Alone in the Zone


August 10, 2012

By Doug Glanville

I have been trying to imagine how I would have felt if, after having performed at a level that made me the best in the world, I only then learned from my parents that my grandparents were dead and my mother had cancer. The news last week that the multiple gold medals of the Chinese diver Wu Minxia had, in a way, come at a price made me think about the tug of war between the hyper-focus required to excel and the yearning for connection. That tension often makes athletes feel as if these forces are mutually exclusive or, at the very least, that they linger in the realm of the imbalanced and unhealthy. Death, it would appear, is inconvenient.

I suppose it is the parental thing to do, protecting your young that way. I can see steering a conversation or two to keep my children from dealing with an uncomfortable situation, though it’s harder to imagine shielding them from something so permanent. Athletes know all too well what it means when the buzzer sounds or the final whistle blows. And in the Olympics, there isn’t a tomorrow. At least not for another four years … if you can make it back.

High-powered athletes have had this problem since the dawn of time. Couched as focus, their approach often depends on a near-ascetic emotional state. I played nearly 15 seasons of professional baseball, and games came at me as often as I brushed my teeth. What was needed to be the best, every day, in public, on a timetable, lent itself to selfishness when it came to time and emotional energy for others.

It may not have been my choice to miss a wedding or a funeral, but my dream profession was also a black hole; once you’re in its gravitational pull, everyone around you must respect that you are indeed trapped in paradise. Soon, no one even questions it.

I remember when my aunt called me sheepishly once to ask for help with her computer. I had the time, but she tiptoed apologetically, uncertain about whether I had to go somewhere, whether maybe an autograph was needed from me, or the TV camera was on, or the first pitch just minutes away. To others, I seemed unavailable, even when I was available.

So is this what it takes to succeed at a certain level? We are stunned by what Wu Minxia’s parents did — how can you not tell someone her grandparents have been gone for over a year? How can you hide cancer from your child for eight years? She’s won her gold medals, her nation is happy. But what might she end up feeling if and when she reflects on what she had to give up? Worse yet, if she realizes that she was not given the chance to make that decision?

I get it. I get why the attitude of her parents exists, as disturbing as it may seem. As her father said, “She does not belong to us.” They decided (or maybe they didn’t really have a choice) that it would have been a burden and a distraction to her to deliver such news. Counter-patriotic. She would have been unnecessarily upset, unnecessarily unfocused, and as a result might have failed, and her failure would have been a nation’s failure. This is emotional forecasting at its finest, something parents do all the time. It’s the same as when I think that my son doesn’t really want to pick up that toy because he might break it, and if he breaks it he will not understand. If I stop that scene before it even starts, he avoids disappointment, but at the expense of growth.

I recall one spring training when I was fighting to make the Chicago Cubs and the incumbent center fielder was my barrier to everyday major league opportunity. He was struggling. He eventually declared — to the press — that he needed to send his wife home. She was a distraction, she made the tunnel vision he felt he needed impossible. Because when athletes go home, they actually have to have conversations, most of which are not about how to prepare for the next pitcher, or where to meet a teammate to unwind, or what time to arrive for “early work” to get your bunting straight.

Being responsible for another person’s emotions can become too much after years in a zone of solitude. Relationship doom is around the corner when its quality becomes based on a box score or a medal count. That fight you had with your spouse about your son’s grades could push your emotions to sail off track when you’re standing in that batter’s box or at that foul line.

Can a pitcher make his best pitch against an all-star lineup after fielding a call before the game and learning that his aunt just passed away? Can a shortstop have those soft hands he needs after his wife fainted at home from pregnancy-related health issues? Or, in my case, can a starting center fielder face the best pitcher of his era — Randy Johnson — after finding out that his father might never recover from his stroke? Maybe, but it isn’t as easy. Heading for that island is more of a sure thing.

Time and time again I saw how players left teams for personal reasons. Marital stress, family concerns, illness, birth. In other words, normal life … except that it’s not normal to someone who has by design trained away from everyday life. No matter what the job — from politician to litigator to actor to software company rep — being one-dimensional is often seen as a necessary step for advancement, even if it can leave your family on the side of the road.

I remember a line from the movie “Hitch.” The Will Smith character, an ultimate expert and adviser on love and matchmaking, says to the Eva Mendes character, an ambitious gossip columnist, “I think it is so great that you are good at your job. I am just a little worried as to why.”

Yet when athletes dig deep enough, they may find relationships that guide them and push them to give everything they have to give. The motivation could simply be for someone’s approval or love. Or it could be in spite of someone — the naysayer who said they could never do it, or the abusive motivator. Relationships are central to that drive even when it appears that you have to be emotionally and maybe even physically detached from others to succeed.

It was during the last spring training series before the 2000 season that my mother first called me with news about my father’s stroke. That did not help my swing, it did not help my batting average, but I wanted to know. In fact, I expected to know and do something about it. I wanted that opportunity. I also understood, for the first time in a long time, that not everything was all about the game. (And when the world is gunning for your job, that is also scary to realize.)

Even so, I think it’s better to know. You might find out that you have a new and even better reason for having sacrificed so much to do what you do. I wasn’t the same player after that call in 2000, but I did feel like a better son, and that lesson was perpetual; my career, and the statistics that defined it, were only blips in time, no matter how memorable they were to me.

We would like to think that the work we’re engaged in — whether it’s winning gold medals or playing professional baseball or working the late hours at a law firm — is a noble cause. We have given up “everything” to be there, almost literally in some cases. But in the end, it is relationships — whether embraced or pushed aside — that helped get us there. Even those that faded into the background with love, where one person is left figuring out how to fix her computer, and the other how to hit that curveball.

Republished from The New York Times


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