A Philosopher's Blog

Are NASCAR Drivers Athletes?

Posted in Philosophy, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2011
Shot by The Daredevil at Daytona during Speedw...

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A while ago I got into an argument over whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes. This argument was caused by NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson being nominated for male athlete of the year.  I am with Golden Tate on this matter: NASCAR is hard, but the drivers are not athletes.  However, fairness requires that I actually make a case for my claim.

Before getting to the main event, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether NASCAR drivers (or anyone else) are considered athletes or not? One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete since this is supposed to be an earned title.

To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being an artists. Like athletes, artists often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of being artists. It matters to them who is considered an artist. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a NASCAR driver is an athlete would be comparable to saying to an artist that someone who does paint-by-number “art” is an artist.

Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If NASCAR drivers want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if paint-by-number folks want to see themselves keeping company with Michelangelo, then so be it.

While that sort of egalitarianism has a certain appeal, there is also the matter of the usefulness of categories. On the face of it, the category of athlete does seem to be a useful and meaningful category, just as the category of artist also seems useful and meaningful. As such, it seems worth maintaining some distinctions in regards to these sort of classifications.

Turning back to the matter of whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes, the obvious point of concern is determining the conditions under which a person is (and is not) an athlete. This will, I believe, prove to be far trickier to sort out than it would first appear.

One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and NASCAR clearly involves competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees) that are non athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who never actually compete. They run mile after mile and are in excellent shape, yet never enter a race. I also know people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.

When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems obvious enough to not require any debate. However, the nature of the physical is a matter of legitimate debate.

NASCAR clearly requires physical skills and abilities. The drivers need good reflexes, the ability to judge distances and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by normal drivers and people playing video games. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently nor am I an athlete because I can play Halo: Reach or World of Warcraft with competence. Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.

To use an analogy, consider the difference between a person who creates a drawing from a photo and someone who merely uses a Photoshop filter to transform a photo into what looks like a drawing. One person is acting as an artist, the other is just pushing a button.

Getting back to the specific matter of the NASCAR drivers, I am inclined to say that what they do is closer to what video game players do: they use a machine to do the actual physical work for them. As such, I would say that they are no more athletes because they race cars than someone is a soldier because he plays Call of Duty.

At this point a natural objection is to point to sports that involve the use of machines. One rather obvious example is cycling. On the face of it, cyclists like Lance Armstrong are clearly athletes. However, they make use of machines to multiply their efficiency.

Fortunately, this objection is easy to handle. While cyclists and others do use machines, these machines are not powered. The athlete still has to provide the physical effort to make it work and, as such, a cyclist is not just pushing buttons and letting the machine do all the work. In the case of NASCAR, the driver is guiding the car around the track, but the car is doing all the actual physical work. With the right technology, the driver could be a brain in a box, “driving” the car with mental impulses. This would involve the same basic skills and nicely shows the extent to which the physical body  is a key component of NASCAR. In contrast, a brain in a box could not be a runner or a football player. True, it could be given a robot body-but it would still not be an athlete.

It might be objected that it is the skill that makes NASCAR drivers athletes. However, the skill set seems to focus on operating a powered machine. Operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.

I would, however, compare NASCAR drivers to sports fishermen and would classify them as sportsmen (or sportspeople to avoid being sexist since there are women drivers including one who was named the sexiest athlete by Victoria’s Secret). This is a worthy title and one that the NASCAR drivers should proudly accept.  Lest anyone think I am being sarcastic, I am not. What they do is hard and does require a degree of skill that I certainly do not possess. However, they are not athletes.

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Athletes & Age

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2009

Having crossed the 40 year mark a few years ago, I have been pleased to see various “older” athletes doing very well in sports. Naturally, Lance Armstrong and Dara Torres have been the ones to get the most attention, but there are many non-professional athletes who are doing quite well at “advanced” ages.

Of course, “advanced” age is a relative thing. In sports, people in their 30s are considered “old”, but in other aspects of life they are considered young. While the idea that 30 and 40 year old folks can still compete against the kids might be surprising, it is certainly surprising that some folks in their 50s and 60s can still give the kids quite a bit of competition. For example, some very good runners are in their 50s and up-and they still compete well against the 20 somethings. This is especially true in endurance events. While youth has speed and energy, old age has endurance and experience and these mean a great deal in endurance events such as biking and marathon running.

