The Wright Way

The Wright Way

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Managing our own Intensity

It’s not a particularly well-worn phrase in terms of performance – “Manage Your Own Intensity.” At least, it is not well-worn in the conventional and traditional lexicon of pre-match phraseology.
However, yesterday for the team I coach, it was pretty much the only pointer I wanted them to follow as they entered into the contest. It was a non-league match – commonly billed as “a friendly” – and so, in theory, the only outcome they would need to consider would be their level of collective and personal enjoyment in playing a sport they love. 

You are Required
Pre-match phraseology tends to follow a lot of conventional norms. Players get spoken AT in a particular way, they speak AT each other in a similar particular way, and they have a tendency to speak AT themselves in that same particular way. Everyone does it so we’ll do it.
It is euphemistically called MOTIVATION.
And between the spoken lines of exhortation comes the repetitive message:
This is the way you must play. This is the way you must think when you play. This is the state of mind you must get into in order to play in the way it is said you must play. The bottom line for all this is,
“You are required. All these things are required of you. If you fall short of these requirements you – collectively and individually – will fall short of the necessary standards. This is serious. I’m taking this seriously and I require that you do too.”
Plus, if you take motivation like this to the next level (up or down, depending on your perspective), then winning is everything - this is a matter of life and death – and there’s no second chance. Grit your teeth, clench your fists and ...
Pump up the volume – pump, pump, pump.

When Shakespeare wrote “Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead,” he penned the essential motivational call in a matter of life and death. King Henry V wanted to gird up his battle weary soldiers for what he felt was going to be one last and fateful effort. The context was clear – we live or die by how we approach this day.
Keeping an eye firmly on context, especially in terms of motivation, is the key element. And it is certainly the key element overlooked by many when delivering their own particular brand of pre-match phraseology. Over the years I’ve seen this whole piece of theatre as being a myth in terms of what the players should really be getting.

Been Laden
Now here’s an interesting image that’s been laden with presuppositions, yet can also be laden with contextual manipulation!

I’ll leave you to draw some of your own conclusions; yet also consider the metaphorical shark - who is distracted by checking his long list of emails, who is worrying about what some of the other sharks have been saying about him; who is required to visit his mother-in-law this weekend; etc.
So, what happens next from both perspectives when the eyes of canoeist meet the eyes of Mr Sharkey. For canoeist there’s no time to think and the reaction to fight or flight kicks in, while for preoccupied shark his mind is elsewhere. Likely outcome is canoeist lives to paddle another day, while shark swims on with his thoughts continuing to run his life.
This is imaginary and ludicrous, I hear you cry. Sharks don’t think along those lines. So we assume they don’t require motivation; they are driven by instinct and hunger – as we know.
And the point I want to make here is that when we see a matter of life and death about to unfold, then we assume neither party is going to be doing any thinking. Their needs are just driven by their actions.

Clear the Decks
So a regular sporting contest is not a matter of life and death; both sets of players have diverse trains of thought going on; both have a reasonable degree of intelligence; both are going to be susceptible to fluctuating and wide-ranging states of mind.
The purpose of my approach is to enable as many of my players as possible to reach a particular condition so that when they start the contest, they are playing with NOTHING on their mind.
It’s rather like clearing the decks in the kitchen before starting to cook a meal. If we leave surfaces dirty or stuff lying around then we cannot give our full attention in the moment. Our meal will have less chance of turning out in the optimum way we would like.
Over the years of working in different sports with different sets of players I have witnessed pre-match preparations with widely differing content, context, length of time and levels of intensity. Now if there was a right or wrong formula here then I would have seen it played out in the results of each specific contest. Interestingly, the ONLY consistent factor is that of whether the players have something or NOTHING on their minds.

