Saturday, June 16, 2012

Art Of Learning


‎"In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins - those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, "good" or "bad," are the ones who make it down the road." - Josh Waitzkin - 'The Art of Learning' (2008)

Unfortunately, that's only in the first part of the book. I have yet to finish the book, but hopefully it will stay interesting until the end. Though it seems like a semi-autobiography of a successful person, there is much information to be taken, and in reference to Picasso, much to be 'stolen' ('Good artists borrow; great artists steal' - Picasso). The concept of the whole book being the 'Art of Learning' is quite intriguing, as the author is world class chess player and also a world class athlete in Tai Chi Chuan. One can argue that chess and tai chi are very different things, but the author mentioned how both activities gave inspiration to the other at certain times. With that said, I always look for inspiration from different topics to bring into my own life. It is my own belief that more information can be retained if things can be simplified and generalized, and though maybe chess and badminton are very different, it doesn't matter when you aren't looking for differences, because you are looking for the similarities.

Waitzkin mentions about chess openings, mid games, and end games. With this, I thought about 2 potential relationships to badminton. Starting with the opening, being the serve, serve return, and third shot; the mid game with anything that goes on after the opening; and the end game, where the rally may be developed and set up for the finish. The other relationship with chess could simply be the actual duration of the match, involving the opening (beginning of the set), mid game (interval), and end game (end of set). Waitzkin, as a child chess prodigy, credits his ability and love for the crazy mid games and the end games, while most of his young opponents favor memorizing a strong opening game. A general strategy which may have been inferred was that as long as he could last through the opening, even with a slight deficit, he could take the game to his comfort level, where his opponents weren't, and take them down from there. Knowing that this was his strength, he did not have to worry about the openings so much and simply bided his time until he could strike. In badminton, this is a common strategy for certain teams. Unfortunately, though I may be able to use this at a lower level, I have to recognize the type of player I am. I am not like Josh Waitzkin, but in fact, I'm like the others...

Interesting twist of fate, but when you look into the minds of great people, you have to understand where you are at. If you take someone like the brilliant fictional Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, we all want to be the hero, but many of us, are in fact closer to the sidekick, in this case, Dr. Watson. I hope I don't discourage anyone though, because I still haven't finished my point. All I'm saying for now is to know where you are, because how do you know where to go if you don't know where you start from? In terms of the chess games and badminton, I feel that Canadian players definitely put more strength to their openings. However, once the going gets tough, it is hard for us to survive the onslaughts from higher level opponents. We can prepare all we want for the opening games, but it really depends. If we cannot execute our opening properly, or our opponents have a better opening, then we have pretty much lost our entire game plan. I know this makes a lot more sense in Doubles than Singles, but there is still some relation. If we don't set up our rallies in Singles, then we are just blindly attacking in the mid game. By the time we hit the end game, we become fatigued and unfocused.

Using the points I've uncovered, perhaps some changes can be made to training and preparation. Like the way Waitzkin was able to survive the opening onslaughts from his chess opponents, if we had an adequate defense, we can survive the tough openings and bring the rallies to a more neutral mid game environment. If we practice keeping our composures and training in the end game (i.e. play 3-4 point games where you start at 17-all or 18-all), you then know the extent of what people are willing to try when the scores are close, and what they won't. The game will always be different depending on your opponent, but the experience will help in times of pressure and nervousness. You can then learn to make it so that the end game can be anyone's game, but experience and focus may help you make it more favourable to yourself, in the end (pun intended). How often is it that we let our nerves get the best of us in tight situations. Waitzkin knew that about this against his childhood opponents, that they could crack under pressure of the end game. So, that is where he took them when it came down to it.

By all means, if your openings are strong, there is no need to go to the end game. The idea only serves as an option, and perhaps just an observation from so many of my own losses in the end game. Just one rally may have made the difference from tying or losing the game. Check and mate. I am curious sometimes about what goes on through the minds of our top players. Are we so caught up in the moment of the game, or are we in states of panic, trying to hope that our opponents are as nervous as we are? If we want to be better, then we need to learn from our mistakes and do things we haven't done before. If we are still doing the things we always do, then how do we expect to get better? Physical training is undeniably necessary, but what does it take to strengthen our minds. As our bodies are very different and individual, so are our minds. Has badminton been more a test of strength and speed, or is it merely a test of wits?

Another point I have taken from my brief read of the book so far is the concepts of 'entity' and 'learning' theorists (taken from the book, who took it from a Dr. Carol Dweck). The overall gist of things meant that people who are entity theorists are very much in the present, while learning theorists take things more incrementally. A simple example would be an entity theorist thinking 'I am smart' where the learning theorists would be something like 'I can be smart if I work hard'. It seems that the entity theorists can be so stuck on that notion that they believe it to be true and anything that may take them away from that belief will scare them away. The easiest way is to think of a time where you excel in something. For myself, if I play Mixed Doubles in Pan America, I have a certain level of confidence in my abilities. However, when you take things to the next level, and put me into a Super Series, how does the confidence wane? If I get nervous and play only a fraction of how I normally play when I am at home, then it could be reasoned that I am an entity theorist. However, truth is, I don't get nervous when I play the higher level tournaments. In fact, I really do embrace it and just try my best. I'm the underdog and I know it. That would be an example of a learning theorist. They really do get a kick out of applying their skills to a new situation and are just enjoying the process of it. Are you an entity or learning theorist?  

The difference is really just a simple shift in perspective, but I think it is really important in personal development. I can easily compare competitions in Badminton Alberta and Badminton BC to this concept. It seems to me that people in Badminton Alberta will come out and play, regardless of the people who enter the tournaments. In fact, Grace and I have often played a very young junior team in preliminary rounds, but they play it anyway. In BC, however, it feels like people are a little too much entity based, because they won't play tournaments they can't win. Maybe this is a little bit of an extreme assumption, but from the past years of low entry levels of tournaments, there appears to be a bit of fear. In that case, it hinders player development, just because someone doesn't want to lose. Maybe it's a stereotype, but it is true to say that 'You gotta pay for an education'. People train constantly, but if they aren't willing to compete, they won't know where they're at. Maybe their physical ability is good, their practice game is good, but without that tournament experience, it's probably the most terrible feeling to lose because you couldn't cope with the stress of the tournament environment.

I think people who are truly successful are those who can function in those terrible times of stress. When all the pressure is on, can you still perform to a high percentage of your actual ability? If you can't, don't fret, just be a learning theorist and embrace the challenges. Don't get me wrong, losing is a terrible feeling and I'm not telling you to lose, but to be able to cope with a loss and turn things around for the next time is a key to success. I don't think anybody wins all the time. Lastly, for those who may have parents who tell you that you're not smart, because you're like someone else in the family, or just telling you who/what you are, maybe there could be a grain of truth in who you are at that moment, but there is little truth in that statement telling you who/what you can become...

Hopefully we can all learn something today... I know I did :)