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The Postman Cometh

(or Lazy is as Lazy Does)

Revised from an article which first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1997.

I have a theory.

No research to back it up, just plenty of casual observation and a bit of cogitation. And although it may sound preposterous at first, bear with me and I think you'll agree.

But remember, still, it's just a theory. Here goes:

Great natural athletes are Lazy.

Oh, I can hear it now — the “squeak, clank.squeak, clank.” of the mail slot opening and closing repeatedly as Harold, our postman, delivers handful after handful of hate-mail onto my front hall floor. I have just impugned the integrity and sanctity of sports idols and heroes the world over. Kids will no longer look up to their favorite superstar athletes as role models (of course, people like Dennis Rodman, O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson share the blame in this area). The guys down at the bar or around the water cooler will no longer be able to fawn over the feats of Michael Jordan or Troy Aikman without the stabbing pain of this new taint on their heroes' reputations. And surely, high-school boys and perhaps entire trailer park communities will have to throw out their once-prized numbered-jersey wardrobes, in shame and disgust.

And I'll be a pariah.

Oh well. Like I said, it's just a theory.

Loose Geese

Ever noticed how NBA superstar athletes move when they're not sprinting down the court or leaping toward the basket? Not just on the court, but off it as well. Running, walking, talking or tying their shoes, they look relaxed and easy going about whatever it is they are doing. These guys are usually the picture of tranquility (unless, of course, you piss one off and he decides to punch you in the face or kick you while you're on the floor — then we'll see a bit of tension creep into his demeanor). They always appear to be putting as little physical effort as possible into whatever action they are engaged in.

How about Tiger Woods? Pretty laid back, I'd say. Before, during and after smacking the dimpled orb nearly a fifth of a mile, he is loose and relaxed. Or think about the familiar scenes where Olympic swimmers stroll onto the deck and take their seats behind the blocks. Do these athletes appear to be on edge and strung tight? Hardly. More likely they walk relaxedly, sit slumped in their chairs, perhaps even yawning a time or two. And while their facial expressions may appear sculpted by intense concentration, their bodies exude relaxation and confidence.

In a previous life (I used to be the Facility and Events Manager for the University of Houston Athletic Department) I often watched Carl Lewis, arguably the greatest track and field superstar of the 80's and 90's, train under Coach Tom Tellez. I was always amazed at what little apparent physical effort went into his workouts. By this, I mean, he made it look easy — always smooth and relaxed. He would run faster or jump farther than anyone else around him yet, at the same time, obvious even to unschooled spectators, he appeared to put less effort into all of his actions than those he outclassed handily.

“Lazy” vs “lazy”

Let me expand a bit on my thesis. I truly believe that, in general, great natural athletes are Lazy at their core. Note I used a capital “L” in “Lazy.” This is to distinguish my use of the word from the traditional, rather negative, connotation of the word “lazy.”

Allow me to digress a moment to describe several lazy (small “l”) athlete manifestations of the traditional kind. In the extreme, the lazy athlete is one who gets his workout vicariously, preferring to watch athletic contests instead of participating. The more typical lazy athlete (still a small “l”) participates but puts little physical effort into whatever motions he goes through. Another form of lazy athlete (yup, still a small “l”) is the person who willingly puts great physical effort into his endeavor, however unrefined or inefficient his motions may be, in hopes of short-cutting the path of progress (I recall here my father's admonitions about “the lazy man's load” in my boyhood).

Finally we come to the Lazy athlete (with a capital “L”). This guy has a whole different paradigm. He's figured out how to hide the effort, shed the unnecessary load, finesse the resistance, capitalize maximally on his energy expenditure.

It is as if he's got this mental subprogram running 24 hours a day that executes instructions that translate, “Whatever it is you are doing at this moment, lets figure out how to spend a bit less energy doing it.”

Working Hard or Hardly Working

Now, don't get me wrong, I never said that great natural athletes — these Lazy Athletes — don't have great work ethics — most do — but they are still physically Lazy. Sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. The ethic of work is learned. Proper child rearing, plenty of structured training and discipline under watchful coaches, and experience in setting and striving toward goals all allow an athlete to cultivate a positive work ethic. Like Laziness, work ethic is also akin to a mental subprogram. It says something like, “Coach said I have to do 10 x 200 freestyle on 2:30 and descend them from 2:10, last 25 of each is a no-breather. Dadgumit, whatever it takes, I'm gonna do it, and do it better than everybody else in the pool! Ready, GO!”

