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,