Tuesday, June 06, 2006

We're Just Talkin' About Practice

This weekend will be devoted to a high-powered society wedding in my old home town. My oldest niece is getting hitched. Part of the gala festivities will be some friendly, cutthroat golf with total strangers over an extremely tough track designed by Robert Trent Jones at his most bloody-minded.

So this 20-25 handicapper hit the driving range before lunch. As always, the local range just off Route 2 was jammed, a sea of humanity with questionable backswings. What a splendid business owning a driving range must be. It's a low-overhead, high-volume business where the only capital expenditures are some rubber mats, the armored machine that picks up the balls, and some old golf balls. It's an all-cash business, too. During the winter you could launder drug money. Who's to know?

What's most striking about driving ranges, and practice tees, and putting greens, all of which are crowded every New England day it's not actually snowing, is their very popularity. People pay money to practice golf. They love to practice golf. There are millions of Americans whose only participation in the game is hitting buckets of balls on the range. These folks practice a sport and never play it, yet remain perfectly happy. In their minds, they're golfers, too. And they are, of a sort.

Golf practice is fun. Folks marvel at the psycho practice habits of Vijay Singh without grasping the simplest reason he keeps it up 7 hours a day. It's the only time Laugh-A-Minute Veej enjoys himself.

Like golf, tennis is a wonderful game. But its players' attitudes towards practice could not be more different. The backboard, tennis' equivalent to the driving range, is almost always deserted at every set of courts and rightly so. There are few more soul-crushing experience in sports than whacking tennis balls off the backboard. Players who've just undergone a bitter divorce would rather take the court with their ex's instead.

People are forever attempting to lump different games into different categories of experience. Perhaps we should examine each sport by whether or not practice is a joy, a drag, or something in between.

By and large, the sports where participants love to practice can be practiced alone, or at least can be practiced alone in some significant way. The ones where practice is loathed cannot.

The 162 game major league baseball season is an arduous mental grind. The most jaded player, however, eagerly submits to the pointless routine of an hour to 9o minutes of pregame practice. A team can be 25 games out of first facing a doubleheader in St. Louis in August, but from the lowliest scrubeenie to the All-Star, they'll all rush to take their cuts in batting practice, and fight to make sure they get each and every swing.

This isn't surprising. The basic acts of the game, namely, throwing, catching, and hitting the ball, are profound sensual pleasures. Anybody bored enough to pass up the chance to jack one over the outfield wall may have ceased breathing.

While the title of this essay is Allen Iverson's famous denunciation of practice as an insititution, the fact is players love practicing that game, too. During the prime seasons of his UCLA dynasty, John Wooden punished players for team rules violations by keeping them out of practices instead of games.

OK. that was a special case, the average UCLA intersquad first-to-21 duel in those days being the functional national championship game. But basketball's most basic act, shooting, is a solitary pleasure, too.

"I was drawn to basketball," Jerry West once said, "because it was a game you could play alone."

(In this regard, soccer and basketball are twins. Perhaps that's why they're the only games with a true worldwide participant base.

Football practice sucks. It is essential, unenjoyable toil. Even Bill Belichick has admitted as much. Game Day is exhilarating, but most preparation time is spent either in heavy lifting in the weight room or in meetings. Thus, football incorporates the worst elements of both blue and white collar employment. Good coaches like Belichick spend as much time plotting to alleviate the drudgery of practice as they do game planning, with limited success.

Strictly speaking, auto racing doesn't even HAVE practice. Drivers are just as likely to die on the track running a solo tune up as in competition. At 150 mph plus, it's all one.

Fulfilling practices don't necessarily make a game better to play than one without them. Football crams A LOT of inner satisfaction into the chaos of a 60 minute game. But human nature being what it is, the sports where practice makes pleasure as well as perfect are likely to recruit and hold more participants than their Calvinist sweat peers.

On a nice day, Lexington's driving range, is, as noted, always full of hackers. The outdoor basketball courts in the town rec complex are just as occupied, as is the skateboard park and the various hard and softball diamonds.

The nearby municipal tennis courts.... not so much.


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