Researchers have found that the brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability to adapt, is pronounced in athletes who master their crafts. They are literally able to reshape their brains through thousands of hours of deliberate practice and repetitive experiences. An MRI of James’s or Mickelson’s brain would show that they are structurally different from yours or mine — not by nature but because of learning. That neuroplasticity is even sport-specific.
In December 2012, a group of Korean researchers compared the brain scans of speedskaters against those of beginners. Among the things they found in their report, published in the journal The Cerebellum, was that the skaters, who skate counterclockwise and have to turn left constantly and make visual adjustments and decisions while balancing on their right foot, had larger right hemispheres in their cerebellums.
In August 2010, another teams of researchers led by Ed Roberts of the Imperial College London did a similar study but used diffusion tensor imaging to examine the neural connections of a dozen karate fighters who achieved black belts with an average of 14 years experience. They found that the white matter of the fighters’ cerebellums — the complex network of neuron connections that carries signals from one cell to another — was structurally different from that of beginners who exercised but had no expertise.
This suggests that athletes are always teaching themselves something, even when they suffer repetitive losses. That’s important because it means is that we underappreciate losing, spend far too much time examining victories and not crediting losses. Nyad knows on a gut level that good losers have an interesting and valuable self-control: They manage to maintain their effort, standard and comportment even in the face of cuts to their souls. She has continued to try to swim the Florida Straits year after year despite debilitating stings, shoulder injuries and asthma attacks. When you ask why, she says, “Who dares, wins.”
Sports history abounds with examples of great athletes who learned from terrible repetitive losses — and we forget that about them. We forget that Ivan Lendl lost four Grand Slam tennis finals before he won his first. Or that Andre Agassi lost three. My friend Pat Summitt lost seven women’s Final Fours before she won her first championship ring and went on to eight NCAA titles and an all-time record of 1,098 victories. What she learned about losing was “too many people opt out,” she says, “because they fear failure. They’re afraid of keeping score.”
The record book shows that Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson finished second in major championships more often than they won them. My father, a Hall of Fame sportswriter who just attended his 60th U.S. Open, told the following story after watching Mickelson lose at Merion. On a visit to Palmer’s home many years ago, he admired a beautiful table that Palmer had inlaid with his gold medals from his major titles. But he also noticed that Palmer had also inlaid three silver medals from his three most painful runner-up finishes in the Open. Asked why he included those, Palmer replied, “Well, they look good, too.” To Palmer, his second places showed how hard he tried, that he pushed all his chips on the table.
The greats are willing to break their own hearts. Second isn’t bad, my father likes to say. “It means you could have been first,” he says.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.