Archive for August, 2011

Considering Obligation

obligation, n. 1. Something by which a person is bound to do certain things and which arises out of a sense of duty or results from custom, law, etc.

Sense of duty and whatnot are noble ideas. I’m not quite sure they have a great place in athletic practices and performances. College athletes are headed back to school right about now. Many have worked hard in the gym all summer. Many have played in summer leagues. Some have even deliberately worked on their mental game. While many have followed summer conditioning to the letter of the training plan… it is the spirit which they brought to the gyms and fields that are on my mind.

Obligation can be both a noble and a legal construct. I truly question it as the foundation for practice and commitment in sport. If one looks close at any dictionary definition of obligation words and phrases will be read that seem quite confining and no fun: “agreement enforceable by law,” “a bond containing a penalty,” “legal indebtedness.” Upon close look, obligations are confining and not very playful.

Practice without “play” is not a novel idea. Anders Ericsson in explaining deliberate practice has quite often suggested that the day to day grind is no fun. Sure swim practice is not inherently enjoyable… swimming thousands upon thousands of yards, with precise time constraints, all while depriving one’s self of oxygen throughout. This being said, I question the athlete that practices out of “obligation.”

While many have followed summer conditioning to the letter of the training plan… it is the spirit which they brought to the gyms and fields that are on my mind.

Striving towards greatness on the playing field is hard work. It is also too long a journey for one to sustain without genuine passion for the sport, enjoyment of play, and goals that resonate deep within the athlete. When practice and play begin to be “obligations” rather than desires, the road to excellence becomes filled with potholes and dead ends.

A “rah rah” approach to practice each and every day may be unrealistic. Yet the athlete that shows up  simply because he “has to” or she “needs to” because it’s what an athlete does is likely to make few strides forward. Practice ought be a labor of love. Traversing the difficult path to high performance should be a welcomed challenge rather than a necessary evil.

When language about practice and play starts to be that of obligation, step back to re-harness the spirit of the sport and the true resonance of the many hours committed on the journey.

Short Circuit – FFT

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In this vein, in this post, I’m throwing out some food for thought and holding back on nice neat solutions. Think about it. If you need the “solutions” e-mail or call up one of the contributors to PSPS, they’re on top of things. Nonetheless think about them a bit.

I have been working in mixed martial arts for a couple of years now. Wrestling, boxing, and non-mixed martial arts are things that have come into my office for over a decade now, but it’s “mixed” that leads to some real food for thought from the learning and the psychological management end of things.

I was at lunch the other day discussing the MMA debut of a seasoned martial artist. A young man that was well practiced in a rough and tumble form of kick boxing. He was also a martial artist that has displayed great expertise in jiujitsu. He had standup and a solid ground game, he was ready for MMA. His first fight began… he gave up his back quickly and submitted to a rear naked choke well before the first round concluded. Certainly not the desired result of his first fight and certainly not a display of his dynamic skill set. In hearing this story, I asked his coach if what he saw was a “short circuit.” Meaning a mental glitch when one had to bounce between disciplines, seamlessly, in real combat. We weren’t sure that was the answer, but you could almost see the light bulb go off in the coach’s head. He muttered, “Short circuit… I could see that happening.”

Mixed martial arts seems like it is designed to create mental short circuits. Combining multiple, related but different fighting disciplines is both a learning and an execution challenge. Consider trying to master four domains – boxing, Mu ay Thai, wrestling, and jiujitsu – and then execute them at full speed together while responding to an opponents actions. This provides many developmental, learning, and mental challenges. Think about some truisms of sport science:

– It takes 10 years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve true excellence in a domain. Does that mean that 40 years and/or 40,000 hours are required to truly master four martial art domains?

– Expertise is fairly domain specific. This makes it reasonable to assume that expertise in Mu ay Thai does not necessarily transfer quickly or directly to boxing. Similarly jiujitsu to wrestling? Certainly the striking game and grappling game fairly specific domains of expertise.

– Considering the above, how can you find time for it all without overtraining? To master many disciplines practice of each is required. Are there enough hours in the day to pull it off?

– Transitions are critical and challeging. While mastering standing and ground disciplines is important. One must also master transitioning from one to the other without losing his or her good sense. Furthermore these transitions must be made quickly, there is little time to re-orient one’s self during a round.

– “Drilling” is a tried and true way of learning a technique. “Drilling” is also a good way to create silos in one’s game, meaning parts that do not flow together well. Finding the balance between the drilling and the mixing it up is an art.

– Stress definitely makes us stupider. It can slow down athletes and cause glitches in concentration. In MMA, only the elite of the elite are masters of many disciplines of fighting. For the rest, it certainly is not easy to remember the little you may know about your weaker discipline when an opponent is stepping towards you with fists flying. There is stress management in sport and then there is stress management in MMA.

Considering all of the above, “short circuits” in even experienced fighters seems reasonable. Is it possible to avoid such slips and navigate a complex learning and training process? Absolutely. Yet considering it all and it’s dynamics is definitely food for thought.

Note: The above is by no means an exhaustive list. Also it by no means suggests that other sports are not complex, yet it is a fun intellectual activity to sort out the development of a truly “mixed” athlete.

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