kottke.org posts about relaxed concentration
When rowing crew, each rower is attempting to achieve a flow-like state called “swing” with the other members of the boat.
Legendary sportswriter Paul Gallico — who rowed in the six-seat of an outstanding 1921 Columbia crew — described the bonding process every squad undergoes when it coheres from a group of individuals to a single crew. “We became one with the boat and our fellow oarsmen and felt ourselves as giants, since one’s own power applied to the shell was multiplied by eight,” he wrote. “Not often, but from time to time, there are moments when a good crew really blends together, bringing an ineffable delight to the rower as he feels his shell surge forward beneath him. Eight oars whip out of the water in unison; eight oars dip again and one feels a great exultation in one’s breast.”
This “great exultation” is known to all oarsmen as “swing.” Swing is ephemeral and almost indescribable. It’s the challenge that keeps oarsmen rowing. It’s the moment when the physical propulsion of a shell evolves into a metaphysical feeling of transcendence. This is the essence of crew.
As with other sporting endeavors like free throw shooting and putting in golf, excelling in rowing requires relaxed concentration.
Rowing is a paradoxical quest. To row effectively, an athlete must be simultaneously graceful and brutal, intense and relaxed, thoughtful and robotic.
From Grantland’s 30 for 30 Shorts series, a short film on former major league catcher Mackey Sasser and how he lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher.
[I took the video out because someone at ESPN/Grantland is idiot enough to think that, by default, videos embedded on 3rd-party sites should autoplay. Really? REALLY!? Go here to watch instead.]
I remember Sasser (I had his rookie card) but had kinda stopped paying attention to baseball by the time his throwing problem started; I had no idea it was so bad. The video of him trying to throw is painful to watch. According to the therapists we see working with Sasser in the video, unresolved mental trauma (say, from childhood) builds up and leaves the person unable to resolve something as seemingly trivial as a small problem throwing a ball back to the pitcher. I’ve read and written a lot about this sort of thing over the years.
One hemisphere of your brain can cause you to over-think things and choke at key moments during athletic competitions. Scientists wondered if you could somehow break that pattern by doing something as simple as making a fist with your left hand. And it worked.
Lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, PhD, put it pretty profoundly: “Consciously trying to keep one’s balance is likely to produce imbalance.” Simple (brain-hemisphere-dependent) tasks that activate motor portions of the brain while drawing activity away from the ruminating portions can help experienced athletes perform (in terms of accuracy and complex body movements done from muscle memory) without being messed up by nerves. “Just let it happen; be the ball.”
Take smaller bites!!
Ok, no. I’m talking about performance-based choking, or as Jonah Lehrer puts it, “performing below skill level due to performance related anxieties”. Lehrer points to some interesting research which suggests that simplified thinking about your general technique can be enough to ward off performance anxiety.
When the expert golfers contemplated a holistic cue word, their performance was no longer affected by anxiety. Because the positive adjectives were vague and generic, they didn’t cause the athletes to lose the flow of expert performance or overrule their automatic brain.
If I ever write a book, it might have something to do with the two minds that govern creative expertise: the instinctual unconscious mind (the realm of relaxed concentration) and the thinking mind (the realm of deliberate practice). The tension between these two minds is both the key to and fatal flaw of human creativity. From the world of sports1, here’s Rockies pitcher and college physics major Jeff Francis describing the interplay of the minds on the mound:
Even though I do understand the forces and everything, there’s a separation when I’m pitching. If I throw a good pitch, I know what I did to do it, but there has to be a separation between knowing what I did and knowing why what I did helped the ball do what it did, if that makes any sense at all. If I thought about it on the mound, I’d be really mechanical and trying to be too perfect instead of doing what comes naturally.
But you don’t need to be a physics major to wrestle with the consequences of the conflict between the two minds. After an injury and subsequent surgery, Francis’ instinctual mind works to protect his body from further injury:
Francis repeatedly pulled the ball back in preparation to throw. But as he flashed his arm forward, his hand would, mind unaware, bring the ball back toward his ear rather than at full extension. It was his body essentially shortening the axis of his arm to decrease the force on his shoulder, protecting him from pain. And Francis could not stop it.
