Friday, 16 November 2012

On Gear

This post is going to have a bit of a negative tone to it.  I don’t know, maybe it’s the dwindling daylight hours affecting my mood, maybe it’s the start of hockey season and the associated stories of parents buying their 9-year-old kids carbon fibre sticks and $700 skates.  Or it could be something else entirely. Nevertheless, if you want something light and optimistic you might want to keep on clicking.  

That said, it’s something that I’ve felt a desire to verbalize for a long time, and a recent post over at RossTraining (where he shows the multitude of exercise that can be done with simple furniture sliders) may have been the catalyst for me to actually write about this:  People’s obsession with ‘gear’, with having the latest, greatest, high-tech equipment/clothing for sport and exercise.

I think I first started to really notice this phenomenon back around 2005.  I was living in South Korea at the time and was doing a lot of mountain-climbing and hiking.  Not technical climbing by any stretch – these were 600 – 800 metre peaks, with trails, good weather for the most part, but still a lot of great exercise and beautiful views.  What always got me though was the clothing and equipment you’d see on the mountains.  Korean hikers invariably were outfitted like they had just left the Everest base camp – Gore-tex head to toe, climbing poles, fleece everything, high tech mountaineer boots, and the like.  In contrast, I’d usually be wearing an old shitty pair of running shoes, a t-shirt (maybe a sweatshirt if it was reaaallly cold – and by that I mean just below zero, which is as bad as it ever got), and usually jeans.  And of course there was a huge market for that kind of gear over there.  Not only specialty stores, like here, but even the standard department stores and grocery stores would have aisles and aisles of expensive paraphernalia, moisture-wicking this and that.  Now I hate to bemoan it too much, because it was nice to see a lot more of the general population (however not generally the youth, unfortunately) out being active – more so than here in Canada at least.  But it all had a very commercial feel to it, as if the genuine participation was tainted by a desire to simply buy the gear, rather than to actually go out and use it.

Now, I’m not innocent here.  When I was a teenage kid, I fell into this trap of thinking I needed the best stuff to be a great athlete.  I played basketball and for about three consecutive years I convinced my mother that I absolutely needed the new Air Jordans.  I remember they were about $150 at the time, and I can guarantee now that they didn’t improve my game one cent.  I can recall going into shoe stores with my friends and actually picking up shoes to try to find which ones were slightly lighter, honestly believing that those extra few grams were what was preventing us from throwing down 360 dunks left and right.  I began to see, as I grew up a bit, that it was usually the guys with the best gear that sucked the most.  It was compensating.  A crutch.  The guy you should fear is the guy playing in jeans and pair of old flip flops.  He also tends to be the guy that is still out shooting baskets in the dark, when all the gear-heads have already gone home.

Recently I watched a CBC documentary on humanity’s evolution as runners, and on the dominance of Kenyans and other East African distance runners.  Now obviously there are some genetic components at play here, but it was also the case that the researchers found that the most successful Kenyan runners tended to come from the poorest, hillside villages, where they were raised walking, running and doing manual farm labour barefoot.  The theory was that this forced the muscles in their feet and ankles to develop better and become stronger, giving them an advantage over those raised with ‘better’ footwear.  I don’t know, but it sounds plausible.  From my own experience, it makes sense.  The summer before last, I dislocated my foot playing basketball, to the extent that it was pointed 90 degrees to my leg in the wrong direction.  The ligaments and tendons were obviously stretched and damaged to a great extent.  One of the things that I did to help with recovery was, as soon as I could put weight on it, I started to do a lot of barefoot running.  It hurt a tonne at first of course and I mostly used a treadmill to limit the potential for missteps and re-injury, but I think it really helped in retraining the proprioception and strength of the foot muscles.  I know both the orthopedic surgeon and physiotherapist who did the follow-up were very surprised at how quickly I recovered from it.  By 3 months I was doing almost full speed sprints and by 5 months it was essentially back to normal.

Another perfect example of great success with very simple, rudimentary training tools comes from a documentary I watched on UFC middleweight champ (and probably best MMA fighter on the planet) Anderson Silva.  Now, granted, Silva has a long background in training and has probably used a plethora of both high and low tech equipment and techniques.  What I was struck by however, was a simple drill where he would stand with his back against a brick wall while his trainer repeatedly tried to whip a tennis ball at his head, from about 15 feet away.  To me, when I watch Silva fight, the results of this kind of simple training are so evident in the way he’s able to essentially stand directly in front of his opponents (often with his arms down) and dodge incoming strikes by effortlessly moving his head from place to place, biding his time and then choosing the right moment to counterstrike.  And lo and behold, a tennis ball costs virtually nothing – but it’s a viciously effective tool in this instance.  It’s a low-tech, simple thing that anyone (regardless of income or circumstances) could use to improve their reflexes and reaction time, provided they put in the time and effort.

