Beckham is coming to America, albeit somewhat past his prime. Scientists, meanwhile, are still trying to figure out how he did what he did in his prime. [Check out this YouTube compilation.] How did he bend it like that?
In a Mechanical Engineering article, engineers at Yamagata University and University of Sheffield describe how, in his legendary 2002 goal against Greece, Beckham "accelerated the ball to 80 miles per hour, after hitting it about 8 centimeters to the right of its center with the instep of his right foot. The ball spun counterclockwise at about eight revolutions per second and started swerving to the left. The ball rose into the air as if it would soar over the goal's crossbar. Then it slowed to 40 mph, curved further to the left, and dropped into the top left corner for the goal."
Got that, kids?
After studying a soccer ball in a wind tunnel, the engineers deduced this explanation for Beckham's magic kick: The initial spin creates a subtle leftward movement of the ball, which suddenly becomes a severe leftward movement when the speed of the ball drops below 23 miles per hour. That's because the airflow around the ball suddenly changes character at that speed, with the drag immediately increasing by 150 percent. In an instant, the soaring ball drops and curves, as if willed by an invisible force.
The physics are impressive, but nothing compared to the computations taking place inside Beckham's brain in the instant leading up to the kick. "Their brains must be computing some very detailed trajectory calculations in a few seconds purely from instinct and practice," says University of Sheffield's Matt Carré. "Our computers take a few hours to do the same thing."
So how does Beckham's brain make such computations. Was he born with such skill or did he acquire it? If acquired, how?
A new 901-page book, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, documents several decades of research into answering such questions. After several thousand years of "whoa -- how did he do that?" this book and these researchers mark the first rigorous attempt to understand what makes certain people great at what they do. I'm still digesting this research myself, but a few basic findings leap out of these pages right away:
1. Greatness is highly-specific. The exquisite suite of skills required to cross and curl a soccer ball is one specific set of software instructions working with specially-adapted neural hardware; a ballet dancer uses different software and has a different neural network; a violinist a third.
2. Greatness takes time, and requires thousands upon thousands of hours of practice -- and it has to be just the right kind of practice.
3. While any number (and perhaps nearly all) of us are born with the tools to develop a specific brand of greatness, no one is born with the developed tools. And in no case do they develop on their own. Later on, we'll get into the genetics of greatness, which turns out to be virtually the opposite of what we were taught. Genes don't drive us so much as we drive our genes.