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Tom Wallisch vs Me or Kobe Bryant vs Me: Where’s the Bigger Gap in Skill?

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GREGG
BLANCHARD
       

A couple months ago I wrote about what I’m starting to call “the gap” in skiing: the different between a beginner (or even intermediate) skier and the best of the best. The concept that after a week playing football, I can feel more like a pro than I could after a decade of skiing. I said it like this:

“A beginner, on his/her first day, could probably make a few three pointers and shots from the exact same spots on the court as the pros. In other words, the gap between a LeBron and a Newb doesn’t feel all that wide to the participant…but as a pretty good snowboarder, there isn’t a single feature on the [XGames] slopestyle course I’d dare hit. Not one. The gap between what pros and amateurs do isn’t just big, it’s massive.”

I grew up playing a lot of sports. I still play, and follow, most of them. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to illustrate what I mean when I talk about this gap. After browsing some headlines over the weekend, I realized I may have a way.

Take a gander at the top 5 headlines screenshots from 5 different sports on ESPN.com:

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gap4

gap3

gap2

gap1

I’ve often described myself as “okay at a lot of sports, not great at one.” But even with my mediocre skills on the count, field, or links, how hard is it for me to feel like I’m a pro? Not one of those glamour shots that the producers of ESPN put up in lights is beyond my ability level. Whether it’s Blake Griffin driving by Kobe, or Steve Cherundolo sprinting into the box, if you had game tape of all my sporting adventures, you could probably pick out 100 frames that look very similar to those.

With a little money and a bit of practice, I can look and feel like a pro. And then there’s skiing. Here’s the screenshot of the freeskiing headline on ESPN:

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Double cork over an 80′ jump. Nearly 20 years into my skiing “career”, I doubt I could find a single frame on my “highlight reel” that would look anything like that on even a 1/4 scale.

The gap doesn’t just exist, it’s getting all the headlines. If the X Games gets people excited to try skiing but two decades of turns doesn’t even put you on the same court as the pros, it makes me question how that impacts the ability to keep people in our sport?



  • Amen!

  • jj

    I don’t think the gap between elite and average is any bigger in skiing than many other sports. Ever see a pro golf tournament live? Those guys are using 8 irons where we’d use 5 woods! Their shots take off like a rocket. In fact, the ratio of people who participate in skiing vs. only watch it on TV is probably better than for many sports. For better or worse, ours is more of a participatory sport than a spectator sport, at least in the US. Keeping people in our sport is about making costs and logistics more manageable.

    • JJ, thanks for the comment, but I think golf is actually a great example that supports my point. Your 8-iron vs 5-wood comparison is exactly what I’m getting at: we can both reach the green from 195. In the first golf tournament I played in as a kid, my playing partner teed off with a wedge on the first par 3 – I hit a 5 iron. But I beat him by 10 strokes.

      Golf even has a handicapping system so we can play “against” pros and be competitive. Tiger can hit a 20′ put, so can you. Phil can stick a flop shot 3′ from the cup from 60 yards and so can you. Heck, you wind up and thump a drive and you can put one 300 yards down the fairway with a little luck. Almost everything those guys do can be imitated by an amateur golfer.

      In one run in X-Games pipe or slope, Torstein Horgmo does tricks so far above my 20-year snowboarding level I can’t even comprehend it. I can’t get lucky and imitate it. No matter how much luck we have, we’re I’ll never look anything like the pros and that’s what I’m getting at.

  • You make some great points, Gregg. Those pictures aren’t really on the same scale though. Had the Griffin shot been one of Blake destroying the rim after that drive, the viewer would think twice about whether they could ever achieve that. Comparatively, had the skiing shot been of him on his run-in to the jump, any novice could “see” themselves doing that. I just think we need to keep the entire sequence in mind, not just one still shot.
    I think the gap between beginners and pros is much larger than most people even tend to think about. I’ve played basketball, and been totally outclassed, against D1 guys who wouldn’t even step on the court in the NBA summer league. There are 12th men waiving towels in the NBA who would dominate at the college level.
    What is amazing with skiing and snowboarding is that the talent seems to be getting younger and younger. I think that’s really where the difference is. Professional soccer, football, basketball…you name it…guys peak in their mid to late 20’s. The X-Games is filled with teenagers now.

    • Dash, thanks for the comments and great points. I guess I’d respond with three points as well.

      First, remember the fact that the editors could have chosen the photos of the run in of Blake destroying the rim, but didn’t. It is how it looks and feels, but it’s also what gets the attention and headlines. I’d make the same point if the headline was Blake posterizing someone. The fact that him driving to the basket gets on the front page makes the gap even wider. The run in doesn’t get the headlines for XGames because editors probably consider that on par with the skier putting on his books. It’s the highlight reels – the triple corks, the 1440s, the buzzer-beaters, the power dunks – that we remember and want to emulate.

      Second, it’s not a matter of being able to competing against the pros, it’s a matter of feeling like the pros. In other words, feeling like your good and the satisfaction that comes from that.

      Third, you’re forgetting that many people can, and do, devastate the rim ever day (http://twitpic.com/cot5hf). A huge number of driveway hoops lower to 6′. I had dunk contests with my friends (of course, we’d emulate MJ at the time) when we were 10 years old. Even if you lower it to 9′, half the amateur players in the country could start posterizing each other.

      Skiing’s pinnacles are hard to emulate and the highest point above the ground typically gets the headlines. From what I’ve seen, it leads to people being drawn in by something they’ll never even come close to experiencing in real life.

      • Well said. Don’t get me wrong. I see the gap you are referring to and it’s a tremendous one. Probably one of the more physically dangerous ones as well.
        In terms of emulation, you’re absolutely right, there are ways (lowering the rim) to make yourself feel like a pro in some sports that doesn’t exist in snow sports.
        The point I was getting at was more along the lines of, Michael Jordan won a dunk contest by dunking from the foul line. Lower the rim all you want, your average guy isn’t making that dunk. Brent Barry also won a dunk contest…with the same dunk. But Brent was never going to be Michael. Not even close. So there was a huge gap there as well.
        The gap is big, no matter the sport. Bigger than most care to admit. We can only hope that people know how to manage expectations when out on the slopes.

        • Great points, Dash, and like you pointed out, there are always exceptions to any rule (especially mine). The foul line example is a good one. Luckily for basketball, that part of the sport only shows up once a year.

          To me, the size of the ski gap is a big issue…and one I hope to see recognized and addressed more often. Thanks again for the feedback and comments!

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