Stop the clock

Thinking ahead of the game: how elite sports-stars have the ability to slow down time
By Alex James Taylor | Sport | 30 August 2021
Above:

Photography by Bill Smith

“I don’t know whether I’ll fly or not. I know that when I’m in the air, sometimes I feel like I don’t ever have to come down” – Michael Jordan

0.92 seconds. That is the exact length of time Michael Jordan was airborne during his legendary shot from the free-throw line in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest, earning the sports icon a perfect 50. An average human’s hang time skims 0.53 seconds; Jordan soared way above. For those witnessing this inside the stadium, the world seemed to slow right down, as if they were contained in a vacuum and Jordan had just sucked out all logical scientific notions in order for him to achieve the unthinkable. Suddenly Galilei, Newton and our early ancestors who measured time by the regular movement of the Sun and stars were left flat-footed by the Chicago Bulls’ shooting guard.

Luckily, one man, Bulls’ team photographer Bill Smith, was present enough to press his camera shutter release. Framed, Jordan is suspended in the air, poised to dunk the ball into the basket and, eventually, slam reality back into our acknowledged notion of time. The crowd stand in rapt attention, spellbound; jaws dropped, arms beginning to unravel into their celebratory ascent. The Chicago Stadium digital clock clings onto 3:51pm, itself negating its duties in favour of just being present. A moment of perfect serenity – seemingly paused – before Jordan’s feet would finally hit the Chicago Stadium court, sparking a wake-up wave of euphoria through the crowd. To paraphrase the popular Gatorade commercials of the time: everybody watching wanted to ‘Be Like Mike’.

Smith remembers that moment vividly. “When I saw Mike walk past the free throw line, I moved to a position on the sideline. I nervously checked all my camera settings and manually focused where I thought he would pass,” the Bulls photographer tells us. “In sports action, timing is everything, a tenth of a second can make or break the moment on a still frame. I was shooting with stadium strobe lights that take two seconds to recharge before another frame is possible. Two seconds seems quick, but in two seconds, he would have already landed. So I knew I had one chance, I had to hit it perfect and so did he. If he missed, it wouldn’t matter how good my timing was.

“After I shot, I prayed my strobe lights fired and my timing was precise. I was more nervous after the event, I stressed all night wondering what the film would reveal. There’s so many things that can ruin a picture: focus, exposure, hand movement, lab processing disasters. I opened my colour slide film boxes at the film lab and frantically searched through the many boxes until I found that moment. Joy and relief overtook my anxiety when I saw that I had nailed it!

“Of course I didn’t know it would become the most iconic Michael Jordan shot of all time that day, but there was a feeling of pride and accomplishment that I captured the clinching moment. I’m sure that feeling is similar to an athlete hitting the last-second, game-winning shot.”

In the recent Netflix docu-series The Last Dance, Jordan referred to this collective holding of breath as “cute.” “Everyone thought I could make the shot and that’s the beauty of the game. For 1.1 seconds, everybody was holding their breath, which is kinda cute.” Jordan missed that particular shot in game five of the 1998 NBA Finals against Utah Jazz, forcing the series to a game six. Describing the silencing of 23,500 people inside the stadium and a record 30.5 million watching at home as “cute” just sums up Jordan’s love for the spectacle: only second to the success.

The most elite of athletes possess this perceived ability to pull at the strings of time like a taut rubber band, stretching split seconds into five, or making five seconds feel like eternity. Through their innate skill, they see things quicker, take decisions before we’re aware, and pounce with utter incisiveness. Time slows for the athlete first, and then, in moments such as Jordan’s 0.92 hang time, for us mere mortals. Is it our will to make something last as long as possible? Or is it the beauty of something seemingly impossible happening right in front of us that draws a comic book superpower into our 3D world?

“I was shooting with stadium strobe lights that take two seconds to recharge before another frame is possible. Two seconds seems quick, but in two seconds, he would have already landed. So I knew I had one chance, I had to hit it perfect and so did he.”– Bill Smith

Taking an Einsteinian approach, these moments can be examined via his theory of time dilation: the different rate at which things happen in one reference frame relative to another. Einstein’s theory dates back to 1905, when he was travelling home from work one day in Bern, Switzerland. Looking out the window, he watched the hands on the Zytglogge clocktower and imagined an unimaginable scene; what would happen if his tram was racing away from the tower at the speed of light? His watch would still be ticking, he realised, but looking back, the clocktower – and time – would appear to have stopped.

This implies that time, as previously believed, is not an absolute quantity but rather shifts with a change in reference frame. “How long is forever?” asks Alice to the White Rabbit. “Sometimes, just one second,” he answers. Jokingly, Einstein would often explain this as, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity!” Using Einstein’s work as a starting point, more recent theories of temporal illusions distorting perception have emerged. Within the narrative of this article, one important and widely-acknowledged theory is that time durations may appear longer with greater stimulus intensity – let’s say, the dying moments of a title-deciding match.

“The most elite of athletes possess this perceived ability to pull at the strings of time like a taut rubber band, stretching split seconds into five, or making five seconds feel like eternity.”

“Being able to see someone process information and then react to something in a split second is awe-inspiring,” Carl Anka, sports journalist for The Athletic and NBA fanatic, tells us, describing his own experiences witnessing such moments of time dilation in sport. “You’re looking for the ‘how have you done that?’ I think that’s why live sport will always have something, no matter how many games I watch. Sometimes I watch a compilation of LeBron James passes and try to predict where he’ll put the ball. I should be able to spot passing lanes he can’t because of my zoomed-out view of the entire court at home, but LeBron still finds ways to confound as he’s a basketball computer.

