Monday, 24 August 2009

Manny says: "it's how thin you wanna slice it!!!"

I must have heard it someplace before, but it all came back to me during my summer vacation, when I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's last book, Outliers: The Story of Success (a great read whether you're on vacation or not): in order to become a world-class expert in anything, you need 10.000 hours of practice. In one chapter of the book, Gladwell goes on to describe in detail how the Beatles had performed live for 10.000 hours before reaching their artistic apex, how Bill Gates had been doing computer programming nonstop for seven consecutive years before he dropped out of Harvard to try his hand at his own software company, how it took Bobby Fischer nine years to become a chess grandmaster and so on. It's not as if this conclusion is in any way surprising - we have all heard sayings about one having to "pay his dues", "put the time and effort needed", or even "sweat the t-shirt" as people say in Greece - but now we have a specific target number, synonymous with greatness: 10.000 hours. So, is that it? You fill in your quota and go ahead to become a master? Well, I'm not so sure and the scientists are not very specific either: "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concerts pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do", writes neurologist Daniel Levitin, as quoted by Gladwell. A number of theoreticians suggest that it is the microstructure of the practice sessions (the specific routines and exercises) that is most important, but existing empirical research in the field has several limitations. OK then, if it isn't just the 10.000 hours of practice, what else helps one become a master???

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to spend about a week with senior Systema instructor Emmanuel Manolakakis. Manny, as he is known in Systema circles, has definitely done his 10.000 hours of practice - he's been training in and teaching Russian Martial Art for more than fifteen years and his fighting skills testify to that. He also has a great talent in communication and, when he's talking, some very complex ideas seem to flow out of him effortlessly. During one of our long conversations on the value of the Systema training methods and their adaptability to each practitioner's lever of skill, he asked me:
"How good do you want to become in this?"
"Well, as good as I can be", I said.
"You know what? It's all about how thin you want to slice it", Manny replied matter-of-factly.

Before I go ahead and try to explain what this means in the context of Russian Martial Art training, let me quote here psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, from his book Flow:The Psychology of Optimal Experience, on the relationship between physical activity and the phenomenon of "flow" - a state of joy, creativity and total involvement, in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence. "Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow", writes Csikszentmihaly. "The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring" [bold added my me]. As an example of this method, the author takes walking - as simple (some might call it tedious) an activity as one can do using his body. Well, a simple walk can be spiced up in a number of different ways so as to produce flow, Csikszentmihaly claims, such as choosing slightly different itineraries, selecting places to stop along the way, developing an efficient walking technique, paying more attention to intersting sights that might be located nearby, measuring the time taken to complete the route, or comparing the perceived effort needed to cover the distance each time.

Now, let's take a moment to think about it: doesn't this recipe, suggested by Csikszentmihaly, on how to make a flow experience out of practically any physical endeavour, seem to be the path leading to mastery? Because what else is mastery, if not continuously setting goals (slicing it very thin, that is) and measuring one's progress towards them, concentrating, making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges tackled (once again, slicing it really thin), acquiring skills and raising the stakes again and again? Or is it that one becomes a master by simply "going through the movements" for 10.000 hours? I personally doubt that, or else our world would be full of people who have achieved mastery - for example, every person who's done a job for six years would be one - and this is obviously not the case. Oh, and one more thing: 10.000 hours of just going through the movements would make mastery an extremely dull affair...

So, how is it then that Russian Martial Art allows one to divide the road to mastery to an infinite number of very thin slices? I believe the secret lies in the lack of emphasis on technique and what in sport science is known as "external focus training", i.e. concentrating on the results one's actions have on the environment. In Systema, there's is no "ideal" way of performing an action, so the practitioner builds up skills by actually solving motor problems, adapting from trial to trial, and not by constantly reproducing a supposedly ideal technique. Take, for example, a takedown that is achieved by rotating our partner's shoulder line, clockwise, by manipulating the neck and one wrist. Well, what if we tried for the same effect by manipulating the neck and one elbow, or the neck and one shoulder? How about if we rotate counter-clockwise, will our partner still fall down? We can also try to use our elbows instead of our hands to apply the force needed, and maybe add a hip or a knee-bump or a nasty little kick to the shin, in order to break our partner's structure further and do the takedown even more effortless. This freedom to explore can lead to endless variations on a specific action, and according to recent scientific research in the field of motor learning and control, what we have as a result is "better skills retention and transfer". Perhaps we could translate this as "a step closer to mastery"?

In case you've missed the point here, I never claimed that one does not have to train for 10.000 hours in order to become a world-class expert in anything. My whole point is that practice doesn't necessarily make perfect - only perfect practice makes perfect! So go ahead and put the time and the effort needed. But also make sure to do as Manny says: slice everything very, very thin...