How Art makes you a Better Athlete

Edgar Chaparro, San Francisco, United States

Okay, I admit it. I am a sports addict, and I have been my entire life. Besides playing football at a decent level, I must have entered any sport competition along the way — including the dreaded distance of an Ironman.

Yet, while hustling from one competition to the next, I have encountered a recent devotion to art. One that I believe has changed my outlook on sports and performance as an athlete.

At first, you may dispute that sports and art have anything in common. You would further argue that a Manchester United supporter is likely not a frequent museum visitor. Believe it or not, I even have different friend circles, one for sport and my training, and another one for art and rather creative undertakings. Yet, I came to realize that there are secret similarities. Actually, the appreciation of one advances the appetite for the other.

Let me explain.

Flexible in its beauty, but decisive in its aesthetic.

Perhaps the plainest distinction is that sports is about winning and competition. Art, on the contrary, is natural in its beauty. Without going further into the philosophical debate whether sport is art or vice versa, let’s find the compromise that both sports and art, are flexible in its beauty but decisive in its aesthetic.

The status of aesthetics in contemporary art is more detectible than in modern sports. To elaborate, in sports, the celebration of the athlete’s body, the strive to fashionable performance wear, or the perfection of major sports events should embrace aesthetics. Although in the last decades, we have seen an unconscious influx of art into the sports world, I would assess this entry as rather mild. I would even go as far as claiming that art should be involved in all ‘off-field’ settings such as marketing, logos, mascots, or medals. In fact, even newly constructed stadiums or sports complex should strike to be art like erections. Brands such as Adidas must restart appointing artists (exp. Pharrell x Adidas) to ‘design’ their sports apparel. Sport’s commercialization since the 80s has indeed increased its overall beauty, but it hasn’t adequately opened its doors to the world of art. ‘If sports and art both breath aesthetics, why are the communities not closing the gap to value and engage each other on a deeper level? Why is the football fan contrasting the art connoisseur? And hypothetically, how would a world at the intersection of sports and art look?’

I cannot visualize the potential of a sport-art merger. However, if sports do not embrace art, it will lose its influence entirely. Youth sports participation is depressing. In particularly the USA, the Atlantic reported a 4.5% decrease in team sports for the year 2017 and roughly 20% for Baseball since 2008. Sure, this may be due to the technological temptations, but I would also argue that it’s because of a lack of aesthetic stimulus in sport. For sports to continue moving millions of people, it will need to accelerate its effort and incorporate aesthetics, artistic ideas, and creativity. In short, sports must accept the decisiveness of beauty in the current time.

Simulate the body and the mind.

This is not a new impulse. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, was an artist. Coubertin designed the Olympic rings himself and won a poetry competition in 1912. Muhammed Ali used to paint, as did Pele. The overlaps exist but are often kept underground. A more candid example is the implementation of Ballet for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL team argues that the application of such a performance art not only enhances speed, flexibility, and focus but challenges them intellectually. Sports unquestionably requires the use of the body, but only if the mind is tested, it truly reaches its pinnacle and can be considered a form of art. Examples of such a pinnacle range from an Olympic ice-skating performance to the completion of an Ironman distance. Both require the use of the body and the mind in its own means. Ironman training certainly exercises the body, but only by finding extraordinary ways to train your mind, one can achieve the full distance. The practice of the mind for an ice-skater may be more resourceful as it certainly requires creative stimuli to repeat performance. The interconnection of the body and the mind is an elastic one but must be further integrated — sometimes even through bizarre ideas. As in art, it was often an odd idea that turned out to become the masterpieces. The earlier illustration of American Football and Ballet should become the new norm.

Such ideas should not only affect athletes but all levels of sport. So, what about the top of the sports pyramid? Do sports heads show art interest? After evaluating the current sports leaders, I find infrequent artistic creativity. In fact, most sports leaders originate from the specific sport they’re now overseeing. The executive team of Bayern Munich, which is hovered by former players, is a common standard. Their backgrounds are parallel to their colleagues, which breeds fewer innovations and, in extreme cases, a tunnel vision. We have been preaching diversity for decades and come a long way regarding gender and sexuality. Nevertheless, this is about cultural diversity. Or perhaps I would like to call it artistic diversity, which consequently is non-existing in many sport management departments. I could herewith circle back to the lack of innovative sports marketing that reduces the momentum of sport participation among teenagers. In its place, I will instead focus on the bigger picture and clue from Simon Sinek’s book ‘The Infinite Game.’ Sports is habitually a ‘finite game, like football or chess, the players are known, the rules are fixed, and the endpoint is clear. The winners and losers are easily identified.’ Art, on the other hand, has been playing an infinite game. ‘In infinite games, there is no defined endpoint. The leaders who embrace an infinite mindset, in stark contrast, build stronger, more innovative, more inspiring organizations. Their people trust each other and their leaders. They have the resilience to thrive in an ever-changing world, while their competitors fall by the wayside. Ultimately, they are the ones who lead the rest of us into the future. Simon now believes that the ability to adopt an infinite mindset is a prerequisite for any leader who aspires to leave their organization in better shape than they found it.’

Often simple financial goals, short-term objectives, and the cited ‘finite game’ drive sports to bankruptcy or social losses. Sport’s winning mentality, which puts so much pressure on athletes and executives, is overpowering. Contrary, art’s grand outlook frees its followers. Art tolerates and, in fact, encourages an infinite game. Where art is repeatedly called eternal and timeless, sports remain within its boundaries.

A Universal Language.

An art collector once told me: ‘Art is about how difficult it is to reproduce, but how simple it is to understand.’ I believe these to be core characteristics of a universal language — one that sport must foster. A universal language crosses lingos, cultures, and generations. Native American art is impossible to reproduce but understood by everyone who comprehends its history. In sports, American Football is mutually understood; still, Tom Brady’s Superbowl touchdown pass is almost impossible to imitate. Christo’s art is so distinct yet clearly recognized anywhere around the world. The hint is, like art, the rules of sports are meant to be straightforward and consistent, but we tend to complicate them. Over time, Soccer, an honest team sport has become a game with now five referees, one of them being virtually. Too, female Olympic athletes could soon undergo a testosterone test to merely qualify to compete in races.

Especially when examining abstract art, it is the austerity and ease that we value. Often, we are drawn into a simplified world — egoless and pure. Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, or Jackson Pollock’s are worthy examples. So, for sports to remain a universal language, it must conserve its simplicity. From such a minimalistic position, leave it to the Tom Bradys, Serena Williams, and Michael Jordans, to create the unimaginable art within sports. Their performances may be understood by the world of sports, but often considered as unrepeatably or nearly impossible.

Sports and art are two of the most essential getaways in our lives. They are external cosmos that allow us to leave our homes and workplaces to experience something unrelated — separate to our daily lifecycle. The option to escape daily life through sports and art is what keeps us well balanced. Yet, we hardly combine these two personally or within our communities.

For my love of sports and in order to grow it, it’s necessary to expand its horizon. Personally, I have taken action to widen my perspective on different types of sports or forms of art. While endless distractions diminish our calling to sports, we must find new ways to engage it. We must be creative in our training methods as well as our leadership styles. Sports, each and every type must uphold a universal language, understandable and available for all — therefore precisely what art shows us.

Two friends, master students and sport aficionados, thinking outside the box.