Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, played as the starting number ten for the German national football team when he was only eighteen years old! He wanted to play rugby but, unlike Great Britain, France and Italy, Germans have always turned their noses up at such barbaric pastimes as “rugga.” Fred, therefor, never got the chance to live out his burning desire to play in the front row for Deutchland in the game they play in heaven. “Nietch”, as his soccer mates called him, also wanted to play basketball, but he was pretty much on his death bed before the game started to take off in universities around the world, so soccer was pretty much it.
My contentions about Fred’s sporting interests and prowess may be exaggerated but the similarities in his philosophical thinking and the approach of future great athletes is not!
What do philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, Chicago Bulls basketballer, Michael Jordan, Floridian champion surfer, Kelly Slater, and Australian football (soccer) guru, Ange Postecoglou have in common? Quite a lot.
If you want to find out what it takes to be a great basketballer, or footballer, or cricketer or athlete of any sport, take a close look at how Michael Jordan became great. Even better, look at this passage by Friedrich Nietzsche describing how to become a great novelist. It describes the “Jordan” approach perfectly.
What Fred taught Michael Jordan
“The recipe for becoming a good novelist, for example is easy to give but to carry it out presupposes qualities one is accustomed to overlook when one says ‘I do not have enough talent’. One has only to make a hundred or so sketches for novels, none longer than two pages but of such distinctness that every word in them is necessary; one should write down anecdotes each day until one has learned how to give them the most pregnant and effective form; one should be tireless in collecting and describing human types and characters; one should above all relate things to others and listen to others relate, keeping one’s eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present, one should travel like a landscape painter or costume designer; one should excerpt for oneself out of the individual sciences everything that will produce an artistic effect when it is well described, one should, finally, reflect on the motives of human actions, disdain no signpost to instruction about them and be a collector of these things by day and night. One should continue in this many-sided exercise some ten years: what is then created in the workshop, however, will be fit to go out into the world.”
Nietzsche tells us to not whine about not being talented enough because, he argues, lack of talent is rarely the problem. The qualities most required of the good novelist are the willingness to apply ones-self to a long, difficult and painstaking process and continue applying these same processes over many years and then what has been “created in the workshop, however, will be fit to go out into the world.” In his own erudite style, Nietzsche is telling us that we must be willing to work out arses off… and then work our arses off more! Not just work your arses off, and work your arses off some more… but keep on working your arses off until the very end of your career. That’s pretty much what Mike did.
Michael Jordan was once cut from his sophomore high school basketball team for not being good enough. Young Mike made up his mind then that he was never going to be accused of not being good enough again. At that moment was born one of the most single-minded, determined and hard-working athletes of all time. There was simply nothing that Mike wouldn’t do to ensure that every aspect of his game was as good as it could be. While Jordan is mostly remembered for his offensive genius and mercurial scoring it’s easy to forget that he was selected in the NBA All Defensive team year after year and is considered, by experts, one of the greatest defensive guards of all time. There was no aspect of his game that Mike didn’t work his arse off at. Sure, Mike had plenty of talent – but so did thousands of other high school kids he played against. Few of his opponents worked anywhere near as hard as Mike did at covering all those processes and details of becoming great… just as Nietzsche had recommended to hopeful novelists.
Kelly learned a lot from Fred, too
One of the things that really pisses the world’s greatest ever surfer off is being told that he is lucky to be born with such extraordinary talent. Kelly Slater has heard this accusation many times. Yeah. Lucky, he thinks. Lucky to have to slave away in teeny on-shore wind-blown Floridian surf, hour after hour, week after week, month after month, year after year perfecting every turn, perfecting floaters, perfecting aerials, going left, going right, working on my tube-riding, my paddling, maximising my fitness, working on strength and flexibility in the gym and working obsessively on hundreds of other details so that I could look like I am talented. Nietzsche had things to say on this very subject.
“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole”
Nietzsche argues that “giftedness” is about workmanship. Talent has little to do with it. Inside the genius is the dedicated trades person who gives honour to every detail of their craft and takes pleasure working, over time, to achieve quality results in every tiny aspect of their trade. Only when the most minute aspects of a job are performed to near perfection can the “dazzling whole” of the job be appreciated. It’s not hard to see aspects of Slater’s surfing performances over the years in the work of ancient Greek Corinthian architects and builders, finely crafted furniture and cabinets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in the finest ceramics created throughout the history of Japan and China!
No way Ange could coach without Nietzsche
Nietzsche also has a lot in common with Ange Postecoglou. One of the key themes that crops up in both the Nietzsche quotes is that of time. “They allowed themselves time,” he says in explaining the process of how ordinary people can acquire genius. “One should continue in this many-sided exercise some ten years,” Nietzsche explains as part of his recipe for writing a good novel.
I recently had a conversation with Ange Postecoglou. During the conversation, I asked him what was the one thing that he would like to tell young people who crave a sporting career. His response was “Time! Don’t get too caught up in worrying about time!” His point was that some people have a career break-through early in life but, for most, it takes a long time to get it all together, to get noticed and then, finally, to be given a break. His message to youngsters is not to push it. Don’t worry if nothing seems to be happening. Take your time. Make sure you do everything that needs to be done (because there is so much that needs to be done) and then patiently wait for your opportunity to shine. In some people’s cases, there is a long wait, but with diligence, dedication and patience great things can still happen even very late. So, just don’t worry. Don’t rush! Ange believes that with patience and hard work good things can happen whether it is late or early in an athlete’s career. Check out Postecoglou’s teams. They are usually full of both experienced and young players.
Whether Nietzsche was as good a soccer player as I painted him to be or not the philosophical principles he espoused in terms of achieving greatness apply just as much to soccer, basketball, rugby or water polo as they do to writing a great philosophical novel. Old Nietch and Mike and Ange and Slater indeed have a lot in common. Follow their examples and greatness is possible. Just one thing, though. Be patient!