Nitrogen Novak, from pigs to bulls: sport is often war

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Novak Djokovic doesn’t want vaccine shots because he’s against something forcefully injected into his body. He would rather “empower our metabolism to be in the best shape to defend against imposters like Covid-19”. Historically, athletes can become valuable to their bodies, though few have shared Djokovic’s aversion to vaccines.

Famous Aussie pacer Jeff Thomson’s favorite exercise to get in shape before a season was to chase hogs with his bare hands. He chased them on foot and jumped on them. No wonder he rarely, if ever, sleds. He didn’t need it, because who would play with a modern-day Obelix? He was flashing lightning, cursing himself to wake up, and tying himself at an intimidating pace to success.

In the sixth century BC, the famous wrestler Milo of Croton of ancient Greece, the story goes, once, as a boy, lifted a calf and continued to lift it every day until he grows up and the calf becomes a cow. As an adult, the myth goes, he would do the same thing – progressive loading, before it became jargon – and carry a bull during a championship before eating it at the end.

The greatest drummer of all time, Don Bradman, developed his unique manner, which he attributes to his extraordinary hand-eye coordination. As a child, he threw a small golf ball at a rounded water reservoir. He would come back at odd, unpredictable angles, and he would try to hit them with a single stump. For hours, days and months.

If Bradman’s way was a little unconventional, legendary basketball player Michael Jordan got weirder: He used strobe lights, those pulsating lights from nightclubs. As he fired, camera flashes erupted from the edges of the field, which unsettled him. So secretly, he got himself strobe sunglasses that mimicked those lights for practice. Inadvertently, he discovered that it not only helped him cope with manic flashes, but also improved his neuromuscular efficiency. Years later, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry used their version of strobe glasses which helped them make the game’s action look like slow motion. Elite military officers use them for combat training. Sport is sometimes war, okay.

Others went commando training. Not the serious fight stuff, but I went naked. Australian cricketer Geoff Marsh, father of Shaun and Mitchell, woke up in the middle of the night, much to the dismay of his regular housemate, co-opener David Boon, and batted shadow in the buff. “I was naked but had my baggy green on, which was something,” Marsh would later say. It was something, indeed.

Some did it with their clothes on, with a little help from a wall. The late Martin Crowe used to tell a great story about the best advice he got from Sunil Gavaskar. Crowe was 18 in the summer of 1982, plying his trade as a gardener and foreign player in West Yorkshire when India turned up to play in the county. The teenager asked for the secret to pace and rebound, and Gavaskar agreed: “Son, it’s your eyes. Before going out to bat, I find a wall and position myself in my stance with my right ear against the wall. As I do this, I feel my head and eyes level, my balance perfect, my feet light and ready to move. The wall keeps me still. In the middle, I pretend the wall is still there.

Gavaskar loved his walls. He would also advise young batsmen to pick up a new bat and stand in front of a wall to improve backlift. Her theory was that if she walked towards a third man, the bat would be damaged. Simple and efficient.

Sometimes pretending is all a top athlete needs. Like Crowe once did when he was sick in hospital before a home series against the West Indies. He visualized himself scoring against Malcolm Marshall and magically took it back once on the field.

It’s not always easy, of course. Brett Lee, the pacer, strapped a parachute to his back and ran across the beach sand. The extra resistance overloads the body and generates energy; it helped Lee prepare and helped his body and mind stay calm.

Sometimes getting angry did the trick. When West Indian captain Clive Lloyd wanted his rhythm drumming to fire all cylinders, he had his physio Dwaine Wright do the dirty work. “In Adelaide once we had to take six wickets and then go on the last day. Lloyd said, ‘Let’s go…it’s only a short day, can you get these guys fired? Make them angry. In Adelaide, behind the nets, there is a hill topped by a large statue. For half an hour before the game started, I had players running up and down. They weren’t happy; Croft, Holding, Roberts and Garner were jumping like crazy and they came out and played like fire. Bird (Joel Garner) was the worst, growling and moaning. Lloyd told him, “You’re the one whining the most, take the first ball.” He got four wickets in a short time and we chased 236 in 61 overs,” Wright told this newspaper.

Boxer Manny Pacquiao had his team beat him with a Thai stick even as he stood on his feet and growled as part of a nerve stimulation exercise. Famous swimmer Michael Phelps slept in an altitude chamber that forced his body to create more red blood cells because the chamber contains less oxygen. Red blood cells were what basketball player Lebron James was also looking for, as he dabbled in cryotherapy: He allegedly blasted liquid nitrogen on his body at temperatures below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which would have apparently pushed the body into survival mode, triggering the replenishment of red blood cells.

Whether it’s running up hills, blasting your body with liquid nitrogen, or training naked, athletes have their own ways of extracting elite performance.

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