Pivotal Points
After the contest has begun, certain variables will come into play. Some of those variables will impact upon the collective and individual psyches of my players.
At the same time, a range of similar though not identical variables will impact upon the collective and individual psyches of the opposition.
And here arrives a succession of potential pivotal moments.
If MY players allow their mental approach to their OWN game to be affected by how they see their opponents are reacting to THEIR OWN particular set of variables, then they’ll be playing with something on their mind.
Now my players’ mental approach is NOT about tactics.
It is about their Managing Their Own Intensity.
OK, if they feel it is too low, they can step it up, and if it is too high they can ease off. However, they will almost certainly discover that stepping up and easing off are amongst the hardest things to control in the midst of a contest. It is THE finest of tunings, and when attempted usually gets out of control with undesirable consequences.
Come on lads – we need to up our intensity!” comes the clarion call, and yet before we know it we’re trying to force the issue and trying – as we know - upsets the applecart!
This is why setting a level and staying at that level is much easier to carry out and maintain.
Yet, having said all that, this is what managing is all about, and the MORE they do it, the MORE they will get familiar with it, and – miraculously as a consequence – the BETTER they will get at it. I cannot manage it for them with either my words or actions, nor can anyone else, and definitely not using the style of Henry V!

Starting a contest in a state of equilibrium, or playing with nothing on our mind, is for me the best possible base camp. Things will ebb and flow in any contest, driven by variables. Understanding and dealing with our own variables and not those of our opponents will free us from trying to “force” matters by “trying harder.”
It was interesting, yesterday, to note how things turned out for the team I coached, and in particular how players felt and what they said after the contest.
For most of the game they played with nothing on their minds. They started out in equilibrium. The quality of their play transcended the match and the conditions. No one considered or asked about the scoreline. They were totally absorbed with what they and their team mates were bringing about. They remained utterly impersonal towards their opponents. Apart from a short period, nothing was “forced” and, not surprisingly, in that “forcing period”, the quality of play dropped considerably. The level of pleasure and satisfaction was high.
For me, they managed their intensity extremely well – which is what I’d asked them to consider the most. I was particularly pleased with the short period of “forced” play – because essentially they had to manage it in order to get out of it by letting go of the “forcing” action.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Back to Basics

It’s a well worn phrase in all aspects of performance – “Let’s get back to basics,” or “We need to get back to basics,” or any other variations on a theme that you might care to cite. 
And there’s usually a reason for these particular kinds of utterance, which is this:
In the performance that is being analysed and judged, some things didn’t go particularly well – and it was all down to a higher ratio of elaboration to simplicity. 

Now, for the people or teams who always do the simple things well, this post-action rationalisation is never going to be levelled at them – except on those occasions when they lose sight of what their A-game really is.  So there are some very straightforward guidelines going into any performance – and to back up those guidelines there are some very simple strategies going into practice times as well. 

  •  Always know what your A-game is, in terms of basics. 

  •  Get to do the basics SO well that you can do them repeatedly, every single time, regardless of the context.

Bach to Basics

Many years ago, when live music in the “folk club” style was in vogue, a good friend of mine ran a number of these in our locality. As a musician and performer they were a good outlet for his wide-ranging expertise, and as such they were never proper “folk clubs” in the traditional (finger in the ear-hole) sense.

One evening he was in the middle of an arrangement for solo guitar by J S Bach, when a member of the audience got up from her seat, walked slowly and audibly across the wooden floor in her high heels, and came to rest barely a foot from where he was sat. She towered over him like some huge fateful figure until he paused playing.
“Yes?” he asked, looking up at her.
“Do you play any Jim Reeves numbers?” she asked.
“Sorry, love,” he replied.
“Oh dear – thanks anyway,” she said and then wended her way back to where her companions were sat, to the clack-clack accompaniment of those high heels.

Odd as this theatrical piece of audience intervention was, my friend’s basics were SO good, that his hands returned to the strings and fret board, and he continued playing in precisely the same way and from the very place at which he had been interrupted. It was as if the pause button had been hit in his performance. Nothing appeared to have fazed him or distracted him from the flow and the quality of his rendition of the Bach.

Spinning Plates

I often use the metaphor of “life being akin to keeping a load of plates spinning” – and how we deal with the stresses of life is very much about how we go about the job of keeping them spinning. There are times when plates fall and get smashed, and times when we dance with effortless ease from one pole to another to apply some “spin” action. And at these times, miraculously, no plates get smashed at all – and even though some do fall, they somehow never get broken either.
Of course, when we are trying too hard to keep things spinning, then we get stressed out. It’s as if the plates seem to be spinning much faster, and we’ve got to do more action in less time to keeping them from falling. It’s because falling means “I’ve failed,” doesn’t it?

