Sunday
Jun192011

Have fun and learn something

On the auspicious occasion of my 12th college reunion, I once again returned to campus to play with my college band. We hadn't played in two years, which was also the last time I played on a stage, so it was 24 hours of intense preparation before the show went off. Thankfully, we tempered our ambitions a little bit and didn't add too many songs (A notable exception was the quick-and-dirty cover of a recent Cee-Lo Green hit that absolutely demanded a spot on the setlist.). Overall, the show went really well for the band, and for me personally. How do I know? Because I set two goals for myself: have fun and learn something.

There was no doubt that I was going to "have fun" overall (Playing shows beats sitting in traffic.), but in the context of performance, this goal was more about maintaining a positive attitude and steadying the ship if I/we started to make mistakes. I know I did OK with this because I don't really remember any specific gaffes (Well, there's one that I saw on video, but it was small, and we all recovered quickly.), so I know they didn't dominate my experience of the show. I also realized that my energy was flagging a little in the second half of the set, so I rstarted concentrating on interacting with people more. This really helped my attitude, as I had started to drag a little. Interesting that a little shift in focus really picked up my spirits.

What did I learn?

1. It's better to turn the volume up and play lightly. This saved the skin on my fingers, which almost gave way due to playing so much more than I'm used to. It also allowed my hands to relax, which helped my playing.

2. Focusing on putting out energy to connect to people was a good way to enjoy the show and not focus on playing perfectly. In the past, I'd have a great time, but if I got tired, I faded without knowing how to stop it. I was just a little more aware of my energy for this show, and was able to direct it positively.

3. Everything's easier when you have a great group of people to play with (but I knew that already).

Thursday
May192011

Thanks and a giveaway

Dear Readers,

This site went live about two months ago, and I've gotten many more visitors than I had expected. From the "back side" of the website I can see that a lot of people are coming and reading through stuff I've posted. I'm really grateful for the attention.

What I'm looking for now is a little more feedback! So I'm creating the Pre-Summer Commenter Giveaway. I'll give away an initial consultation and two follow-up sessions to one randomly selected visitor who leaves a comment on an article or sends me feedback about the website in general. I'd love to know what you find interesting and what you'd like more of.

The sessions can be related to anything, but might be particularly useful to athletes heading into a summer competition or training season. The deadline will be June 15th, let's say noon.

Thanks for reading and for your support.

Cheers,

Mason

Tuesday
May102011

"Unteachable"

This will be quick. I met a new tennis student today. She was a nice woman who told me in an email that she wanted to play better tennis with her children and husband. When I met her in person, she quickly told me that her tennis was "pathetic" and that she was "unteachable."

Ouch. I quickly told her that there was no such thing. Unfortunately, our lesson was rained out so I couldn't prove it to her yet. Of course, just be showing up to a lesson, she's showing that she doesn't believe that she's unteachable, but I hope she was just voicing a little frustration and that she's open to learning. 

The truth, as always, is that you aren't what you are, you are what you do. If she works hard, she'll be fine.

Monday
May022011

Loss

I've been re-reading Jonah Lehrer's fascinating How We Decide,a an examination of decision-making from perspectives such as neurology, psychology, and economics. One of the more resonant sections for me as a performance coach has to do with the concept of "loss aversion."

Loss aversion in this case, refers specifically to the concept of losing something, or an amount of something, that you already have, as opposed to "losing a game." As described by Lehrer, people tend to want to hold on to what they have unless the potential gain from a risk is much larger than a potential loss. For example, in an economics lab, in order to risk $20 on a coin flip, people demanded, on average, the potential to win $40 (odds of 2-to-1). The economists interpret this as, "The pain of loss was approximately twice as potent as the pleasure generated by the gain." Whether that precision carries over to other arenas or not, this shows that people are generally disposed against risking what they have.