One reason why people are staying competitive longer is because of advances in medicine, training techniques, and other factors that have also had the general effect of enabling people to live longer.

One of the most important reasons why older folks are staying competitive longer is probably psychological. Back in the day, people would compete in high school, then college and a rare few would go pro. But even the pros would stop competing after a while. When people grew up, they mostly stopped being active athletes.  These days, people are more inclined to stick with sports as they age, thus extending their competitive life span. In short, the older folks are competing well in part because they have stayed in the competition rather than hanging up their shoes.

Although my quadriceps tendon injury has kept me out of the running competition since the end of March, my plan is to get back to racing this Fall or winter. Of course, at this point I am just walking (at about 75% my old speed). But, it is just a matter of time before I’ll be back in the race again-older, but still competing.

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Easy Exercise 2: Motivation

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2009
Lance Armstrong finishing 3rd in Sète, taking ...
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When it comes to exercise, two of the big obstacles are time and motivation. I’ve written about finding time and now I’ll turn to motivation.

I have noticed that almost everyone says that they would like to exercise and get fit. This usually happens around the holidays (“damn, I’m packing on the pounds…I better start exercising”) and most especially around the New Year (“time for yet another empty resolution about fitness”). In most cases, these good intentions result in one or two feeble attempts at exercise and then lead the person back to the hell of Cheetos and plenty of couch time. So, how can a normal person get motivated and, more importantly, stay motivated? Naturally, this varies from person to person, but here are some ideas.

Negative Motivations
People often try to self motivate by using negative motivations.  Negative motivation is when you exercise in order to prevent or undo something negative-like being fat or having a heart attack.  For example, after devouring all that Halloween candy, Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas cookies a person might decide that they need to exercise because they are fat. As another example, a person might find they have hypertension and decide they need to exercise to avoid being found dead on the couch, covered in moldy Cheetos.

Negative motivators can work, but they are based primarily on fear and worry. The main downsides to using negative motivation are as follows. First, it is easy to stop exercising when you think that you have solved the problem. Then the problem comes right back. Second, such a negative approach can be psychologically problematic. For example, if someone focuses on being fat, this can lead to issues and problems. Third, it can be difficult to maintain the worry or concern that provided the initial motivation. For example, people often get quite comfortable living with being overweight or having higher blood pressure.

Rewards & Punishments
People are, of course, motivated by rewards and punishments. One way to motivate yourself to exercise is to reward yourself for exercising or punish yourself for slacking. For example, a person might treat herself to a slice of her favorite pie when she sticks to her workout schedule all week. If she does not meet her goal, then no pie for her. The plus side is that  rewards and punishments do tend to work. One problem is, of course, the fact that if you are rewarding yourself, then you will need the willpower to hold back rewards when you do not meet your goals. Also, it can be a bit creepy to hear about a person rewarding and punishing themselves-and such behavior can lead to some psychological problems (like a person cutting way back on her food for being “bad”).

The way I use this method is a very minor way. If I exercise more, then I feel free to eat more of the fattening things I like. If my exercise hasn’t been quite up to par, then I’ll (for example) have a smaller slice of key-lime pie.

Exercising with Others
One effective way to stay motivated is to exercise with other people. This has many motivational benefits. First, a person is less likely to back out of exercising if s/he has planned to exercise with others. This adds a social push to sticking with it. This is especially true if you are involved in a team sport. Second, people can support each other when the exercising becomes challenging. Third, if you like the people you exercise with, you will want to spend time with them and this is motivational. On the downside, being in a group can sometimes make it easier to stop. For example, if you are just one person on a big softball team, it can be easy to say that someone else will cover for you if you miss a game or six. Another problem is that you might become reliant on others so that if they stop, you will stop. And, of course, there is always the risk of personality conflicts. But, in general, exercising with other people can be a big help-just be sure to try to find people you like and who will stick with the activity.

This method can be very effective if you exercise with family members or friends. Spouses often find it motivational to exercise with their spouse-although some do not.

Some people have the money to spend on a personal coach or trainer. Such a person can be quite a motivator in two ways. First, they are supposed to professionals at motivating slackers. Second, if you are paying them, you might be more inclined to actually use their services.