The more stressed we get – the more we find ourselves succumbing to failure. And the smashed plates take their toll on either our bodies, or our minds, or both.

The plates – or whatever metaphorical representation we have – aren’t really real of course, though are they? The whole plate thing is just our imagination in truth, isn’t it?

Some basic questions about Plate Spinning

Have you ever thought about who decides in your life what plates will be spun; who says how many there are or will be; what makes them spin at different speeds; when did all this plate-spinning start; who taught you how to do the spinning; are you required to spin plates, and what would happen if you decided you weren’t going to do any spinning?

Is it about Technique?

As humans we start out basic and yet we have a propensity to make our lives complex from then on. Interestingly, as we drive ourselves down the road from basic to complex, we lose sight of where we have come from. We want to run before we can walk, and we want to walk before we can crawl – and there are some very basic Basics that we miss or forget about along the way.

We are amazing learning machines, and yet does anyone ever teach us how to learn? We talk about children, and especially those under 5, as being wonderful sponges for information, knowledge and understanding about everything and every experience around them in their lives. Yet do we know how that spongeability works?

Now, with scientific research and new studies we are, in a way, getting there, especially in terms of answering those particular learning how to learn and spongeability questions. However, as a developing species, I do wonder whether the journey to the there that we are getting to, isn’t going to throw a whole load more questions in our path as we progress!

But I digress ...

One of the considerations of Getting back to Basics in terms of our selves in performance is this – How far back do we go?

For a musician or an athlete it seems to look like a simple answer concerning technique. It is the technical ability to do things at the level of first principles. Strip down the complex elaboration, and find the ground level of proven competence.

I was told a while ago that some of the players I coach in sport don’t do the basics well enough, so when there are pressures in the game – from whatever quarter – their skills break down. Simple solution – get back and practice the basics until they are blue in the face and can do them with their eyes shut – QED.
This prompted my reply – “No ED!” First of all, by doing the boring repetitive basics only, and ad nauseam, I would alienate most of the players from practice and, most likely, from the sport altogether. Secondly – and most importantly – it is about HOW they deal with the pressures, not about how good their technique is.

It is how we deal with the spinning plates.

My friend only got back to playing that piece of Bach through the best basics of dealing with the distraction. He carefully took down the plate and put it in a safe place – until such time as he could replace it and set it off spinning once more.
We can learn how to ride a bike perfectly when the surfaces are smooth, but when the terrain gets to ask a lot more questions of us, how do we deal with things then?
Dealing with pressure, is all very well – but we also need to understand pressure in order to best deal with it. Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley, in the Aliens series of films, understands the pressure (the predatory aliens) and that keeps her alive, whilst all those around her are falling victims.

Seeking Help!

When people come to see me about some of the broken plates in their lives, they either want to know how to become better at spinning, or how can they reduce the number of requisite plates.
They want the technical solution – because they think, and have been led to believe, that that is the best solution. Rather like the critic of some of the players I coach, they believe that Back to Basics means technical basics, because it is their technique that is going wrong.
The actual solution is more like they need to be able to “Snap out of it”, to wake up from the dream, to realise the illusion  And this is when the Basic Questions come in useful, for that starts a process of changing their perceptions.

So, let’s be creatively perceptive and imagine, for a moment, we could take down ALL the plates. What would THAT be like?

Now, you might think this is hypothetical and unrealistic – yet consider how we might feel if that situation prevailed? What would life be like if there were no spinning plates?

Forrest Gump had no spinning plates in his life. There was lots of stuff going on for him that you and I would see as spinning plates, yet he coped very well because for him there were no plates. Mamma had said “Life is like a box of chocolates” and that worked for him. At the end of this scene Forrest also allows himself to go back to basics - right back to his first pair of shoes – remembering that Mamma also said something about people and their shoes!