After his 10th pitch and first muffled groan of pain, he stopped.
“It’s hurting you?” Murayama said.
“Yeah,” Francis said.
“I can tell. You’re getting out ahead of your arm. Slow down, stay back a little more.”
“Does it look like I’m scared to throw a little?”
“Are you scared?”
To fully recover and regain his former effective pitching motion, Francis will utilize his thinking mind to retrain his unconscious mind through deliberate practice to ignore the injury potential. (thx, adriana)
 Most of the examples I’ve cited over the years deal with sports, mostly because professional athletes are among the most trained, scrutinized, studied, and optimized creative workers in the world. For a lot of other professions and endeavors, the data and scrutiny just isn’t as evident. ↩
Filmmaker Mike Leigh’s description of how he works with his actors in movies reminds me of (unsurprisingly) relaxed concentration and deliberate practice.
When it comes to the crunch it really is about having actors who are totally able to think deeply about their characters while at the same time, once we developed those characters, for them to be absolutely organic and able to respond emotionally to anything that comes their way. When it comes to thinking about how a character talks, there are literary and language considerations. For actors to be able to differentiate between themselves and the characters they are playing while at the same time remain in character and spontaneous requires a sophisticated combination of skills and spirit. The bottom line is this: For those that can do it, it’s a natural combination and they don’t think twice about it. For those that can’t do it, they can bang their heads against a brick wall from now till kingdom come and they still won’t get there.
Leigh’s acting example — that there are two distinct people at work, the actor and the character — is interesting to think about in the context of sports. I wonder if any athletes approach working on their games in this way, differentiating between the player who performs and the person who analyzes the playing. Plenty of athletes refer to themselves in the third person (Rickey Henderson!), I wonder if that’s why.
Elite archers are sometimes afflicted with something called target panic.
Target panic, as the condition is known, causes crack shots to suddenly lose control of their bows and their composure. Mysteriously, sufferers start releasing the bow the instant they see the target, sabotaging any chance of a gold-medal shot. Others freeze up and cannot release at all. Target panic is akin to the yips in baseball and golf, when accomplished athletes can no longer make a simple throw to first base or stroke an easy putt.
Some researchers have asserted that there are two types of yips, neurological (when groups of neurons become worn from overuse) and psychological.
A post by Jonah Lehrer about thinking under pressure links deliberate practice with another of my favorite concepts, relaxed concentration. For novice golfers, thinking more about a putt increases their chances of making it. But for experts, thinking about the mechanics of the putt in the same way makes it less likely that they’ll sink it.
Rather than think about the mechanical details of their swing, [expert] golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, or what psychologists call a “holistic cue word”. For instance, instead of contemplating things like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, they should focus on descriptive adjectives like “smooth” or “balanced”. An experimental trial demonstrated that professional golfers who used these “holistic cues” did far better than golfers who consciously tried to control their stroke.
Related: a reader recommended George Leonard’s Mastery as a good read about deliberate practice. (thx, jd)
Update: Another recommendation: Inner Tennis. kottke.org reader Stuart says:
Reading this book a couple of years ago quite honestly transformed my tennis game: I am good at deliberate practice, which had allowed me to become technically very sound, but until then I was completely unable to consciously enter a state of relaxed concentration and execute in a match situation: I was a classic “over thinker”. Gallwey’s book treats relaxed concentration as a skill to be deliberately practiced, and gives an approach to do so. Highly recommended, and fascinating for any (thoughtful) sportsman.
A good but not great profile of Steve Nash in Play, the NY Times’ occasional sports magazine.
My first and second years in the N.B.A., I used to get really nervous in a tight game. But now I wait for that moment when things are really close — that’s what I really love. Having the ball in my hands and the responsibility makes me feel calm and open. Not to have that, not to get to that point in a game, would feel really…really confining.
I also liked how he involved not-so-good players on his college team:
If he had a guy on the right wing in transition who he knew couldn’t shoot the ball, he’d throw a pass that was just good enough to include the guy in the fast break, but just bad enough that the guy wasn’t in a position to get off a shot and would have to pass the ball back.
