A swimmer’s perspective on deliberate practice

swimmer

Last week I wrote about how the Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe’s approach to swimming can teach us a lot about the power of staying in the present moment. What Thorpe described was a clear decision to treat every swim as a new experience, and to ‘listen’ to the water to find out how the present conditions would affect the way he would swim.

 

We left Mr Thorpe diving into the pool, and then gliding in the water, prior to beginning a stroke. This week we are going to look at what he does next, because I think it has a major lesson for how we can all stay in the present moment more.

Thorpe continues:

“As I begin to swim I allow myself to feel where the water is moving around me, how it flows off my body. I listen for any erratic movement which means I’m not relating to the water and I have to modify my stroke…”*

Thorpe doesn’t listen to the water once and then stop. He keeps doing it. As he swims, he is constantly receiving feedback from the water, and he uses that feedback to help him choose how to swim even better.

But how does he do that? How does Ian Thorpe have the time and the brain space to keep that sort of contact with the feedback he receives from the water, even when racing?

The answer is surprisingly simple.

Practice.

Ian Thorpe loves swimming. And not just the racing and winning. He loves the practice. His autobiography is full of descriptions of the technical changes he is making to his strokes as he returns to competitive swimming. And towards the end of the book he says “I enjoy aspects of training that most people would think as drudgery; for me, it’s an exploration of what I can achieve.”**

Thorpe has a fascination with the technical aspects of his sport. This is no different to my musician students: the trombonist playing ‘the opens’, or the flautist playing long notes. By working on the most basic elements of their technique many times, they seek to attain a mastery that will inform and enhance the way they play more complex material.

This type of practice is a long way from ‘performance’. Even James Galway would stretch an audience’s goodwill by coming onstage and playing long notes at them! But it is an essential component of end-of-goal performance readiness.

FM Alexander talks about this too. When he was trying to solve his voice problems initially, he realised that he needed to practice the plan he had created to help him achieve his goal of speaking, but separate it from any sense of end-of-goal performance. And he needed to practice it a lot.

“I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to “do” them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice.” ***

Because Ian Thorpe has spent countless hours in the pool (and out of it) working on his technique, because he has thought, analysed and planned his swimming stroke – because, in short, he has spent his preparation time carefully – he has the space to ‘listen’ to the water consistently and make changes as he swims.

So if there is an activity that is troubling you, can you do this?

  • Can you break the activity down into some basic key elements, like the flautist’s long notes? (Eg for moving from sitting to standing, moving at the hip joint might be a key component)
  • Can you practice the key components by themselves, just for their own sake?
  • Can you find a fascination in attaining mastery of the key components?
  • And when you’ve done this and brought that knowledge back to the activity at hand, does it make a difference?

Email me and let me know. 🙂

 

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xii.
** ibid., p.283.
*** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.424.
Image by franky242 from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you dare play the thinking game?

How much, and how often, do you think about the things that you’re doing?

Do you, for example, think about the act of walking as you go to work or to the shops? Or are you resolutely thinking about something else, and plugged into an iPod into the bargain?

Modern life seems to encourage us to keep motoring on to the next thing. And if, as FM Alexander notes you and I are like the vast majority of people, doing pretty much the same things each day, and thinking pretty much the same thoughts, it is very tempting to believe that we don’t need to think.* I mean, we know how to walk – don’t we?

But part of the reason why we have troubles with overdoing muscular effort, or just using the wrong muscles, in so many activities is that we’ve never really sat down and thought about what that activity actually requires.

What do you actually need to do to type on a keyboard? Use a mouse? Play a piano? Raise a teacup to your lips? Do you know?

For the next week, I want you to play and experiment. Pick an activity – something simple.

Spend a little bit of time each day thinking about that activity.

  • What do you actually need to do to carry out that activity?
  • Do you know what muscles or joints might be involved?
  • Does what you need to do change depending n external circumstances (different keyboard, different mug, etc)?

Spend just five minutes a day thinking about the activity you’ve chosen. By the end of the week, I’m hoping that you’ll have formed a clear idea of what that activity actually involves. You may even have started checking that against the reality of what you actually do.

Give it a go. Play. Experiment. If you have time, email and let me know the results, or ask me a question if you need to. Because if you give it a go, and if FM is right, you’ll have just begun the first step in creating a new kind of versatility and control over your mind and body. And that sounds like a pretty good thing to have.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.65.
Image by Master isolated images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Be Persistent! Stickability, Creativity and the Alexander Technique

This is the fifth and final post in a short series on what FM Alexander can teach us about steps to creativity. The first post was called Make Mistakes! The second post was called Make Decisions! The third post was called Make Allowances! The fourth post was called Be Methodical!

