Rob Oller | Hotel bubble? Vegan QB? Ohio State's goal to finish No. 1 requires sacrifice
Justin Fields switched from eating chicken tenders to tofu to become faster and stronger. Some Ohio State coaches have abandoned their bedrooms for hotels to avoid getting COVID-19 from their families.
What’s next? Cutting off an injured body part to improve performance?
Oops, that one is already taken. After a gruesome injury late in the 1985 NFL season, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott had his left pinkie finger amputated above the first joint to ensure he would be ready to play in 1986. Had he chosen reconstructive surgery, Lott would have needed extensive recovery time. Instead, he played the entire ’86 season and led the league with 10 interceptions.
Was the reward worth lopping off a digit? Lott thought so before the amputation, but afterward altered his opinion.
“I could have all of (49ers’ owner) Eddie DeBartolo’s corporations, and it isn’t going to buy me a new finger,” Lott told the Associated Press later in 1986. “It has given me a new perspective on life.”
Success requires sacrifice. But how extreme is too extreme? Was Fields’ decision to switch to a plant-based vegan diet an over-the-top move to improve quarterback performance? And what of the decision by some of the coaching staff to sleep in hotels or isolate from their children in different rooms to remain healthy for a run to the College Football Playoff?
“For those of us who have school-age children at home, it’s very, very difficult,” coach Ryan Day said. “To make sacrifices, some of us are not sleeping in our homes.”
My first reaction was that Ohio State is taking things too far. It is true that children are in school and playing youth sports, which adds to the potential for exposure, but for most of us setting goals does not require quarantining from immediate family.
But then most of us are not elite athletes or the men and women who coach them. They think differently. Train differently. Live differently.
Rob Bell, a sports performance coach from Indianapolis, excels at getting inside the heads of high-functioning athletes and coaches.
“Having balance when it comes to elite performance is a myth,” Bell said. “What Ryan Day has said is true, that extreme sacrifices don’t seem normal to the person who is not under that strain and pressure all the time.”
Strain and pressure are relative, of course. A fumbling commercial pilot could lose lives, not just a game. Job stress is as real for assembly line workers and school teachers as it is for left tackles and strong safeties. Bell is talking more about how the 1 percenters in sports attack the quest for success.
“You’ve got to be all in or you’re in the way,” he explained. “There’s this edge of obsessiveness that the best ride. Some may deem it unhealthy, but it’s that pursuit for greatness they endeavor toward.”
The pursuit has consequences, equal parts elation and deflation. Urban Meyer raised the 2014 College Football Playoff national championship trophy. He also dejectedly ate pizza from a box while sitting in a golf cart after a crushing loss to Michigan State in the 2013 Big Ten championship game.
Meyer was a motivational master who demanded and usually received total buy-in from players.
But it is a different Meyer, Urban’s daughter Gigi Meyer Pruett, who best articulates what her father meant when he said, “If your habits don’t reflect your dreams and goals … change your habits … or change your dreams and goals.”
As Gigi explained on Twitter: “We often have the expectation to achieve the thing we want, but we hold that expectation before we even know whether or not we’re willing to do what it takes. … The magic is achieving alignment in what you want and what you are willing to do.”
The Buckeyes appear willing to do almost anything to bubble from COVID-19 and turn their bodies into even more finely tuned machines.
It may all lead to a national championship, but Bell said beware the eventual descent to normalcy.
“Win or lose, you’re coming back down the mountain,” he stressed. “And if one’s identity is only wrapped up in winning, it becomes catastrophic at some point.”
Like when amputating a finger. Obsession needs limits. But who sets them?