Why Basketball Is Just As Good For Writing As Running Is

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Over at the Observer, @RyanHoliday writes about the link between running and writing — “The Timeless Link Between Writing and Running and Why It Makes for Better Work.”

In his piece, Holiday makes the case that when faced with the daily battle between blank page and their own conscience, many great writers have sought refuge in running. Perhaps even when cavemen were writing on walls, they’d go for daily jogs to…err… jog their memory.

It is a simple enough idea. Although weather and route conditions can affect you, running is mostly a solitary act. If one is in decent enough shape, the biggest challenge to finishing a run is choosing to start in the first place.

That isn’t to suggest that running is easy, or that — in my opinion — running is even good for writing at all. I’d certainly agree that in the time one spends running, or doing anything menial really, they can certainly endeavor to think about their writing or whatever it is they need to work out in their head. Which is the case that many writers — Malcolm Gladwell, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, and Holiday himself now — have made.

But it is also true that when done with the explicit purpose of challenging the body, of stretching a person to the extent of their physical limits — running drains the shit out of you. Perhaps on a leisurely jog your mental fog is temporarily lifted; but on challenging runs, your only thought is: when is this going to end?

In the latter instance, the clarity that running provides — at least as far as I can tell — is one that reveals itself later, when finally recovering. But in the moment, when the feet are being placed one foot in front of the other, it’s more confusion and lack of clear-thinking, actually, that a runner experiences.

Think I’m crazy? Run up a steep hill for 10 minutes and tell me how many great sentences you come up with. I can almost guarantee that the only thing you’ll report back is how your legs felt like they were about to fall off.

In this, I think writers romanticize running just as they romanticize everything else. In truth, running is running and writing is writing and everything in the course of one’s life affects everything else, so if one runs and one writes, they are likely to be linked in some way or another.

But if one were to celebrate say drinking over running, as many writers are wont to do, they’d also make that connection too — “Ah yes, it’s the alcohol that is helping me write! Hey bartender, pour me another.”

Which brings me to basketball, which I have recently written about (but not in the context of how it affects writing, which maybe makes it irrelevant). Holiday writes:

Basketball isn’t conducive to the inner-life. What makes it special is the team aspect, the coordination between players. A point guard lost in thought is a liability. A runner lost in thought is simply writing in a different context. They will return home, ready to resume their craft again with a clearer [PAUL’S NOTE: I THINK THERE IS A WORD MISSING HERE], if in fact, they ever truly put it down.

I think basketball is either more conducive, or at least as conducive, to inner life as running is. One thing about running — assuming you’re at a moderate pace and can think clearly while doing it — the mind tends to turn in circles, sort of combing over the same thought. I think this has something to do with how repetitive running is. Unless you are sprinting, running up hills or through traffic, running is a steady motion.

Basketball however, is a lot more like life itself. It is not an unbroken stride from the beginning to the end, not a marathon one starts and hopefully finishes. It’s a lot of fits and starts, finding space on the floor, scoring when needed, playing defense, rebounding, sprinting down one end, jogging down the other, finding time to rest in brief pockets of 10 seconds here, 30 seconds there — that is what life, not just the internal, but the external too, is really like. Because real life is chaotic, with other people and other variables in play at all times.

How this relates to writing, I think, has to do with the fact that basketball teaches us to not think about the inessential, but rather, only the things that matter at that specific moment. There is strategy, of course — in professional basketball, for example, a coach distributes a star player’s minutes so that they might be effective at the end of a game. But if you can blow a team out in the first quarter, you’re going go ahead and do that.

The point is that unlike running, basketball forces you to cut out the bullshit and deal with the here and now. The ball goes up and you just get on with it. In writing, there are many ways to say the same thing. And sometimes that thinking, that inner life, can lead you to waffle over just how to say it. So much so that it becomes a deterrent, and you wind up saying nothing at all. When in reality, you just need to get on with it.

Basketball teaches you that — to stop thinking so much and just act. Get the words on the page and get on with the show. That’s how a writer can benefit from playing basketball.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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