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Sunday
Feb202011

Order and Chaos

One of the recent additions to my reading list is a book called "The Fighter's Mind" by Sam Sheridan. As with a lot of things relating to fighting, some people can't get over the violence. I understand that perspective, but I have learned a lot about non-violent sport from combat sports, and from books like this. Here’s an example: in the book, Sheridan travels around the world and discusses the mental side of fighting with trainers from a wide variety of disciplines. One of the more enlightening conversations is one he has with a guy who competes in two arenas that are not-traditionally thought of as combat: chess and tai chi.

The competitor he interviews is named Josh Waitzkin, whose name might ring a bell if you saw the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Josh was a chess prodigy as a child, and the movie was based on a book his Dad had written about Josh's chess career. Having set chess aside, Josh took up tai chi, and it's competitive form "push hands." "Pushing" is a kind of standing wrestling match where the combatants attempt to throw each other off balance. Waitzkin has been able to beat people with far more skill and experience because he has a very advanced ability to pinpoint and exploit weaknesses.

Here's the part of the book that makes me cower to it’s brilliance...One of the things that Waitzkin tries to exploit is his opponents' fundamental orientation towards Order or Chaos1. His idea was that some players tend toward a highly-structured, predictable game, while others enjoy, and thrive while, exploring uncharted waters. In Waitzkin’s view, chess as a series of decisions that you present your opponent with. Often, there is a choice between two moves: one which is orthodox and one which is not. At the same time, one move is more likely to lead to success. The trick was, in moments of high pressure, to present your opponent with a choice where the better move was the one that was against his or her general orientation. That would lead them to play the weaker move because it fits their style more. At the level of chess he was playing, that little weakness might be enough to eventually win a game.

But here's the problem: chess players are specialists at being hard to read. What Waitzkin did to figure out which players tended towards Order and Chaos during a two-week tournament in Bermuda was ingenious: he watched how they reacted to the sudden rain storms that popped up. He noticed that some people ran for cover, and some people didn't worry too much about the rain. The people who couldn't handle a little unexpected weather were the Order players; they were the ones who would be comfortable as long as they were following a well-defined plan, but they weren't comfortable reacting to the unforeseen. The ones who easily tolerated the rain, even enjoyed it, were the Chaos people, and they were good at being creative in new situations. However, they weren't good at being disciplined and following a long, complicated, technical plan. Waitzkin was able to recognize these kinds of tendencies and alter his strategies just at the critical moment (and later applied this technique in tai chi as well).

So where does that lead us? Waitzkin's personal emphasis is on self-knowledge, and I think that's the place to start. As a competitor, what environment do you thrive in? Do you love a gameplan, and execute them well? Do you always seek to be steady and in-control? Is your technique impeccable? Or, are you more willing to try new things and adapt to circumstances? Are you hoping for the game to be a little bit wild, confident that you'll find a way to win?

There are examples of great athletes who embody both of these ideals, though there seem to be more who thrive on Order than Chaos. "Order Athletes" are the ones who had steady, lasting success, such as Pete Sampras, Joe Montana, and Mariano Rivera. These aren't necessarily the flashiest performers, but they are diligent and controlled. The "Chaos Athletes" are those that had one or two brilliant achievements, but could not sustain their level for a long period. I'm thinking of people like Marat Safin, Jim McMahon, or Derek Lowe. People who really know particular sports well can pick out the true Chaos players: they don't always succeed, but they succeed where all others fail, often employing unexpected or rare tactics.

The best Order Athletes will generally beat all the other Order Athletes, even if the lesser player is in top-form. However, a Chaos athlete who is playing their best can unsettle a great Order Athlete, forcing them to question whether being steady and solid is enough; that might be enough to earn an unexpected victory. Likewise, a great Chaos player will defeat lesser Chaos Athletes nearly all the time, but if an Order Athlete can play well enough to convince a Chaos Athlete that "Order Will Prevail!" then, well, they'll prevail.

Knowing what kind of player you are, what should you do? If you have a tendency towards one or the other, it's best to train yourself to understand and gain comfort going against your nature. It's always wise to keep your 'A' Game sharp, but a really good competitor will work their 'B' Game until they are comfortable using it as well. Also, it’s interesting to look at your opponents and their abilities: if they’re stronger, faster, and/or more skilled, Chaos may be your only way to win. If they have a lot of variety, but lack consistency, then embrace Order and constantly attack the weakness.

1. A few weeks after first reading this concept, I spoke with a writer whose company has developed psychological tests to help determine whether people are oriented towards what he calls "Structure or Improvisation." Many of the concepts he had developed independently were almost identical to the Order/Chaos idea.

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