“If you go through enough match reports, documentaries and fan retellings of moments like these, what they describe is the weight of the situation,” Anka continues. “Play-off games, cup finals, matches in the final minutes, the last round of boxing matches – your perception of time heightens because these are moments of hyper-focus both from the athlete in question and the viewer. You know to put your phone down and stop talking to your best mate in the final moments of a game in the same way you know to stop mucking about in the cinema when you enter the end of Act 2.” So pressure moments heighten time dilation: when time is running out it becomes more apparent, and therefore more necessary to delay it.

Place a football at Andrea Pirlo’s feet and he also possesses this ability to affect time. Imbued with majestic vision, control and execution, Pirlo played with the debonair attitude of Alain Delon and the subtle drama of Vasari: a metronome in the centre of play, spraying passes like flared brushstrokes decorating the pitch.

Now recall Pirlo’s iconic “no-look” pass to Fabio Grosso during extra time in the 2006 World Cup semi-final against Germany. As madness was descending all around, Pirlo emerged with the ball in the 118th minute, a calm head when everyone else was losing theirs, and took an extra half-second to consider his move – one nobody else noticed or was even aware existed. Feigning a shot, he slipped a decisive pass through the inside-right channel to set up Grosso for the winning goal while nonchalantly glancing in the opposite direction like a Fellini protagonist contemplating notions of fatalism – splitting whole numbers into halves.

“Sometimes I watch a compilation of LeBron James passes and try to predict where he’ll put the ball. I should be able to spot passing lanes he can’t because of my zoomed-out view of the entire court at home, but LeBron still finds ways to confound as he’s a basketball computer.” – Carl Anka

Taking a scientific vantage point, in 2012, researchers at University College London actually concluded that an individual’s perception of time does seem to slow as they prepare to make a physical action, and in elite performers this capacity may be increased. “John McEnroe has reported that he feels time slows down as he is about to hit the ball, and F1 drivers report something very similar when overtaking,” Dr Nobuhiro Hagura from UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience told the BBC in 2012. “Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced. So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower.”

In a similar study by Kimiecik & Stein (2008) they call this “flow” – an optimal psychological state that occurs when there is a balance between the challenges of a situation and a person’s skills or capabilities for action. When this formula clicks, the athlete gains a greater perception of task management and can concentrate on the process with unambiguous feedback. Like Neo in The Matrix, they are capable of peering through the mainframe, scanning potential avenues and taking action. Losing track of the clock is a typical characteristic of this occurrence: “When in flow, time does not pass the way it ordinarily does; it is distorted by the experience.”

What better case study for this than superhuman footballer Lionel Messi? A recent study by Giuriato et al (2019) placed the Barcelona talisman under the microscope and concluded that for him, perceptual time was somehow slowed down during decisive, quick situational actions – an ability previously thought to be restricted to the likes of Marvel hero Tempo. Often dubbed ‘reading the game’, it’s this ability that allows him to anticipate the outcomes of his opponents in a reduced timeframe. Therefore, adding mind-reading to Messi’s covetable skillset, his exceptional ability allows him to view a series of possibilities in the blink of an eye and evaluate probabilities through “memorised similar experiences,” in order to ‘buy time’ – whipping out the tablecloth before the crockery has time to protest.

So perhaps what is perceived as these sportspeople slowing things down to a level of genius is in fact them seeing things quicker than anyone else. After one special performance in a UEFA Champions League game against Chelsea in 2018, pundit and former pro footballer Rio Ferdinand said of Messi’s performance: “I just feel that in his own eyes and his own vision, the game just slows down for him. He plays in slow-motion because it comes to him so easy and so naturally.” At the end of the day, the best way of understanding is by watching, by looking at one point on the pitch and Messi making a pass the complete other way, twisting audience necks in knots. Where we see a bend in the road, he sees Spaghetti Junction.

For sports fans, these are the moments you live for, the scenes that stick to memory and only improve with each nostalgic tick of the clock. Today’s world is all about speed – nobody has any and everyone wants some. It’s all 24/7 news, constant feeds, streams, updates and likes. Therefore, perhaps one of the reasons transcendental moments such as Jordan’s Slam Dunk and Pirlo’s no-look pass are so special is because they slow things down to a particular pinpoint in time and, in these rare circumstances, we’re able to truly appreciate a singular, defining moment. Everything else in the world becomes a background blur and our emotional spectrum condenses to an undiluted concentration that sinks deeper than the rest. Like consuming a twelve-course tasting menu and going home with only the impeccable sprinkle of jus drizzled across the fifth course on your mind. In these moments, your whole existence suddenly depends on whether a ball goes into a hoop, or goal, or whatever highly unspectacular object you wish to substitute.

“If nothing else, perhaps this global pandemic has taught us to truly cherish these significant experiences where excess noise is drowned out by a detonation of sheer brilliance.”

But what about in a Covid-19 world? A world where crowds have been forced to disperse and the collective euphoria of viewing a live event in unison paused? Moments like those above have become tales of a lost age; the thought of that many people being that close to each other, all heightening each other’s emotional state, now seems almost sordid. It borders on erotic compared to the isolated bubbles the pandemic has blown our way. Currently, Covid-19 germs are licking their lips at the potential luxury feast described within this article.

If nothing else, perhaps this global pandemic has taught us to truly cherish these significant experiences where excess noise is drowned out by a detonation of sheer brilliance. Or maybe this experience has been a global, collective equivalent of Jordan’s 0.92 seconds. Our lives on pause, our bodies slowly unravelling in anticipation of ‘normality’, until reality eventually lands back onto the court, rousing the world back to consciousness, and allowing us to celebrate together once again.

Article originally published inside HERO 25.

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