This carries over to real-life economic situations as well. When people have money to invest, the two most common options are putting the money in stocks or bonds. Bonds offer low returns, but are backed by the government, as opposed to stocks which are thought to offer greater returns but carry the risk of becoming worthless. However, in the past hundred years or so, stocks have never actually under-performed bonds over anything but the short term. In fact, Lehrer says, "since 1926, the annual return on stocks after inflation has been 6.4 percent, while the return on Treasury bills has been less than 0.5 percent." Another analysis claims that over the past century, the chances of a the S&P 500 losing money in a 10-year period is only 6%.b In other words, there's a small chance that stocks will lose money is the medium term, but in the long run, stocks are the better deal, and almost always by a huge amount. However, something keeps people investing in low-yield bonds, and Lehrer argues that it is the small chance of loss looming large in the psyche.

--

What might we lose in playing a game or singing a song? Professionals in individual sports have money at stake for sure, but even then, it's rarely money that they have put up in order to play (Professional poker is an exception.). In other words, though players usually can only win prize money, they may feel it as a loss if they don't win what they expect (and including training, equipment, and travel costs, they certainly can lose money on a trip to a tournament). Professional musicians are always auditioning for the next gig.

For the amateur, the money is the same whether they win or lose. For them, the stakes are purely intangible, though professionals have many of these same things on the line. I'm reminded of the the Buddhist idea of the five universal fearsc which prevent happiness:

1. Fear of loss of life

2. Fear of loss of livelihood

3. Fear of loss of reputation

4. Fear of unusual states of mind [loss of sanity, perhaps]

5. Fear of public speaking

It's interesting to me that most of these fear are described in terms of loss. All of these fears can affect our behavior, and Lehrer would argue, they can cause us to act illogically. Let's look at how each fear can manifest itself in performers.

1. Fear of loss of life - Not a relevant factor for most performers (except wingsuiters!), but may manifest itself in fear of injury. 

2. Fear of loss of livelihood - This is only literally true for professional and scholarship athletes and professional artists, though it may be part of an aspiring professional's mindset. For amateurs, this could come into play for people worried about their playing time within a team.

3. Fear of loss of reputation - This can affect any performer, from the kid who wants to impress his uncle, to a tennis coach facing one of his players in a practice match, to a veteran performer trying to prove something to herself. This is the big one for amateurs.

4. Fear of unusual states of mind [loss of sanity, perhaps] - Performers sometimes cannot straighten themselves out. This could be a loss of temper, an inability to focus through distraction, or the helpless feeling of one's mind going blank at a critical moment. In subsequent performances, they may fear returning to these states.

5. Fear of public speaking - Whether vocally, musically, or metaphorically "speaking through competitive performance," this fear can come into play for all performers. It is the fear that the sum of what they do will not be good enough, or that they will not perform to their capability. I think it's related to "loss of reputation" except that you are facing a group of pepole who are watching this happen.

--

 So how does loss aversion function in real life? The performer focuses on the idea of losing something, feels the negative emotion, and it leads to illogical thought and play.d A very common example goes like this: two tennis players are set to play a match in the club tournament. Roger has a slightly higher ranking and can consistently hit the ball a little harder than Bob. Everything else is equal between the two, but because harder hit balls are more difficult for the opponent to control, Roger should be able to overpower Bob, create some errors and openings, and win the match.

After a few games, Roger is not playing great and makes a couple of unnecessary errors. Here's where the fears can take hold: #3 (reputation) all the players at the club will know if he loses, #5 (public speaking) because there are people watching the match, and he'll have to report the score afterwards, #1 (life) because he'll be out of the tournament, and #4 (unusual states of mind) because losing feels terrible sometimes, especially when you feel you should win. Do you actually know anything about tennis? Are you actually any good? These are not fun states of mind.

Now, of course, logic dictates that Roger should simply hit the ball as he always does. In the long run, he'll be fine because he hits harder and Bob will not be able to keep pace. But in reality, a poisonous thought often creeps in: Roger thinks that if he avoids mistakes, he'll be fine, so he stops hitting quite so hard. In this way, Roger abdicates his one clear advantage in the match, and is doomed to a long afternoon of frustration (regardless of whether he wins or not!).