I love the idea of conservation of concentration conveyed in this piece about Roger Federer, that we’ve got only so much intense focus to go around and successful athletes like Federer are really good at saving it up for the big moments.
A couple of times during press conferences, I noticed something kind of interesting about Roger Federer. I’ll get to it in a minute, but let me describe the scene first. Players enter Interview Room One, where all of the Rajah’s pressers take place, at the corner diagonally opposite from where the players enter. The players come in and turn right, to take their seat behind the microphone on the little dais or stage. Most players look to their left as they enter, just gauging the room and who is in it and how full it is. Federer, though, always keeps his head down and eyes averted, until he sits and begins to answer questions, when he makes direct eye contact with each questioner.
Anyway, a couple of times during his press conferences, someone’s cell phone went off, each time with an annoyingly loud ring tone. Both times, everyone turned, first to locate and then to glare at the culprit: have you no shame? And both times, I noticed, Roger kept his eyes locked on his interlocutor, never glancing in the direction of the phone. I’m sure he was conscious, on one level, that there was an interruption occurring, but he had decided to ignore it. Not even a darting of the eyes towards the irritant. Both coming in the room with his head down and refusing to allow himself to be distracted or interrupted seemed to convey the same thing: he chooses to focus selectively, and focuses intensely once he does.
It was difficult to keep the quoting down to those two paragraphs…just go read the whole thing. (And of course, this ties into my continuing fascination with relaxed concentration and the battle with the self as the true struggle in life.)
Free throw shooting is one of my favorite topics. It’s the whole relaxed concentration aspect of it: can you focus enough so that the years of practice undertaken to train the unconscious self to shoot override the conscious self’s desire to take control of the situation at hand? To me, this battle of the two minds within the individual is the essence of sport: you know how to make the shot, you know you can make the shot, but will you make the shot? Free throw shooting lays this battle bare for all to see. It’s the same shot every single time (and the easiest way to score a point in sports), you don’t have to be in top physical shape to shoot it, and yet a surprising amount of professional basketball players can’t make more than every two out of three attempts.
So, as for Gene Weingarten’s assertion (via truehoop) that if an average person took a year to practice, he could beat the best free throw shooter in the NBA, I say “hell yes”. Maybe a retired podiatrist would be a worthy candidate: 71-year-old Tom Amberry shot 2,750 in a row in 1993. Amberry was a star college basketball player and was offered a contract with the Lakers after WWII, so maybe that’s not fair…but just look at the guy.
One of my favorite actresses is Cate Blanchett, but I don’t know much about her. A profile of Blanchett from last week’s New Yorker (not online) filled in the blanks nicely:
What Blanchett hides from her directors and her audience she also hides from herself. “I do like to preserve the mystique of the thing, for myself as much as anyone else,” she has said. Over the years, she has repeatedly dodged autobiographical questions by claiming, “I’ve sort of forgotten my childhood.” These ellipses in conversation help Blanchett to trick herself out of self-consciousness. “I’m not interested in the character I am in myself,” she told James Lipton on the television series “Inside the Actors Studio.” “Any connection I have to my characters will be subliminal and subconscious.”
Her approach to acting sounds similar to the idea of relaxed concentration in sports, like the practicing of free throw shooting until you can do it automatically without having to focus on shooting and can instead just focus on being focused while shooting. The author of Blanchett’s profile, John Lahr, wrote a piece on stage fright for the magazine a few months ago that deals with the same theme. British actor and comedian Stephen Fry describes how he seized up after reading a review of a performance in the Financial Times:
The impact of the review was, Fry says, “phenomenal.” He describes the sense of acute self-consciousness and loss of confidence that followed as “stage dread,” a sort of “paradigm shift.” He says, “It’s not ‘Look at me - I’m flying.’ It’s ‘Look at me - I might fall.’ It would be like playing a game of chess where you’re constantly regretting the moves you’ve already played rather than looking at the ones you’re going to play.” Fry could not mobilize his defenses; unable to shore himself up, he took himself away.
To me, the battle with the self is one of the most interesting aspects of watching performance, whether it’s sports, ballet, live music, movies, or someone giving a talk at a conference.