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Art & Sports: More Similar Than You Think

Elsa Hillis

I often hear art students complain about the culture at their school being driven by sports. To be fair, I hear more complaints about art class from most students, many of whom are athletes. At the large public high school I attend in Texas, these frustrations aren’t unfounded. Because sports, specifically football, are so prized, athletic programs receive the most funding, leaving art programs underfunded and neglected by all but those with genuine interest in the arts.

As an artist and an athlete, I have a unique foothold in both worlds. I play varsity tennis, I’ve taken art classes every year, and I am planning on attending college for art. Through the years I’ve noticed several striking similarities between art and sports, especially things I don’t find in other activities.

Mixed Media Painting, Elsa Hillis

“Getting in the zone”

First of all, there’s the feeling of making art and playing a sport. As any artist will tell you, there’s a zone of deep focus one finds a ½ hour or two into a piece. This happens to me often; I remember beginning an artwork one evening and noticing around 9 pm that I’d became completely absorbed with the painting, and began to be able to act more on my gut instinct.

Muscle memory took over, and I found I could flick my brush a certain way, or tear the paper just right, knowing that my hands would do exactly what I wanted, without worrying about the outcome at all. Not every stroke was perfect, but I knew if I messed up I could just paint over the mistake. I practically danced around the paper that night while the hours ticked by, until I finally looked up to realize it was 3am.

The exact thing also happens in sports. Tennis is as much of a game in your head as it is on the court: in fact, we say about 70% of it is mental. I’ve lost many, many games because I got too scared to play well. When I think about the games I’ve played that I’m most proud of, I think of a few occasions where I felt the same kind of focus I do behind an easel, or in a studio. I don’t know what it is — maybe adrenaline, maybe sheer will-power — but something clicks, and I find I don’t have to think about any action before I do it.

Elsa Hillis

I remember a double’s game I played this season where I was waiting to receive a serve, and I thought, “I’m going to slam it right at the net player.” Now, tennis isn’t a contact sport, but being aggressive and trying to intimidate one’s opponent is often a good strategy. So I had this in my head, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the other girl begin to serve. I felt my knees bend, saw my feet take a hop forward, and I knew my arm was coming out fast to meet the ball as it came to meet my racket. I hit the ball dead-on and it shot out at my opponent, who barely dodged it. Winner!

Portrait Painting, Elsa Hillis

Practice makes Perfect

Art and sports both take serious dedication and hard work. So much so that I believe the work ethic required of athletes and artists is practically the same, and that most go through similar experiences with the process of improvement. One thing I hear all the time in sports is that “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

I think it’s difficult for non-artists to appreciate how being a skilled artist takes years of hard work, just like any sport. In fact, I wouldn’t call myself naturally athletic by any means, so I know I’ve gotten as far as I have in tennis because of the work I’ve put in. And that process was painful: just like with art, there are pits and peaks.

I’ve had days where I’m not sure why I play tennis if it’s so difficult, and I wonder if I should continue at all. Weeks spent being frustrated with myself for not being able to hit the ball the way I’d like to, wishing I was faster, stronger, better. I think all artists and athletes can relate to this, as well as the feeling that’s stuck with me: no matter how defeated I felt, I kept returning because I truly love tennis, and I wanted, wholeheartedly, to improve.

End Game

I’ve learned similar values in both worlds: how to persevere when things aren’t going your way, how to work hard, how to win and lose graciously. How to not be afraid of things you’ve never tried before, how to be okay failing and messing up, how to find satisfaction in the things you love, and how to follow your gut instinct.

Being a serious artist or athlete takes commitment, practice, time, persistence, and passion. And I think for all their differences, artists and athletes can look to their similarities to support each other and find inspiration in the other.

Mixed Media Drawing, Elsa Hillis
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