Saturday, 8 August 2015

When the Stats are Discouraging

As a breaststroker getting into the sport comparatively late, I have taken as my swimming hero a fellow Queenslander, Christian Sprenger. I do not actually know too much about him; all I know is that he swims my breaststroke events, he swims them very fast and he is older than your average breaststroke world champion. This is an enormous consolation to me as a late comer because it shows that perhaps, if I do train for the next five years ferociously (something within my control, to some extent) then I can achieve far-fetched goals that being a late comer (something not within my control) puts me at a disadvantage for.

Honestly, though, it should not matter to me whether Sprenger will be 30 years old or not for the Rio 2016 Olympics. It should not matter to me that he became world champion in the 100m breaststroke at age 28. Since I am not Christian Sprenger, it is actually entirely irrelevant. It seems to bring me consolation because, in the swimming sense, he is old and that appears to buy me time until I get to his age. But given that there is no link between him and I, there is no real gain for me. It is not true that "if he can do it, I can." Even if he proves the more general point that a slightly older athlete can still climb to the pinnacle of the sport, that should be no great encouragement either because I already should have known that.

Statistics do not determine the possibilities. Even if it were true that everyone who has accomplished some goal of yours has been of some particular characteristics, all it proves is that in the past, everyone who has accomplished that goal has been of those characteristics. Whatever the goal, the past cannot determine the possible future. Proving that someone of your characteristics can achieve the goal is up to you.

This point seems starry-eyed to the average person but is common knowledge for those at the edge of human advancement, sporting or otherwise. Imagine if physicists gave up research because they were not as smart as Einstein, and so exclaimed in frustration "how am I supposed to discover anything new if I am not so intelligent?" This angst would be ridiculous to any physicist, since they would know that every PhD thesis worthy of a pass grade contains something that literally nobody else in the world has discovered. Nobody of the characteristics of the PhD candidate had ever discovered anything new - until now.

What has been accomplished in the past does not determine what can be accomplished in the future. No world records would ever be broken if the limits of possibility were not pushed. So if there had never been a sub-minute 100m breaststroke from someone who started their rigorous training at 20 years old, why should that mean I could not do it? It can have nothing to do with Sprenger, or the next world champion in breaststroke, or anybody. It may well be up to me to prove to the next poor guy thinking about swimming that it is possible.

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