Another example of this would be a singer in an ensemble who doesn't want to be heard to sing a wrong note. In order to avoid loss of reputation, or, potentially, removal from the group, she sings at a lower volume. Unfortunately, this means she can't use good breath and technique, so she's less likely to nail her notes and sound good. 

--

The solution is to become at peace with those fears, and recognize the importance of facing the task at hand. Our awareness of our fears and reactions to them can give us the tools to perform effectively in important moments. Roger can learn to recognize his first moment of wanting to back off from his powerful shots and work to give himself permission to keep playing his own game. He can focus on the opportunities that each match brings rather than the potential losses. The singer can practice her technique, monitor her breath, and return to fundamentals whenever she feels that tension is restricting her. Neither of these things are necessarily easy to do, but there is a perception that great performers don't ever encounter these fears. There's a reason these are described as Universal fears, after all. The truth is that great performers have faced their fears down and have learned to concentrate on the steps they need to take to perform at their best in each moment. 

 

a. If you like Malcolm Gladwell, this is a book for you.

b. Marotta Wealth Management analysis. http://www.caar.com/rew/article/639 

c. Attributed to the 5th century monk Vasubandhu.

d. Lehrer gives an interesting example in which doctors were instructed to choose between two imperfect plans for treating a population of patients exposed to a disease. Doctors generally preferred a solution that spoke in terms of how many patients would be saved if the treatment worked rather than how many would be killed if it didn't. The negative emotion of losing those patients clouded the fact that the same percentage of people lived and died in either case.

Friday
Apr152011

New Link - Tennis Stroke Breakdowns

I love this site, though it's a tiny bit buggy. It works great on my Internet Explorer, but only 25% of the time on my Google Chrome. Other people have said they have lots of problems, and also no problems. Anyway, try it out and let me know what you think.

This is from the USTA, where they have lots of stroke footage of top pros in action. The site uses Dartfish, so you can disect the strokes and go frame by frame. Seriously great.

http://www.playerdevelopment.usta.com/players/

Tuesday
Apr122011

Book Review - "The Art of Learning"

I finished Josh Waitzkin's "The Art of Learning" a few weeks ago, but it was hard to organize my thoughts about it at first. I first became interested in Waitzkin through a chapter of Sam Sheridan's "A Fighter's Mind" (Reading List), in which Waitzkin talked about concepts of competition in his two areas of expertise: chess (The movie Searching for Bobby Fisher was loosely based on his young life as a chess prodigy.) and competitive Tai Chi (I didn't even know this existed, but I've since become intrigued.). As I've experienced with other books that use personal stories to present general concepts, I found it difficult to suss out how athletes and performing artists could learn from Waitzkin's example. At first glance, the book seemed to be a collection of anecdotes with some loose connecting material, though I think a close study reveals some promising possibilities for learning.

As a memoir, I found The Art of Learning fascinating and, at times, moving. Waitzkin is a skilled story-teller and sympathetic narrator. He's willing to admit faults, and his experiences with chess at a young age deeply immersed him in tense solo competition that most of us only come across at a much later age. His curiosity and commitment from the age of six are pretty impressive, almost intimidating, and I actually think that that fact works against some of the points he's making. How many people have the availability, never mind the ability or the desire, to study chess positions for six hours a day?1 Waitzkin was doing this every day when he was in elementary school, and he loved it enough to continue pursuing chess mastery, with this and greater intensity, throughout his teen years. My initial reaction was, "OK Josh, you're an obsessive prodigy who had the ability to concentrate on chess problems for hours upon hours from the time you were little. When you studied Tai Chi, you did the same thing. Where's the proof that anything you say applies to other people?" 