On the minus side, they cost money and it is easy to get dependent on a trainer. If for some reason you can no longer afford your own trainer, then it can be very easy to quit.

You can, of course, get free or cheap coaching and training. Sports clubs and teams often provide such services freely or at low prices. For example, my running club has running classes for beginners and intermediate runners that provide excellent training. As another example, softball leagues typically provide practices and coaching for little or no cost. People who have been in a sport or activity for a while are often quite willing to help out beginners.

Before the web, the way to find out about such groups was to go to a sports store and look for fliers. These days, the web is the place to look. For example, to find a running club, just Google using “running”, “club”, and your city/town/area.

Schools also often offer low cost classes and activities to members of the community, although some universities limit participation to students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Getting proper coaching and training can really help with motivation. A good trainer/coach can inspire a person, provide reasonable goals and also help a person do the activity right. After all, when people do poorly at something, they are often inclined to give up.

Set Realistic Goals
While all sorts of TV ads promise amazing results in a short time, fitness is a slow process. The body will begin to adapt to exercise quickly, but the results will not be very noticeable for a while. For example, weight lifting usually takes about six weeks before any results (other than soreness) are noticeable. Running also takes time to improve endurance. The martial arts require years of training.

So, how do you know what sort of goals are realistic? The best thing to do is to research this-and not by watching TV ads. Find people who have been in the activity a while, check on credible web sites, talk to trainers and coaches and read a credible book or two. While finding the truth about exercise might be a bit disappointing, having realistic expectations actually helps in sticking with an activity. For example, if a person thinks he’ll be ready to run a marathon a month after he starts running, then he’ll probably give up running when he has a horrific marathon. In contrast, someone who runs her first 5K after three months of training will be more likely to stick with the sport.

You will also need to assess yourself. People vary a great deal in their abilities. For example, it was realistic of Lance Armstrong to plan on hitting the three hour mark in the marathon despite not being a runner. After all, he was a world class cyclist. In contrast, a person who is an ex-smoker, overweight and hasn’t exercise since high school gym class will need to set fairly modest goals initially.

One common mistake that people make is that they overdo their exercise the first time they try it. When a person starts out, they are well rested and will probably feel pretty good running more than they really should, biking too far, or lifting too much. They will then feel really awful, sore and tired the next day or two. This tends to seriously dampen a person’s motivation. As such, it is vitally important to have realistic goals right from the start.

Schedule & Don’t Skip
It is a good idea to have an exercise plan and schedule. A person who exercises “whenever’ will find it much harder to stick with exercising. So, I’d suggest working out a realistic schedule.

Exercise is in some ways like quitting smoking. If a person tries to quit smoking, but decided to just have “one smoke”, then they will most likely not quit. Likewise, if a person who is trying to exercise decides to just “take today off”, then that breaks the exercise pattern and makes it easier to just stop. This is not to say that a person must or even should exercise everyday. In fact, it is best to take a day or more off each week to avoid injury and over-training. However, a planned exercise should not be skipped.

Of course, it is easy to say that you should stick to a schedule. The challenge is making it stick. The way to this is habituation. This, of course, comes right out of Aristotle‘s discussion of moral education. His view is that by habituation people become virtuous. In the case of exercise, the more you exercise, the easier it becomes to stick with it. For many people, the trick is to stick with it until that critical point of habituation is reached. For example, when I first started running I did not enjoy it at all. it hurt, made me feel sick, and was tiring. But, I stuck with it and eventually reached a point where not running was far harder than running.

Habituation requires the obvious: repeat the activity on a regular basis until it becomes a habit. This, of course, generates something of a paradox: to be able to stick with exercise, you must first stick with exercise. But, if you can stick with it, then you would seem to not need to habituate yourself to stick with it. If you can’t stick with it, then you’ll never be able to habituate yourself. So, how do you unravel this paradox?

As noted above, you have to stick with it until you hit that habituation point. This means that you need just enough will to get to that point, then after that it will be easier. To use an analogy, it is like biking a hill: you need enough strength to get to the top and then the rest is easy. Getting to this point requires using the other motivation methods. Once you hit the habituation point, then you’ll find it much easier to stick with it.

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