Monday, June 19, 2006

The Need To Keep Learning

LinkYesterday, I must confess, I was pretty much a bum. After taking our older kid to 4-H Camp, a 90 minute round trip diversion to Allerton Park to deposit him and get him registered, I spent most of the rest of the day either napping or watching the U.S. Open golf tournament. My excuse was that it was Father’s day and I hadn’t slept well the night before, either too much job stress or too much partying with friends or most likely a bit of both. I didn’t even have enough energy to write a blog post, something I normally look forward to and something for which I try to make the time.

Actually, I watched some of the golf on Saturday too including a post-round interview that Phil Mickelson had with Bob Costas, which was surprising in itself since the tournament was still to be played on Sunday and also revealed that Mickelson expected to only get a couple of hours sleep Saturday night, implicitly planning to perform on Sunday via the adrenalin that surely would be pumping through his system and with the seemingly new found maturity (had he won this would have been the third major championship in a row for Mickelson) from having gone through the experience before.

Hemingway taught us that courage is grace under pressure and I’m sure others who watch the golf major championships do so in part to witness courage, presumably ever present in our sports stars even if it is seemingly lacking in ourselves and our colleagues. But Hemingway did not have the last word on the subject. Lombardi modified the view with his famous line, fatigue makes cowards of us all. In other words, we might possibly see courage when watching a sprint, but we’re less likely to see it in a marathon.

Golf is interesting for that reason; a four-day tournament on a tough course is a grind; but also because in medal play golf necessitates watching the leader board in that the player’s correct decision to make matters not just on the player’s own circumstance but on the circumstance of competitors as well. If leading with a few holes to go the rational decision maker qua golfer will be more conservative, to avoid mistakes and thereby preserve the lead. Conversely, if the player is a couple of shots behind, then the player will “go for it” to make up the lost ground. I wrote up some formal math notes on this idea about a year ago, when I made a post about using Tablet PCs for doing math and science. But then I was really asking about the decision making of a basketball coach and letting their team should three-pointers instead of two-pointers.

Golf, as an individual sport, has the decision making and the execution of the golf swing done by the same individual and so what is most interesting about it from a learning perspective is whether the individual can simultaneously make those two roles compatible. (There is a caddie who servers as a partner in the decision making, but the ultimately choices are up to the player.) Certainly, performing well in both roles is not an easy thing to do. There have been two popular movies about golf recently, and especially in the one about Bobby Jones there was an emphasis in portraying the character as being prone to go into a fit when the performance was not just so. Of course if the performance does not vary and one can eliminate risk in the decision making, then one can be more aggressive overall, even when leading the tournament. Some of that may explain the meltdowns we’ve seen, yesterday on the 18th hole by Mickelson, and more spectacularly on the 18th hole at the British open a few years back by the heretofore unknown Frenchman, Jean Van De Velde.

But the situation with Mickelson I think is harder because when he was playing the 17th hole he was tied for the lead (with Colin Montgomery who along with Mickelson double bogeyed the 18th) and the mindset of someone who is tied for the lead with one hole to go should be quite different from the mindset of a player who is ahead by a stroke.

Add to this mix that the course with the extremely thick rough and severely sloped greens was very difficult to play and that Mickelson overall was not having one of his better rounds, already over par before the 18th hole. And there is one more variable that I read about on the ESPN Web site this morning. Mickelson doesn’t carry a 3-wood in his bag and is unlike most other players in this respect. (Players are entitled to carry I believe 14 clubs. Mickelson has had two drivers in his bag, one for the hook the other for slice, and he may carry an extra wedge too.) While 3-wood might have been the right play, his options on the 18th were driver or 4-wood. He chose the driver.

So while we can’t possibly know what was going on in his head the last few holes, here is my suspicion. He got a little ahead of himself and started to thinking about winning the tournament. (The admonition is to play one hole at a time. In other words, he was human. I’d certainly have done the same if in his shoes.) He had the lead for a good part of the back nine and when Montgomery tied him (in part because he lost a stroke to par) he felt like he was in a dogfight. And that thought, in conjunction with the fatigue, set the stage for the 18th hole, although the circumstance had changed and he had the outright lead.

Mickelson made several mental mistakes on that last hole, first at the tee box, and then afterward not taking his medicine for an errant drive. One clear lesson from the experience is that there is a need to play till the end, which means think through each shot, including club selection, and don’t as they say “dial it in” at least not until the outcome is fully decided. So the player must constantly re-evaluate his circumstance and can’t afford to take a mental break until the tournament is over.

But I think a larger and perhaps more general lesson is that there is a tie between humility and good decision making over time, particularly in stressful situations. Mickelson knew he was putting himself through the ringer emotionally in this tournament, but he didn’t cut back on his public “obligations” and ultimately the bad choices he made on the 18th hole probably can be tied to other choices he made during the tournament that might not seem so overtly tied to his performance. Prior success is a wonderful thing to have but we need to attend to our physical and emotional well being just as the golfer needs to think through the golf shot and we must continually assess the circumstance for itself and not simply trust that things will be fine because that’s the way they’ve always been.

If our students were a bit more humble about their academic performance, perhaps they’d engage in the schoolwork earlier on and avoid some of he cramming and all nighters. Just a thought.

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