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Stanford Report, May 12, 1999

Best in their fields tell how it’s done An academic framework for highs, lows of peak performance


I knew what I had to do," gymnast and Stanford junior Kerri Strug said about her approach to the final rotation of events in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

"I was not supposed to fall on the first vault," Strug told the audience that filled the Arrillaga Family Sports Center auditorium for the opening session of the "Limits of Performance" symposium Friday night. "When I did, it was like, 'Let's get back on track here.'

"I was concerned about my ankle, but I was also one of [coach] Bela [Karolyi]'s girls. So I put myself on automatic pilot, and said, 'OK, one more time.'"

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On her second vault, Strug delivered a performance that handed the Olympic gold medal to the U.S. women gymnasts -- and rated a big bear-hug from Karolyi.

"But what would have happened if you'd smacked him?" author and sports personality George Plimpton wanted to know. "He wasn't a very nice man, was he?"

Strug paused for a few moments, then turned to Plimpton.

"No, I'd have to disagree," she said. "We had too much respect for him. We couldn't have questioned him."

The exchange was one of many moving moments as world-class athletes and coaches shared reminiscences of athletic performances with a world-class surgeon, a record-setting Congressman and a leading authority on the concept and problems of performance. The second of the spring-quarter symposia sponsored by the Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts, it was a continuation of the talk world chess champion Garry Kasparov gave on the same topic on April 22.

Noting that he had once played Kasparov in a set of eight concurrent chess matches on eight different tables, Plimpton said he'd experienced the thrill of being able to shout "check" at the best player in chess history.

But Kasparov, he added, had merely looked at the board where Plimpton claimed to have achieved checkmate and asked, "What is this mess?"

The world champion then removed Plimpton's bishop with a pawn, and the matches continued.

The highs and lows of peak performance were the focus of the panelists' discussion, which was given an intellectual framework by the first speaker, Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, professor of human development and education in the department of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Csikszentimihalyi talked about his research on complex performances in everyday life, and how data led him to believe that people got the most enjoyment from free-time activities in which they overcame obstacles or stretched their abilities and skills.

The more complex a performance, the more psychic energy it requires, Csikszentimihalyi said. He described that energy as "the most important and most scarce resource in human life."

Csikszentimihalyi's studies of creative individuals in a variety of fields, from classical music to rock climbing, have shown that all share a similar "flow experience" when they are performing at their mental and physical peak.

"There's a time when you can essentially relinquish your control over your skills and experience spontaneity," Csikszentimihalyi said. "Composers talk about watching their hands move automatically while they are working, and rock climbers speak about feeling one with rock surfaces."

The "flow experience" that Csikszentimihalyi has identified is what many athletes describe as "being in the zone," other panelists said.

Plimpton, in his talk about "The X Factor," said basketball great Bill Russell had told him about a particular game that stood out in his career, when both teams were "playing in the zone" and Russell felt as if he were "flying over the court like a skyhawk" enjoying the beauty of the play below.

Plimpton also spoke about how boxers Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston had prepared for fights by visualizing victory over their opponents.

He said former President George Bush must have employed a similar strategy when he invited Plimpton to play horseshoes at the White House. Prior to throwing each ringer, Plimpton said, Bush would whisper "Unleash Chiang," apparently in reference to freeing Chiang Kai-shek, or "Remember Iowa," referring to the primary where he'd been soundly defeated by Bob Dole.

After talking with athletes from many continents, Plimpton said, he'd come to believe that whichever player had the "X factor," the mental or strategic advantage, would come out the winner.

"I also realized you have to practice the sport itself," he said of his unsuccessful attempts to out-X-factor the competitive former president at horseshoes.

Norman Shumway, professor emeritus of cardiothoracic surgery at the medical school and a pioneer in the development of heart and lung transplantation, spoke about the kind of performance that takes place in an operating room.

"It's to a small but usually appreciative audience of one," he said.

With accompanying slides, Shumway walked the audience in the Arrillaga auditorium through the history of transplantation, from early experiments with dogs in 1959 to the first human heart transplants in 1968.

The development of the immunosuppressant drug cyclosporin A was the key to long-term survival of heart patients, Shumway said, with the result that the five-year survival rate for heart recipients now is close to 70 percent.

Congressman Jim Ryun, who has represented the second district of Kansas since 1996, participated in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, winning a silver medal in the 1500-meter run in '68. In 1965 he set the high school mile record of 3:55.3, which has not been broken to date.

Ryun introduced his remarks about "Running Toward the Goal" with a black-and-white ABC videotape of a race he'd won in Bakersfield in 1967, when he set a 3:51.3 record for the mile by staying 50 yards ahead of his closest competitor throughout the race.

Ryun said he believed in "God-given talents," but added that those talents had to be developed through setting goals and finding a coach who could provide encouragement and guidance. SR