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Culture & Religion

Why Do We Care What Others Think?

Wilt Chamberlain dominated basketball. Yet given the chance to improve one critical element of his game, he let popular opinion override physics.
American basketball player Wilt Chamberlain reads a book while sprawling across two beds in a hotel room, while on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters. The book is 'A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On March 2, 1962, the seven-foot-one-inch Wilt ‘the Stilt’ Chamberlain accomplished the unimaginable: he scored 100 points in a single NBA game. Leading the Philadelphia Warriors over the New York Knicks by the equally improbable score of 169-147, Chamberlain doubled his season average of 50.4 points a game—still an unbroken record.

Chamberlain lived and played large. He is the only NBA player to average thirty points and twenty rebounds over the course of his career. He is also the only player to have scored over four thousand points in one season. (Michael Jordan is the closest, and he trailed by a thousand.) Chamberlain’s prowess extended off the court; the man claimed to have slept with over 20,000 woman in his sixty-three years on earth.

Yet one thing Chamberlain could not do is shoot free throws. This is not uncommon with big men—Shaq was notoriously horrendous from the line. Chamberlain ended up shooting 51 percent (one point behind O’Neal), not exactly a stellar performance considering free throws are one of the most fundamental aspects of basketball. A team that makes free throws wins; a dependable player becomes a crunch time hero.

You might think size was the deciding factor, but as Malcolm Gladwell says in his new podcast, Revisionist History, Chamberlain was as “big as an oak tree and graceful as a ballet dancer.” In fact, during his 100-point game, the big man shot 28 for 32 from the line, an average of 87.5 percent. And that was because he shot them granny style, or underhand.

Not the sexiest shot. Chamberlain reverted back to his old style soon after that game, even though his percentage went with him. While Gladwell’s podcast appears to be about basketball, the topic is really “why good ideas have a hard time spreading.” And that is in no way limited to the court.

Chamberlain abandoned this effective style because he was afraid that he looked like a sissy. In contrast, Rick Barry ended his career with a 90 percent average, because he shot underhand. As Barry says,

The mechanics of shooting the underhand free throw makes so much more sense because everything is done—it’s not one motion, then another motion, it’s a fluid motion, the ball has a softer touch when it goes up there.

Still, Chamberlain, like many people, defaulted to conventional wisdom even though he had proven to be more effective going against the grain. Barry, Gladwell concludes, simply had a different temperament: he didn’t care what other people thought. His success rested in recognizing what was effective, not what looked best.

In his book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall tackles a similar mindset: shoes. We are so accustomed to lacing up padded foot mittens that we fail to recognize that heeled running shoes are a recent invention. In fact, he writes,

Running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot … Every year, anywhere from 65 to 80 percent of all runners suffer an injury … there are no evidence-based studies—not one—that demonstrate that running shoes make you less prone to injury.

The human species has slowly been evolving over the last 3.7 million years to become bipedal. In the early seventies, Nike thought padding your foot would be healthier, contradicting natural body mechanics. The company’s marketing campaign worked; millions of runners (and walkers) have suffered the consequences.

Biomechanist Katy Bowman also warns against the dangers of excessive shoe wearing. The reduction of input on our feet is welcome, she writes, when we step over glass; yet it also causes sensory nerves to deteriorate and tissues to atrophy. Shoes press our toes together, affecting nerve health; reduce range of motion in our ankle joints; force us to constantly adjust our pelvis and spine, especially when walking downhill; and shorten our calf muscles, which impacts our upper back and neck. Shoes are also implicated in chronic headaches.

This trend began, in some ways, with paved surfaces. Bowman continues,

Our body equipment, which performs best in constantly changing conditions, has been allowed small ranges of motion at a very high frequency.

The wear and tear accumulates over years but has drastic results. McDougall confirms:

Follow the same daily routine, and your musculoskeletal system quickly figures out how to adapt and go on autopilot. But surprise it with new challenges—leap over a creek, commando-crawl under a log, spring till your lungs are bursting—and scores of nerves and ancillary muscles are suddenly electrified into action.

There are many reasons not to be completely barefoot in urban environments. At the same time, a cultural fear/disdain of minimalist footwear keeps the broader population from letting their feet and ankles do what they do naturally. I stopped counting the comments regarding my Five Fingers years ago because I feel the difference during my runs, on the yoga mat, and while performing high intensity workouts. Colleagues and students that spend more time barefoot also notice improvements.

Appearances matter. Humans are social animals. Sadly, our mores too often trump research and common sense. On the court and off, on the trail and off, we let others influence us in ways that are detrimental to our success and health. Our habits make the difference between 50 and 90 percent. It depends on what we’re willing to give, and what we sacrifice along the way.

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.


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