Honestly, I'm not sure he ever gets there. However, perhaps it's not fair to hold him to that standard. Maybe it's OK for him to simply describe what he sees from where he is, and, as he encourages, allow the reader to experiment and see what works for themself. To that end, here are few of my favorite concepts from the book:

 

  • His general learning method is to start with a simplified version of a desired skilland to study it intensely so that it is completely understood. Once a concept is completely mastered, it can be expanded to slightly more complex situations.2 He encourages students to condense their movements but maintain the power of a learned motion3 and also to focus on as many small details as possible. His belief is that by focusing on details, the student learns to notice small changes more quickly and can appear to be reading an opponent's mind.4
  • As stated above, he greatly stresses learning depth over breadth. He believes that once something is mastered, that feeling of mastery will serve as a standard that the student will seek to achieve with everything else they learn.
  • He learned the importance of recovery through Jim Loehr's Human Performance Institute. He describes how at first his chess problem solving ability declined if he thought intently for more than 14 minutes. When he allowed himself breaks to relax and breathe for a moment, he could sustain concentration for more than 40 minutes. 
  • He has a cool process for developing a routine to trigger a productive state of mind. This basically involves repeating some controlled relaxing activities for the hour before a naturally enjoyable activity, and then very gradually condensing the lead-in activities until they take much less time. 
  • He believes that performers cannot deny their emotions. He writes that one can train to recognize emotions, become at peace with them, and eventually use them as fuel for unique personal expression and reaching a creative competitive state. I'm greatly impressed with how Waitzkin describes channeling his anger in response to cheaters. As I have written, cheating used to drive me crazy, and I think Waitzkin is extremely smart in his approach of first studying why cheaters bothered him (In Tai Chi, he was afraid of being injured by illegal blows to the neck and eyes.), then having people he trusted use similar techniques until he overcame his fear, and finally seeking out actual cheaters to train with. This is brilliant stuff (worthy of Run to the Roar!) and a path worth trying for people who are aware of and prepared to deal with their triggers. I'm more suspicious of his anecdotes about chess masters who would meditate and pay attention to their particular emotional moods of the day and then pattern their game after those moods. I'm not sure that there's anything in this book that convinces me that most people can get that finely tuned, unless perhaps as a side effect of the other training. My own thoughts about playing with emotion are here.

 Waitzkin's writing will probably be most interesting for those interested in one-on-one competition, and those with an interest in chess and martial arts will definitely appreciate the look inside the head of an articulate and relatable master as he recounts his thoughts while he was working under great pressure. At times, it's quite a ride. I think there are lessons about how to approach learning here, even though they are sometimes difficult to flush out. A second reading through many of the passages was quite rewarding. As with a lot of books writing about mastery, this one doesn't offer any shortcuts. The path to expertise is still going to be about 10,000 hours long. I do believe, however, that Waitzkin's stories and advice can help ensure that those hours are more efficiently spent.

---

One great quote (p. 226):

At the highest levels of any kind of competitive discipline, everyone is great. At this point, the decisive factor is rarely who knows more, but who dictates the tone of the battle. For this reason, almost without exception, champions are specialists whose styles emerge from profound awareness of their unique strengths, and who are exceedingly skilled at guiding the battle in that direction.

The only thing that this misses is that it's not only true of master-level competition. I know lots of intermediate tennis players who have limited technique, but who consistently beat players with better strokes because they control the game. I'd say that this quote is true whenever opponents are relatively close in skill.

Footnotes: 

1. How long did he take to get to 10,000 hours? It's hard to say, but I'm sure he was there pretty quickly. He certainly was "deliberately practicing" at a very young age.

2. This reminds me of Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development whereby teachers determine a student's ability to solve problems and introduce problems that can be solved with a teacher's help. In Waitzkin's case, he's more interested in the learner determining his course, so he would be finding slightly more complex situations to apply his mastery to.

3. As a tennis player, I've noticed that more experienced players move much less, but their strokes don't suffer for power. For example, all tennis players are taught not to swing much when they volley (hit the ball before it bounces). An expert will use the momentum of the incoming shot as well as their body weight to direct most volleys, while a less experienced player will tend to make a much larger motion with their racquet. The same is true with great guitar players: they move only the distance from one note to the next, while beginners move much further off the guitar neck and tend not to keep their fingers spread out (so they are constantly spreading and unspreading which is unnecessary).

4. Again, experienced tennis players tend to anticipate their opponents' next shots with more accuracy. Very small movements reveal their intentions. 

