Sports champions – the things they do just to keep us entertained.
Many of the billions of people who watch sport throughout the year are in great shape, maybe sportspeople themselves. Many others not so much and struggle to put their socks on without sitting down. Who cares?
People who love to watch sport do so because they know the athletes are not only amazingly skilled but (with the respectful exception of darts players) have also made ridiculous sacrifices. Sacrifices which we’ve all heard about before – up at dawn, oatmeal for dinner…blah, blah, blah.
Things that we wouldn’t dream of doing. Mainly because getting drunk every weekend, eating potato chips whenever you want and holding down a bearable job isn’t the worst way to live.
We marvel at our heroes and maybe even indulge the thought, I could probably do that if I’d just knuckled down and trained hard…munch, munch, glug, glug.
What the champs actually go through to keep the masses entertained is a little more than rising at dawn and the odd ice bath. Much more.
We’ll start at the sexier sports and work our way down.
You might think that sumo involves overfed men in loin cloths slapping each other around and you’d be right. But it’s the daily training rigors and unique diet that make this ancient sport beguiling.
Sumo is only practiced professionally in Japan and over recent years has attracted a number of overseas wrestlers, especially from Mongolia and the Ukraine.
How do they get so huge? We might imagine them to feast on Wagyu beef drenched in butter 24/7, but incredibly they only eat twice a day. With no breakfast.
If you’re a sumo, a typical day means hauling your ample backside out of bed at 4am for some intense sparring with other wrestlers in the “stable”. Livestock get breakfast though, sumo don’t. No banana, no protein shake, zilch.
There’s a clear method to this madness. By skipping breakfast the metabolism slows down. The body needs to conserve energy and stores calories as fat until the next meal. When the next meal comes along the temptation to pig out is hard to resist.
Sumo wrestlers (and many non-sumo) don’t / can’t resist.
Sumo don’t eat any old thing. They generally stick to a traditional dish known as chanko nabe which could be translated as “stew with everything”.
Chanko nabe doesn’t seem to leave much out – chicken, pork, beef, noodles, eggs, vegetables and of course a dash of salt. Plus bowl after bowl of rice, if they still have room, which they do.
This is wolfed down twice a day. The first feast is at 11am and the next later in the afternoon. By only eating two massive meals a day, the wrestlers ensure their metabolism slows down enough to continue storing calories.
Stored calories mean heavier humans, which means sumo glory.
Worth it? Possibly, if you’re at the top of the heap. Champion wrestlers can earn around $USD 50,000 a month however sumo popularity has waned, resulting in declining salaries. All you can eat for 10 years but you might want to look at salads and daily walks after retirement.
Serena Williams is as good a place to start as anyone. The greatest woman player of her era and only behind Margaret Court for most grand slams won.
Renowned for her muscularity and power plus the ability to hit a tennis ball really well, Serena has put in the hours.
Her father Richard decided to mold Serena and sister Venus into tennis champs after he saw a woman on TV pocket 40 grand after only making it to the fourth round. He choked on his coffee and the next day Serena and Venus were on the courts, aged 3 and 4.
Serena realized that as crucial as mastering her shots and serve was, fitness would be where she could have an edge.
She practiced hitting drills in sandpits to make her lighter on her feet. It worked. She and Venus hit tennis balls with baseball bats to build strength and timing. Tick.
Typical major matches last around 2 hours, so Serena started training for 4 hour games. The extra juice in the tank late in games saw her opponents begging for mercy.
Worth it? Definitely. No Cabbage Patch kids for Serena as a girl but the glory, fame, mansions and no need to work again make up for it.
NFL / RUGBY LEAGUE / AFL
If you’ve ever wondered what a G force 10 collision feels like – and who hasn’t – you could try 2 things.
First, just jump in your car (seatbelt on) and drive it 50 km/h into a wall. Or simply jog onto an NFL, NRL or AFL field and join in the fun.
An average tackle in an NFL game has the same force as a car crash ranging from 30 – 50 km/h, depending on who’s doing the hitting.
If you’re hesitant to take part in one of these codes but still want the impact experience of a real game then you’d have to reverse your car and crash into the wall another 20 or so times.
The repercussions of concussions suffered after mistimed tackles has led major football codes to enforce tighter rules.
A cynic might say this has as much to do with avoiding lawsuits as it does with concern over player welfare.
Whatever the case, contact sports are ratings winners and fans thrill at the whacks and thuds.
Worth it? Possibly, as long as you keep your brain active – crosswords, Family Feud, whatever it takes. Evidence is still sketchy but if some experts are to be believed then 10 years of regular collisions can take its mental toll later on.
For a physical and mental battering, swimming is hard to beat.
First, there’s the training volume. Depending on the event you’ll be swimming twice a day from anywhere between 5 – 7km. Michael Phelps averaged 8km a day at his peak.
In between there’s a cheery gym session followed by mass eating and watching TV like a zombie. Early to bed, absolutely exhausted and dreaming of laps.
Then there’s the loneliness. At least with other sports you can talk or even grunt to someone. Marathons are famously solitary but there is a view to take in. In the pool it’s just staring down, black line after black line, up and down…ARRRGGHHH!
Some swimmers snap and have monumental bender and after bender or simply quit the sport, graze on KFC and never set foot near chlorine again.
Worth it? Probably not. The meagre earnings don’t justify the hard slog. Breaking records and having the heart of a blue whale is all well and good but swimmer careers tend to wind up in their 20’s. Enjoy it and plan ahead.
GOLF / BASKETBALL
Most sports have their pressure moments when the onus is on to not stuff it up. Simple plays can be over-thought and fluffed. Tennis serves, football penalty kicks, hitting the dart board after 8 pints of lager.
Golfers and basketballers have to be able to nail their putts and free throws. Simple plays that can be huge if they get it right. Or wrong.
However, the mind games can take over and the balls don’t go in. Polite gasps from polite golf fans, shrieks of joy or disgust from the hoop crowd.
Michael Jordan’s philosophy was simple. Practice so much so that when the crunch time actually comes, the action was completely natural. No thought process or imagery was required as he’d made the shot literally thousands of times at practice.
South Korean women golfers have dominated the world stage of late and have shown a refreshingly upbeat take on the sport.
World number 1 Ko Young Jin loves golf for allowing her to be creative and describing it as “an art”.
Jin Young’s cool head in the big games is attributed to her mental toughness but she prefers to think of it as mental clarity. She trains herself to expect the odd mistake and when they come (rarely) she deals with it and moves on.
The logic is instead of aiming for a perfect game and dreading a mistake, it’s better to expect down periods in a game. This makes pressure situations far easier to deal with and keeps Jin Young level headed.
She spends hours visualizing such moments when she could be doing anything else. Coffee with friends, painting sea shells, staring into space – anything.
Worth it? Er, yes.
We don’t have to like every professional athlete out there. In fact, part of the fun is taking an intense dislike to some of them, usually because they’re good.
Just be thankful of their obsessive nature to be the best. After all, they give us perfect excuses to go to the pub, act like buffoons and waste away hours of our weekends.
Besides, what else would we talk to our friends or strangers about?