Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Untutored Big Hitters...

...In Golf And In Life

I watched a good bit of the coverage of the Masters Golf Tournament last week.  It was entertaining.  Bubba Watson, the winner of The Green Jacket, is a fascinating character, in part because his drives go for so much distance, whether in baseball or in golf the long ball is captivating, in part because he is self-taught and his swing is unorthodox though quite effective, and in part because he wears his emotions on his sleeve.  Most other professional golfers try hard to be inscrutable.  Bottling up the emotional side is necessary for that. Bubba Watson's demeanor is unlike most other pro golfers.  He is much more what you see is what you get.

One of the surprises for me in all the commentary abut the Masters that I heard on TV and in what I read online is that there was no mention of John Daly.  To me, Daly's story is similar to Watson's.  Both came to the fore as players who could outdrive the field.  Both developed driving styles that were unorthodox and they were self-taught in doing so.  Ultimately it is the relationship between the self-teaching and the prodigious driving that I want to focus on.  Both learned to also have good touch around the green, which in combination with the driving made them formidable competitors.  Both now have two major championships to their credit.  Both also demonstrate their inner demons publicly on occasion in a way most other players never do.  Both also rose from rather humble backgrounds and that may very well have contributed to their later development.

Of course there are differences too. Watson is tall and lean.  Daly in his prime was average height and chunky - keeping his weight under control was a constant battle.  Watson is now quite a family man.  Daly has been married multiple times and is currently unmarried.  These differences notwithstanding, to me it seems these players are of a type.  Let me consider now a third ball player who seems to be of the same type, though he was far more successful than Watson or Daly.  I'm talking about Babe Ruth.  The following is from a piece I wrote in 2005, a few months after I had started to blog.

A little side story. Not too long ago I read Robert Cramer's biography of Babe Ruth. Cramer cites Ty Cobb on how Ruth learned his swing. Since Ruth started as a pitcher, nobody coached him on his hitting. He therefore learned to hit in an uninhibited way. Since "small ball" was the approach to baseball at that time, if Ruth had started as an outfielder he would through coaching have been forced to learn a more compact swing and would have never become the prodigious home run hitter and savior of baseball. I'll get to the relevance of this story in a bit.

So it would seem that while most players in sports benefit from having a lot of coaching, there are a handful of big hitters who were better off developing on their own.  I'd like to see if I can get at why that is.  Then I'd like to translate that story into settings other than professional sports.

I will take as my starting point this essay by Ericsson et. al. on developing expertise.  http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/blogs/freakonomics/pdf/DeliberatePractice%28PsychologicalReview%29.pdf.  The key, according to these authors, is a regime of "deliberate practice" where at each step the individual tries to do something just out of reach.  This is the immediate challenge.  As the person practices performance improves and eventually the challenge is met.  When that happens a new challenge is needed and when that is found the cycle repeats.

Most of us don't become experts in areas that at one time we were interested in.  The reasons are multiple.  One is fear of not being able to rise to the next challenge.  Another is getting bored with practice so not putting in enough time to master the current step.  A third might be what is called the Goldilocks problem.  How big should the next step be, in what direction should it be taken, and what criteria determine that? Too small a step or a step in too familiar a direction and the person will feel unchallenged and get bored.  Too large a step or a step in a too alien a direction and the person will become frightened by the likelihood of failing.  What is required is a step that is just right right.  How is that step found?

Two possible answers to that question are: (1) by coaching and (2) by self-experimentation.  The coach is himself an expert who matches the orthodoxy of the sport (or perhaps his idiosyncratic view of that orthodoxy) to the talents of the player and the player's current performance level.  The matching process then generates the next step, with the thought in mind that following a sequence of such steps will bring the player to the top of the profession and demonstrate excellence in accordance to the orthodoxy.  Self-experimentation is different.  The player develops an intuition for the next step to try and goes with that intuition on what to practice.  The intuition, in turn, is part of an inventive process.  It is based on enormous self-knowledge but it is less dependent on the current orthodoxy.  Bubba Watson's initial stance and footwork through the golf swing, for example, are completely non-standard (though one commentator I read mentioned that they are something like what Jack Nicklaus used to do).  Yet his method works for him, very well.  He wouldn't have found it via coaching.  He had to try it on his own, see what results he got from it, and then tweak it till it was quite effective.