Saturday
Apr022011

Solos

Playing music with people I like is one of the great joys of my life, though, like a lot of musicians, the happiness has sometimes been tempered by anxiety. The biggest problem I had was managing the expectation of playing solos. I'm primarily a guitarist (also having played bass and drums with bands), and, while popular music has evolved in recent years, I grew up with the model of bands being centered around singers and guitar solos, with everything else just sort of being an accessory (Guns n' Roses was my favorite band in high school, but I also loved Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, the Allman Brothers and, later, Phish, all of which had a lot of songs centered around great guitar soloists.). Unfortunately for me, my skills as a musician were more in the realm of writing and arranging, and I was never been able to just roll out of bed and solo like a pro.

However, that doesn't mean that I did not enjoy soloing. I worked hard at improving my technique, and I always enjoyed hanging out at home with friends and trading solos over whatever songs we both knew. In this kind of setting, it was pretty easy to lose myself in a moment and really enjoy what I was playing, which I take as a sign that it wasn't too bad. However, on stage or playing with musicians I had a high regard for, my ego sometimes used to really get in the way. I'd look forward to the chance to solo in order to impress the people in the room, or to at least prove that I was good enough. Rather than listening to the other musicians, listening to myself, or focusing on creating, I'd get really worked up about sounding good. More often than not, this led to me not playing anything particularly good, and I would react especially badly if I hit a sour note or lost my place for a second. 

Occasionally, things would work out well enough for me to feel encouraged. I knew from playing in low-pressure situations that I had good music in me, and I sometimes felt like I could transfer that to the stage. One time, the band was playing a particularly fun and energetic song with a slow break in the middle. My solo was scheduled for directly after the slow part. As I was catching my breath, I realized that I had broken a string and would be completely discombobulated if I had to play at that moment. Thankfully, I finished fixing the string just seconds before my solo time, and for reasons I didn't understand at the time, playing one of the best solos I think I have ever played. My mind was filled with musical ideas, combinations of notes I'd never played, but seemed obvious, and a freedom to let the music happen. It wasn't until I got into my sport psychology studies that I fully understood what had been going on.

My insecurity as a player had directed me to only focus on the outcome of my solos; I wanted to impress my bandmates, myself, and the audience. It didn't occur to me that playing isn't about the outcome, it's about the process. My mind jumped so far ahead that I was never really present for what the solo itself. However, when I was frantically attaching and tuning a new string just before I had to play, my mind didn't have time to sit with the anxiety of playing poorly, or the desire to play well. It was such a relief to be able to play, that I was playing with joy rather than fear.1 This often happens with athletes as well: they enter a contest focused on winning, rather than what they need to do to make that happen. For me as a guitarist, my playing is much better when I disregard outcome, think about being open to the music, make sure I'm energetic but relaxed, and play with a sense of joy. Having played with anxiety for much of my life, I still need practice at this, but I look at the first phrase of this post, "Playing music with people I like is one of the great joys of my life," and as I better keep my focus on the process rather than the outcome, I find that that statement is more and more true.

 

1. There’s a section in the book “Effortless Mastery” where Kenny Werner talks about a sax player who is not playing with full breath, not blowing out and making the full sound necessary for good tone. So Werner advises him to hold his breath for as long as he can, and when he can’t hold it any longer, to release his breath into the sax. When exhaling became the most important thing in the world (It tends to do this after a minute or two!), the player was no longer worried about his tone and sounded great. 


Thursday
Mar242011

Quotes Talk 3

I can’t stress how important it is to train yourself to seek clarity at moments of doubt. You have to stay calm and have complete faith in your abilities.

-- Pete Sampras

 

For the record, it is probably easier for Pete Sampras, a tennis player who ranks among the top two or three in history,  to have faith in his abilities than almost anyone else. That being said, what he's saying here can help players unlock what ability they do have. The key phrase here, "train yourself to seek clarity in moments of doubt," is extremely powerful stuff and deserves to be broken down. I'll take the second half of this first..."seek clarity in moments of doubt." 