When we go on holiday, in order to get the most out of it we set out to take down ALL the plates, or at least as many as we can. A lot of the trivial ones – the ones we shouldn’t be spinning anyway – are cleared and, hey presto, dealing with the more important ones suddenly looks a whole load different. The more plates we take down, the better the holiday gets.

The Final Frontier

To my mind, the real basics we should be trying to reach when we aim to go back to first principles, to the fundamentals, is to a place where there is no crockery at all – back to the cellular level, where we all began!
The first thing we’ll notice when most or all of the plates have been taken down is that there’s a lot more room! There’s space in our lives, where we suddenly get to notice the remaining things a lot better; with a lot more clarity.

We are all functional creatures, complex structures, with a very advanced brain size to body size ratio, and to go with this we have been gifted the amazing power of imagination.
Now here, imagination has already got us thinking about, maybe even seeing, spinning plates; perhaps you could also remember hearing the clack-clack sound of the woman’s high heels in my little story! It all depends on the level of fertility of your imagination of course.

So let’s imagine we’re going to go on a journey into space. Now this isn’t an exotic intergalactic journey way beyond the confines of our solar system, searching for new worlds and experiences. Far from it! Rather, it is a journey into inner space – our own inner space.

Though it is a remarkably simple and straightforward journey of inner sense, this is not about meditation or contemplation per se, although in a sense it might be considered so.

Are you right or left handed? Whichever you are I’d like you to hold your hand out slightly with the palm facing upwards. Relax the wrist, palm and fingers as much as you need to just be able to hold it there and see it.
Now, consider the fact that we are all made up of millions of cells, and yet we all started out as one fertilised or activated cell. It is quite an amazing journey!
At the very basic level, all atoms are constructed of a nucleus and a set of electrons – and, even at that basic structural level, there is space between the constituent parts. So, while we are all constructed of millions of cells of varying different types and functions – within all those cells there is space. And it is all Inner Space.
Look at your hand and allow it to open out slightly. 

Now the edges of the fingers that you see, and the surface of them and the palm that you see seem very clear don’t they? You have a clear understanding – visual and otherwise – of where your hand ends and where the air begins, don’t you?

And yet – if we could take a microscopic snapshot of an area of that particular interface it would look a lot different. For a start, the air is also made up of particles, molecules, atoms – even though it may look like a space. In addition to this, all the microscopic content of what we call “air” contains vast amounts of space, at an atomic level – as we already know.

The hand you are observing contains a lot of space; it is in contact with (or merges with) the air that also contains a large amount of space; and in this one small area of our noticing this all adds up to a huge amount of space.

Now, take both your hands and move the fingers slowly in between each other without them actually touching, if you can help it. It is quite hard to keep them from touching, although that is not the point here. The point is – how much interchanging through directed action is going on here, and AS you do this little exercise, allow your mind merely to consider all the space that is seen and all that is unseen, both in your hands and in the air.
For this and each and every journey, take as long as you need to get a sense of noticing that something has changed in your perception of what had been going on, for you, in terms of plates.


Now how we feel when journeying to our own inner space can be very much like how we feel when we take all the plates away, curiously enough – which sets me off to wondering why that is!

Of course you may consider this is all just a little piece of distraction technique – and you may well be right. Yet what makes it different from other distractions or from someone saying “Pull yourself together” is the taking of the inner journey amongst all that space. Whether we’re deeply involved with day to day spinning plates, or even get occasionally drawn, lured into a little bit of that kind of action – the result is the same.
Plus it is generative – every journey adds to your understanding like “Air Miles”..

What are most of us like when we are nervous, pre-occupied or self-conscious about something? Yes, our thinking draws us into doing some fast plate spinning, but what are we also doing at a physical level – how is it showing up in our bodies? There are the usual symptoms of a dry mouth, shallow breathing, heartbeat racing of course, but what is happening to our hands other than maybe sweaty palms? They’re probably fidgeting, moving uncontrollably, feeling in need of something to do. “Give me something, anything, to calm me down!” And we reach for our “sedative” of choice, which is rarely – if ever – appropriate. If only we could snap out of it – get back to basics!

And all the while – the answer is right there in front of us.

The solution is in our own hands.