Now, I have no doubt that, at the highest levels of athletic competition where the tolerances and margins of victory are razor thin, a good case can be made for the lightest, strongest, and costliest equipment available.  But let’s face it, most of us (and if you’re reading this blog, you can probably consider yourself in the same boat) are nowhere near this level, and are simply looking to stay strong and fit throughout life and make progress toward some personal performance goals.  For those people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you need the latest gadget or technological innovation to be successful.  Retailers rely on it.  Huge stores devoted to sell weekend warriors shit that they don’t need - stuff that probably spends more time looking good in a closet than in the great outdoors.  And it won’t be the kids with the $700 skates that will end up in the NHL, or the lightest, fanciest shoes that will make the NBA - it’s the ones that love the game enough to work their asses off to get there.

Anyway, the rant is now over.  The only piece of advice (for myself too) is to never let the absence of ‘stuff’ prevent you from the real task of ‘doing’.


  1. I never understood why parents enroll their kids in hockey for the majority of their child/teen life. All the time spent travelling to games in and out of town, all the money spent on upgrading to all the best gear every year because of a kid growing constantly, and all the money spent on hotels and accommodations for these outings. Maybe it's because my parents never enrolled me in hockey. I believe they preferred that I keep a full set of teeth :P If one were to argue that it's good for the kids to learn team work, cooperation, discipline, honing a skill, etc... There are many other sports and not sporting activities out their that not only require significantly less monetary investment, they take little to no gear to be able to do them; a kid can learn all those "lessons" and more as well with these alternatives. Even more solitary sports, like running track or cross country have team elements to them.

    I agree with you that unless you are in the top 95th percentile of talent in whatever field, you don't need the best equipment to be successful or your best. One will get the highest return for their effort if they work on improving the engine rather than upgrading particular components. More practically speaking, Lance (Or any drug free pro cyclilst) on the worst MTN bike would destroy me on the most expensive and lightest Road bike. Though we have to give credit to the all mighty marketing and their ability to make us feel that we require all the neat fancy items to make us feel good about ourselves and that they "must" be a requirement to success.

    This reminds me of a recent Tim Horton's add (maybe it was Canadian Tire), a sad kid walks into a store to ask for a job. Why? Because "1 in 3 famiilies in Canada can't afford organized sports"... Is there a requirement that all kids need to be involved in organized sports? I don't think so. It is a nice option for sure, but not a necessity. Even if a parent REALLY feels that it is a necessity, but can't afford it, just look to some of the poorest countries, you can see groups of kids participating in these team sport activities, and all they have are a simple ball to play with. No shoes, no other "gear". Just each other, participation, and having fun.

    Amanda has read Malcolm Gladwell's book, David and Goliath, and a large argument he presents is that when it comes to "perceived" disadvantages and advantages, that in actuality, disadvantages can be one's greatest strength. And at times, people's "perceived" advantages can be their greatest weakness.
    This I believe applies not only to sports but all aspects of life. Whether it's the kid on the basketball court wearing jeans and flipflops, or the kid who didn't have a free ride through the best private schools, grew up toughing it out in the public system and had to really work to get were they are and all the skills they acquired in dealing with the tougher path they would not have ultimately gotten on a smoother/easier ride.

    Ross Training's link to furniture sliders I'd like to try out one day. The only limitations to them I can see is there isn't really many things you can do for pulling back exercises. Then again, they are pretty stellar overall for size and transportability for travelling, and I can always get my Wabi-Sabi butt in gear outside to find a tree branch!!

  2. Great article Dan! It also makes me think of the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.. another good read! I saw this and thought you might appreciate it :D

  3. Well. it looks like I need to read some Malcom Gladwell! I've seen him a few times on talk shows but haven't ever read anything he's written. I think that point about perceived disadvantages is so true. Wouldn't it be ironic if all of the parents spending ridiculous amounts of money on sporting equipment and lessons for their kids (in large part, unfortunately, to capture some vicarious sense of their own 'missed' athletic glory) were actually doing those kids a disservice! I don't think it's a coincidence that so many professional athletes (at least in sports such as basketball and soccer where equipment costs are relatively low) came from 'poor' inner-city childhoods. Maybe the fact that their parents didn't have the resources to enrol them in every extracurricular activity under the sun (paid babysitting) meant that they actually had to go outside and run and jump and make up games and do the kind of shit that kids are actually supposed to do. I think there's a lot of good research that shows kids actually learn more and develop better brains and adaptability by having unstructured play and exercise, rather than organized sports where the rules are already set for them. One might also extrapolate that an over-reliance on organized and pre-formulated activities/sports inculcates the development of adults who are less able to 'think outside the box'. Kids are amazing and, given the freedom and opportunity, will devise all sorts of games and unique ways to keep themselves active and busy.
    That said, my 5-year-old daughter started soccer last summer. It's organized of course but the equipment costs were only maybe $30 total and the minimal participation fees were offset by me voluteering to coach her team (which also gives me a little extra exercise as well). I suppose that maybe explains the huge popularity of soccer around the 'less-developed' world, and the concommitant unpopularity of hockey and football in most of those poorer regions. The equipment requirements are so small. In fact, I was in Havana last year and one of the images that stuck with me was seeing the city parks and even just open areas of concrete, empty lots, etc. all filled with kids playing soccer or other games. They had virtually nothing in terms of fancy shoes or equipment, but they seemed active and vital and happy - the way kids should be.