Clarity is especially desirable because it is efficient; when we think clearly, we don't waste time with anything inessential. Most performers have, at some point, found themselves in a few moments where every decision was easy, where they perceived and acted without hesitation. Most descriptions of the proverbial "zone" contain an element of this highly evolved decision-making. Sampras contrasts clarity not with "confusion," but with "doubt," a word that is not an exact opposite.

What I think he's after is the idea that decisions must be made under stress, and time and energy cannot be wasted on doubt. Only through commitment can clarity be achieved because any plan is much more likely to be successful if there is full commitment to it. In fact, by going on to say that the key is to "stay calm and have complete faith in your abilities," he's further stating the importance of commitment. 

The first half of this quote is also telling: "...train yourself to seek clarity." Here, Sampras acknowledges that committing to a plan can be riskier than avoiding one. By committing, you have to take responsibility for the outcome. Some people are averse to this, and will only commit when they feel strong. Sampras believes that it's important not only to commit when you're feeling weak, i.e. in moments of doubt, but to practice doing so in order to be better at it. It makes sense: we have to get practice at committing in order to be able to feel comfortable doing it when we need it most.

Pete Sampras was one of the very few greatest male tennis players ever. He had a reputation as a player who played very well in important close matches, and players talked about him "raising his game" at the most important moments. I think that this quote shows a lot about his approach to these moments. He had trained his thoughts to be uncluttered, especially by doubt, which freed him to put his best foot forward at the most important times.

Tuesday
Mar082011

Driving

As we all have areas of strength and weakness, I'm going to come clean about one arena where I find it very difficult to maintain my poise: driving, especially around Boston. In this, I'm hardly unique. Our area has a reputation both for aggression and mercurial rules of the road. What I noticed, or what my then-girlfriend (now-wife) helped me become aware of, is that I often react to perceived bad driving with an uncommon emotion for me: anger. Let's just say that my temper didn't lead to any calmer, safer driving either.

I've begun to think more and more about this problem, because it can't be leading anywhere safe. To me, it resembles many athletes I've known who have temper problems in their sport. They get upset about something, and then it affects their decision making until they cool down. I've written about emotion before, and I won't rehash too much of it here, but suffice it to say, I don't believe driving angry is a good idea, so I've tried to break down what my triggers are. Here's what I have:

-perception of being in a hurry adds to stress

-being stuck in traffic adds to stress

-desire for "rules of the road" to be followed, when they are "violated," stress follows

-passenger being unhappy with my driving offends me, adds to stress

 An overarching theme, is that when I'm trying to get someplace quickly, I look at navigating traffic almost as if it's a competition, like an obstacle course or video game (This is not reassuring to my wife.). As such, I have notions of what I think acceptable conduct is (I like to think it's more subtle than "Everyone is a maniac or an idiot except me."), and I feel offended when people don't follow them. I believe on some level this resembles my experience of sports through tennis and pick-up basketball, where the participants play without officials and they have to cooperate in order to have a fair competition. Someone who is perceived to be cheating in these sports is usually in for an argument. Given that it's hard to communicate with other moving drivers, I have resorted to "teaching someone a lesson by horn" as if, given the monotonal wrath of an anonymous stranger, the driver will come to an understanding about how to behave better in the future. Amazingly, this has never actually worked.

I've thought about worst-case-scenarios. I think that I'm more likely to do something dumb when I'm angry, and that the negative emotion is really not helpful. On a grand scale, I want to avoid a confrontation with a dangerous person, where, even if I'm in the right, my passengers, myself, or my car could come to harm. Therefore, I've needed to examine my approach to driving, prioritizing emotional control.

So I have to prepare myself as I get in my car: what's my state of mind? Are there any triggers present that will make me more stressed? If I do start to get heated, I pull myself over and give myself the time, out of traffic, to take a few deep breaths. That helps clear my mind the same way it does in sports. Finally, I got a new idea the other day, which is to be more proactive about being courteous and less aggressive. My friend told me that he feels like he gets a courtesy wave 80% of the time when he does something nice. He must drive in the suburbs! Nonetheless, I decided to try to deserve more waves of gratitude. I'll have to accept that the actual waves may not come. But maybe if good driving comes from being good to other drivers, I need to start with the one driver I can control.