The physical genius of Lionel Messi, and how it relates to surgery

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Quintessential Messi. One moment he is standing over the ball, in a seemingly harmless position at midfield, the next thing you know you are picking the ball out of the back of the net. How did this come to pass? How did things change so rapidly? When you watch it the first time, it’s disorienting. It makes no sense. How does that happen? Messi is 50 yards from goal. He is isolated near the sideline with a defender right on him. What the hell just happened? Then you watch it over and over on YouTube. After ten viewings, it starts to make sense. After the 20th view, it all makes perfect, ineluctable sense. Of course, you think.

What was all the confusion about again? 2+2=4, right? What else was he going to do? Watch it again. He gets the ball and pauses, daring his mark. Then darts to space with a burst to his right, beating his man. Two more defenders converge. He slows. He is triangulated by the defense, it seems. But no panic. It’s a tight space; soccer in an elevator. No time to think. The ball is never far from his foot. He acts. A cutback. Another cutback, split the double team. Speed on a diagonal toward goal. Final cutback on the help fullback. Shoot low and hard, with left to right action, graze the post. Goal. Goal. Goal. Watch it again.

This is physical genius. It cannot be taught or learned. The chosen few are born with it, inchoate and undeveloped. They cultivate it. It is midwifed through the development stages and brought forth when mature, with a flourish, astoundingly. It takes our breath away. We can only watch and marvel. Before he mass marketed himself as a purveyor of schmaltzy pseudo-scientific pop psychology, Malcolm Gladwell wrote great piece back in 1999 on the neurosurgeon Charlie Wilson. In it, he compared the innate talents of Dr. Wilson — his sublime spatial recognition of anatomy, his precision in action, his confidence, his sudden gestalt understanding of where he was and what needed to be done — with physical geniuses in professional sports, like Wayne Gretzky and Tony Gwynn.

The physical genius see things from a different height, a different angle. The game slows down. They have seen it all before in their imagination. Each jaw dropping, awe inspiring play is, to them, no big deal. They were simply reacting to a tendency they had seen before, a configuration of the defense that was all too exploitable, a slight sag of the defender’s hips to the left. The physical genius sees and acts on a different level. And it happens so fast in their own minds they are reduced to explaining it with banalities. Well, of course, that’s what I did. What else was I to do in that situation? He gave me the left sideline. The help defense came late and off balance. They underestimated the frontal attack. On their heels. It was easy, really.

The best surgeon I ever saw was this guy. Surgery, like soccer, is a game that requires intelligence, innate skill, diligent practice and dedication, and the gift of spatial imagination. Many surgeons can bring the first three components with them into the OR, but the last one remains elusive except for the select few.

Every once in a while I feel that I have performed a laparoscopic cholecystectomy as effortlessly and masterfully as it could possibly be done, by anyone. Sometimes I feel this murmuring presence of beauty when I am operating. But those moments are fleeting. Most operations, at some point, swerve ever so slightly off course. I may have missed a visual cue. I failed to anticipate. A retractor is placed wrong. An obscured vessel branch is shorn. A placed suture is just off; you feel the overwhelming urge to re-do it. You fix it and move on. No harm is done.

But the elegance is lost. A struggle ensues. I have to reconnoiter. Reset my lines of sight. See it again. Do it again. I have to grind my way through it. The narrative has been broken. The song skipped. A loud creaking noise from the house that awakes you from sleep. To see the best in action is a gift. Those who never deviate from elegance. Those who see the field from a higher stanchion.

Whether it’s Lionel Messi thundering down the right sideline or Alex Doolas chipping away at a frozen abdomen or Charlie Wilson whacking out a pituitary in 25 minutes, it is pure art in motion. Joyce, Hemingway, Larkin, and Cezanne have nothing on these guys.

Jeffrey Parks is a general surgeon who blogs at his self-titled site, Jeffrey Parks, MD.

Image credit: sportskeeda

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