Sunday, August 1, 2010

What I've Learned from Playing Sports

Stuart Appleby, one of my favorite golfers (I try to mimic his swing), shot 59 today to win.

His historic performance emerged unexpectedly; he hasn't played up to his vast potential these past few years. Enter serendipity.

But that's how athletic performance seems to go; that is, it ebbs and it flows.

Playing sports taught me that lesson many times over, as well as the following:

Uno: Decision making under uncertainty requires practice. Sports provide environments for people to practice making decisions with imperfect information, under pressure, amidst all the emotions and intangibles that accompany trying to achieve a goal. For instance, in his recent article analyzing end-of-life care in medicine, "Letting Go" (thanks to Dave Lull), Dr. Atul Gawande focuses on how decisions actually get made when it comes to balancing the challenge of moving a patient to hospice care versus continuing to try new treatment options. The net result from his inquiry is that much can be learned from real-world practice and experience if these data points are captured, analyzed, and perceived in the right way. Similarly, as an athlete, when you want to improve performance, you have to get out and do the sport, immerse yourself in those challenging moments, and learn from these experiences critical nuances that cannot be simulated in sterile environments or through thought experiments. Whatever field you encounter, a running theme to learn from sports is that learning by doing tends to produce the most effective outcomes.

Dos: You have to hang in there; you have to be patient. Sports challenge participants constantly. For instance, if you were Stuart Appleby about a month ago, your patience would be challenged tremendously after a few years of dismal performance, despite practicing diligently. But, as Stuart demonstrated today, there is always hope that with a little more patience things just might turn out even better than imagined, pushing you into performance domains that you had not experienced previously. Who knows: Stuart may go on to play the best golf of his life over the coming years as a result of this breakthrough show? Regardless, many activities in life require perseverance and persistence: "Hang in there," is what sports have to say; and, "Tomorrow just might be your day," is what I say.

Tres: You are going to tell yourself a story. In many fields, self-talk (narrating) rises to the surface as a common process that occurs while trying to perform a task. Playing sports can provide a safe yet demanding context to hash out approaches to self-talk empirically. Whether you were a surgeon trying to master your craft or were Stuart Appleby trying to hone your game, you would engage in self-talk (read: m=1 my-thologizing) continuously in hopes of making decisions sharply, and then you would test this self-talk against reality to see how it relates to cause-and-effect relationships with goal achievement. This is the domain of cognitive psychology that seems to permeate so many aspects of life. James Joyce thinkered with it as 'stream of consciousness' in his novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Beyond that, there are many other valuable lessons about teamwork that sports teach, such as how people with different talents, personalities, and abilities can combine and synergize to achieve amazing things, but I am more curious to know what other aspects of sports folks have enjoyed and valued the most?

To good health,



  1. When I used to play squash with Daniel Dennett, I lost every single game by a huge margin. I learned that he played squash the same way he made philosophical arguments. Hold the center of the court and keep your opponent always on the defensive. He made the rules by which I had to play. Great life lesson, that!

  2. Thanks, Aaron!

    That's great.

    Where did you play with Mr. Dennett: in grad school?




  4. As a postdoc at Tufts University. I started playing squash with him after assisting with a course on the Animal Mind co-taught by Dan and my postdoc mentor, Bob Cook who does pigeon visual cognition research.

  5. @G,
    Thanks for the link to the article. I've been invited to contribute a chapter on an edited book on the neuroscience of creativity, and that paper will be very helpful to me. The following two sections from the paper are real gems:

    "There's this very nonrational, nonlinear part of the whole process."

    "I met a fellow who was with Save the Children, and he was on the Central Plateau, which takes about twelve hours to get to on a bus, and I had no reason to go there. But I went up there. Suffered on that bus, and ate dust. It was a hard trip, but it was a glorious trip. It had nothing to do with the book, but it wasn't wasted knowledge."

  6. Thanks, G.

    I agree: Great piece by Gladwell!

    I liked this too:

    Galenson quotes the literary critic Franklin Rogers on Twain's trial-and-error method: "His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again."

    and this ...

    "Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can't but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there's nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?"

    Sounds like the epoche challenge to me, eh?

    and this ...

    "If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level."

    Thanks to Dave Lull, eh?

    and, finally, this ...

    "But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it's just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table."

    Cheers to life-long thinkering!