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En route to South Korea (and ultimately Australia), I found a wonderful documentary on the airline entertainment system last night. It was about Jascha Heifetz, the great violinist. According to the documentary, after living and touring in America for a few years, the young Heifetz began to enjoy the trappings of fame – cameras, cars, parties – and moved away from the highly regimented practice regime that he had previously followed. But after a particularly poor review by a journalist called Henderson, in which the reporter suggested that The performer was short-changing his audience, Heifetz was so shocked that he made massive changes in his lifestyle almost overnight. He became, once more, the consummate professional and utterly brilliant virtuoso.

The story fascinated me because it reminded me of another key characteristic of the great creative minds: persistence.

Heifetz didn’t quit. He didn’t ignore the criticism. He took the setback in his stride, accepted the criticism, and acted upon it.

In a similar way, FM Alexander faced difficulties in his efforts to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had spent months observing and experimenting. But after he had tried putting his head forward and up but still found that he could not prevent his habitual misuse of himself, he wrote this line:

“I now had proof of one thing at least, that all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.”

This sounds like a setback to me! But Alexander, like Heifetz, didn’t give up. He keep thinking, reasoning, observing and experimenting. He went right back to the beginning and started again. He worked really hard.

Setbacks are normal, no matter what our field of expertise. But our creativity demands that we overcome whatever seems to block our path. In fact, as with Heifetz and Alexander, the setbacks can often become a spur to even greater accomplishment. The key is not to give up.

What obstacles are challenging your creativity? And how are you going to spur yourself on?

 

Make Mistakes! What FM Alexander teaches about experimenting and creativity.

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This is the beginning of a short series on what FM Alexander can teach us about creativity. I hope you like it!

For my son’s birthday recently, I gave him a book called Make Art, Make Mistakes. It led me to think about the relationship between creativity and experimentalism.

Often, especially when I work with musicians, I encounter people who have come to believe that mistakes are not a good thing. Indeed, for some musicians, one of the most prevailing lessons that they learned through their training is that Mistakes are Bad.

Of course, the mistakes that the teachers were warning against was the sort of slip-up that we are led to believe mars a good (read: flawless) performance. But what tends to happen is that in our desire for the good (flawless) performance, we begin to fear the mistake. And as we fear, we make what FM Alexander might have termed a mental reservation, a decision to close ourselves off from performance choices that we consider riskier and more likely to result in mistakes.

We play it safe.

But safe is, ultimately, boring.

And safe doesn’t get us to new places and new ideas. FM Alexander didn’t play it safe when he stood in front of the mirror, trying to work out what was causing his voice problems. He experimented. He tried things. At one point, midway through his experiments, he even wrote “all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.”*

Alexander was prepared to risk failure in his efforts to resolve his vocal problems. And we need to be prepared to risk failure if we want to push the boundaries of our creativity.

Be like FM Alexander and experiment.

Make art. Make mistakes. Have fun.

What one thing can you do today to help you take more risks? What one project or task will you pledge to stop playing safe?

Next week: how decision-making can help you, and how FM Alexander used it to great effect!

 

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.419.

Picture by Jennifer Mackerras

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 5. Keep experimenting

In my reading of FM Alexander’s works recently, I was reminded very strongly of the supreme importance of experimentation. Alexander writes:

“We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day, and it is this fact that makes it so necessary that we should acquire conscious control of the mental and physical powers as a whole, for we otherwise run the risk of losing that versatility which is an essential factor in their development.” *

The phrase in this that stopped me in my tracks was that first one, “the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day…” Is this me? I asked myself.

Is this you? And even if it is true of me or you, does it really matter if we do and think the same things day by day?

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Why it matters.

I am about to say something controversial. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if you decide to spend the next decade or three slumping. It isn’t going to kill you. With only a few potential exceptions, the way you sit or walk isn’t going to be a life or death issue.

But it is a quality of life issue.

If we choose to do the same things in the same way day after day, or worse, if we don’t even realise we are doing the same things in the same way day after day, we risk dulling our ability to be versatile. We lose our skill at rolling with the punches. Which means that when we experience some sort of (possibly externally initiated) form of sudden change, like an injury or illness or sudden redundancy from work, we struggle to know what to do.

 

Even if we don’t experience anything so major, if we stay content with doing and thinking the same stuff day by day, we risk a far more subtle kind of injury – the dulling of our enjoyment of things.

Alexander’s definition of happiness is the kind of absorption seen in a child doing something that interests it. And having watched my own son, what I have noticed is that this absorption is most apparent when he is experimenting.

He doesn’t build the same structures with his Lego, slavishly following the instruction book. He builds the bricks that way once, takes it apart, and then goes freeform. He experiments. He plays. He messes up, gets frustrated, pulls it apart, then tries again. And each thing he builds is fascinating.

According to Alexander, versatility is important. And we build versatility by playing and experimenting. We build it by getting things wrong, getting frustrated, going back to the beginning and trying again.

So. Tell me: what will you experiment with this week?

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.65.
Image by Afonso Lima, stock.xchng