The coaching approach is more likely to produce progress that ultimately results in expertise.  Self-experimentation will generate more failure along the way and thus likely be slower.  But once in a while it will produce surprisingly good results.  Thus someone who is talented and persists in a regime of self-experimentation is more likely to produce outlier great performance than would his counterpart who relies on a coach.

There is another piece to the puzzle, I believe. This has to do with live performance, not practice, and what approach the player is most comfortable with when, "the pressure is on."  Most of us choke in such circumstance.  The pressure gets to us.  But some of us can stay in the moment and continue to perform at a very high level.  What allows the person to do that?  On this, the following quote from Jordan Spieth, Watson's playing partner in the final round of the Masters, who ultimately tied for second for second place is quite revealing (the source is here http://espn.go.com/golf/masters14/story/_/id/10785511/2014-masters-jordan-spieth-says-sting-loss-last-awhile):

"In the long run, it's probably better that it worked out that way than if I pulled it off, because now I'll sit back and look at it and realize you just have to stick to that original game plan out there and you can't get greedy, and that's what I did just on that one swing."

In other words, Spieth represents one view of high-level performance - have a good script at the outset and then stay on script.  Don't improvise. Elsewhere in the linked piece Spieth said that while he had a bit of nerves, he was mainly calm out there.  The staying on script approach goes hand in hand with somebody who can remain calm under pressure.

Bubba Watson's personality is the diametrical opposite of Spieth's.  Jim Nantz referred to Watson as a creative golfing genius, meaning he was constantly improvising on the golf course.  But Nantz also referred to Watson's soft underbelly - he can get fidgety and lose his concentration.  One might conjecture that Watson is an ADHD type and the creativity becomes a way for him to manage that.  Staying on script would produce horrible results for Watson, because he'd soon stop paying attention and his performance would suffer.

ADHD may not be the only driver for why others like to improvise in the live moment, but then I believe feeling a sense of boredom from staying on script has to be at least part of the reason.  In any event, I believe it a reasonable conjecture that there is a strong relationship between the preferred method of live performance and the way performers prefer to engage in deliberate practice.  Those who like to stay on script in the clutch opt for coaching with deliberate practice.  Those who want to improvise under pressure opt for self-experimentation.

Now let's segue from sports to medicine.  This essay by Atul Gawande called the Bell Curve is one of my favorites.  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/12/06/041206fa_fact?currentPage=all.  It is about treating cystic fibrosis, where a good chunk of the issue is whether the patient sticks to the regime of treatment through thick or thin.  Many do not, because the treatment is arduous, so the patients cut corners, ultimately to the detriment of their own health.  The doctor who has achieved the best results on treatment, by far, is Warren Warwick.  He improvises a great deal and is quite aggressive about it!  Others go more by established best practice.

When you first think about improvisation you probably think about Jazz or off Broadway Theater. I don't know how to tell who the big hitters are in those environments.  But there is a myth, which surely has some basis in fact, that many of the star performers live (or lived) life on the edge, particularly in regard to alcohol and drug use.  This need for extremity outside the performance setting seems to be correlated with the personality that craves improvisation.  Billie Holiday and John Belushi are two names that exemplify this view.  One wonders if that edgy feeling can be generated but in a more healthful way.  Recently I've become taken with the music of Melody Gardot.  Her story is quite unusual, to say the least.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melody_Gardot.  She is committed now to using music to improve the health of others.  If she can do that and continue to be a big hitter with her compositions and her performances, maybe it will point a way to finding this more healthful alternative.

Perhaps then, all of us amateurs who play at improvisation can become big hitters.

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