about replicable. What Erving and Jordan accomplished did not remain just unique to them. Once their play changed the imaginations and possibilities for other players, their style permeated the game and two generations of players after them. Just as all the high jumpers use variants of the Fosbury Flop, today every player deploys the dribbles, jump shots and drive variations innovated by other players.  

In these cases, the players invented new body configurations. This was not an adaptation to new possibilities of a technology such as occurs in tennis or golf, it involves new ways to imagine and carry the human body in space achieving the goal of a sport.

Here I am most interested in innovations—creative reconfigurations of the body’s possibilities—that work. Fosbury won a gold medal and went on to a successful career. The jump shot proved far superior in release, range and adaptability than the two handed set. The cross over freed players and transformed offense possibilities. 

In baseball I can think of the head first slide as one questionable innovation. Not a lot occurs in most of baseball given its tight constraints. Pitchers, however, are glorious backyard inventors. They are always experimenting with hand grips and angles and speeds. Think of the first submarine pitcher, cutter or my favorite for baseball creativity, the glorious and improbably knuckleball.

The natural extension of bodily intelligence and creativity expresses itself through the invention of new sports. Again many experiments occur, most never get off the play ground, some become fads, but some grow and capture imaginations and talent and ultimately sponsors. The emergence of modern X sports and to my own mind snowboarding demonstrates this world of discovering bodily potential. 

Each meet literally introduces new convolutions and configurations as the sport invents itself and people push themselves and their boards to their limits before our eyes. Parcours, like basketball, grew from the street keeps expanding with little rime or reason. The world now sees it pilfered by movie sequences that adapt its techniques to create chase scenes and moves that no human could have imagined two decades ago.

Here lies the crux for me. Phyisical intelligence, like all types, offers the possibility of invention, creation, growth and imagination. Our sports, our lives and our horizons broaden thanks to them.