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Sports and open loops.

Sports offers a joy that many jobs and occupations do not. A golfer putts the ball and it sinks into the cup — or not. A basket-baller springs up for a three pointer and —- swish — within seconds, the shooter knows whether he or she was successful. A baseball hitter slashes the bat through the air and send the ball over the fence —- or hears the ball smack into the catcher’s mitt behind. What sports offers then is the opportunity to find out results quickly and hence offers an excellent opportunity for learning. In the previousiPhoneDownloadJan152013 593 entry in this blog, I gave examples of situations in life which should include feedback loops for learning, but, alas, do not. I called those open loops.

Sports seem to be designed for closed loop learning. They seem to be. Yet, reality complicates matters even here. There are three main reasons why what appears to be obvious opportunities for learning in sports is not so obvious after all. Attributional complexity provides the first complication. If you miss a putt to the left, it is obvious that you have missed the putt to the left. But why you missed that putt left and what to do about it are not necessarily obvious at all. You might have aimed left. You might not have noticed how much the green sloped left (or over read the slant to the right). You may not have noticed the grain. You might not have hit the ball in the center of the putter. You might not have swung straight through your target. So, while putting provides nice unambiguous feedback about results, it does not diagnose your problem or tell you how to fix it. To continue with the golf example, you might be kicking yourself for missing half of your six foot putts and therefore three-putting many greens. Guess what? The pros on tour miss half of their six foot putts too! But they do not often three-putt greens. You might be able to improve your putting, but your underlying problems may be that your approach shots leave you too far from the pin and that your lag putts leave you too far from the hole. You should be within three feet of the hole, not six feet, when you hit your second putt.

A second issue with learning in sports is that changes tend to cascade. A change in one area tends to produce other changes in other areas. Your tennis instructor tells you that you are need to play more aggressively and charge the net after your serve. You try this, but find that you miss many volleys, especially those from mid-court. So, you spend a lot of time practicing volleys. Eventually, your volleys do improve. Then, they improve still more. But you find that, despite this, you are losing the majority of your service games whereas you used to win most of them. You decide to revert to your old style of hanging out at the baseline and only approaching the net when the opponent lands the ball short. Unfortunately, while you were spending all that time practicing volleys, you were not practicing your ground strokes. Now, what used to work for you, no longer works very well. This isn’t the fault of your instructor; nor is it your fault. It is just that changing one thing has ripple effects that cannot always be anticipated.

The third and most insidious reason why change is difficult in sports springs from the first two. Because it is hard to know how to change and every change has side-effects, many people fail to learn from their experience at all. There is opportunity for learning at every turn, but they turn a blind eye to it. They make the same mistakes over and over as though sports did not offer instant feedback. I think you will agree that this is really a very close cousin of what people in business do when they refuse to institute systems for gathering and analyzing useful feedback.

If learning is tricky —- and it is —- is there anything for it? Yes. There is. There is no way to make learning in sports —- or in business —- trivial. But there are steps you can take to enhance your learning process. First, be open-minded. Do not shut down and imagine that you are already playing your sport as well as can be expected for a forty year old, or a fifty year old, or someone slightly overweight or someone with a bad ankle. Take an experimental approach and don’t be afraid to try new things. Second, forget ego. Making mistakes are opportunities to learn, not proof that you are no good. Third, get professional help. A good coach can help you understand attributional complexity and they can help you anticipate the side-effects of making a change.

Soon, I suspect that the shrinking size and cost and weight of computational and sensing devices will mean that training aids will help people with attributional complexity. I see big data analytics and modeling helping people foresee what the ramifications of changes are likely to be. There are already useful mechanical training aids for various sports. For example, the trade-marked Medicus club enables golfers to get immediate feedback during their full swings.as to whether they are jerking the club. Dave Pelz developed a number of useful devices for helping people understand how they may be messing up their putting stroke.

It may take somewhat longer before there are small tracking devices that help you with your mental attitude and approach. We are still a long way from understanding how the human brain works in detail. But it is completely within the realm of possibility to sense and discover your optimal level of stress. If you are too stressed, you could be prompted to relax through self-talk, breathing exercises, visualization, etc. You do not need technology for that, but it could help. You may already notice that some of the top tennis players seem to turn their backs from play for a moment and talk to an “invisible friend” when they need to calm down. And why not? Nowhere is it law that only kids are allowed to have invisible friends.

“The mental game” and which kinds of adaptations to make over what time scales are dealt with in more detail in The Winning Weekend Warrior How to Succeed at Golf, Tennis, Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey, Volleyball, Business, Life, Etc. available at Amazon Kindle.

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