The athlete, having run the Listen_Intently_to_Coach subprogram followed by the Work_Ethic subprogram to establish the goal parameters of the set, now executes the Lazy_Athlete subprogram. This subprogram accepts output from the Work_Ethic routine and, within these parameters, figures out, lap by lap, repeat by repeat, how to spend a bit less energy while achieving the desired goals for the set. This might take the form of riding the glide off of an explosive push-off a bit longer, or maintaining a more balanced swimming position, or showing a longer body line for longer periods during each stroke. Or perhaps counting to reduce strokes per length, or spending as much time in a side-lying position as possible, or minimizing the diameter of the "tube" the body carves out as it rotates down the pool. You catch my drift — anything to cut down on expended energy while still performing the required feats. The Lazy Athlete's training and competition strategy, be it conscious or unconscious, is to get the job done on fewer heartbeats than the next guy. This is perhaps why, at any given speed, elite swimmers exert dramatically lower propulsive forces on the water than less accomplished swimmers. It's not that they are incapable of exerting greater force — they just don't need to.

How, then, the Lazy Athlete spends such energy conserved is a function of his work ethic. The great ones continually search for ways to put that energy to the most effective use in swimming faster, jumping higher, running more swiftly etc. — truly topic enough for a whole separate article.

Not Created Equal

Unfortunately, most athletes seem to be entirely without such Lazy_Athlete coding anywhere in their memory. While most have a good-to-excellent work ethic (they never would have gotten to the pool, track, field, gym or what have you, without it) they have not been imbued with an intense internal motivation to spend less energy. In fact, if you listen to most athletes talk about their workouts you'll hear about how hard they worked, how fast they went, how many reps they did, whether they puked or not, how high their heart rates were, etc. Oh how these athletes revel in spending more energy than their teammates and competitors, worshiping at the altar of the God of More Heartbeats. Hardly grist for the Lazy Athlete's mill.

In fact, you can spot athlete types from a distance. When a new swimmer walks onto the deck at the other end of our 50 meter pool, in about two seconds I can make a pretty good first guess at how Lazy an athlete he or she is (although, at 5:55 in the morning “sleepy” signals and “Lazy” signals can come in on the same wavelength). If a guy comes onto the deck all wound-up like a tight spring, fairly bouncing and vibrating with just-waiting-to-be-unleashed athletic energy, I already know a lot about what to expect from his, as yet undemonstrated, swimming skills.

Two huge advantages great natural athletes have over the rest of us are these: 1) They are born with this innate laziness. A pure and natural gift. The Lazy_Athlete subprogram was supplied as included software with the original operating system — no extra charge. 2) It's a no-brainer — laziness happens with little or no conscious thought. “Just Doing it” the easy way comes naturally to these lucky few. So much so that the Lazy Athlete is often unaware of this gift and may even deny its existence.

Nature or Nurture?

While it is entirely possible to learn to be Lazy, I'm not sure that Laziness learned could ever provide the kind of internal atmosphere that relentlessly and aggressively keeps a rather large number of brain cells subconsciously working on minimizing energy output in the true natural Lazy Athlete. For the rest of us, then, the goal must be to imitate the Lazy Athlete and his approach to training and competition. By downloading a bootleg copy of the Lazy_Athlete code through the interface of constant attention to the details and feedback points of efficient swimming, any swimmer can make great strides toward the Lazy Athlete ideal.

Of course, whether an athlete ever couples Laziness — innate or learned — with great work ethic and great coaching and all the other ingredients that preface elite level athletic success.well, that's another matter entirely.


Hmmm.I wonder if this whole concept might give us a way to spot potential athletic greatness early in life. Could we, perhaps, use it to figure out which kids to sign-up for sports and which to plunk down in front of a chess board (remember Bobby Fischer?. now there's a wound up, vibrating guy)? I know plenty of people that my coach's eye tells me have been allowed to stray from their ideal path somewhere along the line. Take Harold, our postman — he's very lazy — ask anyone in our neighborhood. I think he might have had great potential as an athlete. Perhaps, but for the ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke that encircles his head, he could have been the next Roger Staubach or Hank Aaron or Mark Spitz. Wait a minute..Harold is lazy with a small “l”.I guess that means I'm forever doomed to get mail intended for every other address in my neighborhood sporting 4361 in front of the street name.

Anyway, like I said before, it's just a theory — I could be wrong.

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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