Curiosity Part 3: Kill the Cat

Curiosity Part 3: Kill the Cat

Austin Einhorn

 

LINKS TO PART 1 & PART 2

It’s hard to foster curiosity in athletes when you are an incurious coach. Athletes and coaches are submerged in an incurious culture where the norms are repetition and monotony rather than exploration and learning. What’s worse, sadly, is that many people think machine-like repetition is learning.

When I look at today’s sport culture, I see a passion for discipline, hard work, winning, appearances, and perfection. If there were a passion for learning, there’d be a different attitude toward mistakes because errors are the medium for learning. They are what enhance the brain’s predictive abilities. They make people better, and who doesn’t want to get better? Well, plenty of people, and they argue for their limitations. But I’m not writing for them. Back to some key questions: Who shapes these young minds? Who inhibits or stokes their curiosity? Who shows them the meaning of mistakes, discipline, hard work, winning, appearances, and perfection? Adults. Authority figures. Coaches. You.

Why put effort into your own curiosity? Why answer any of the questions I will ask in this post? If you need more reasons other than “to know yourself,” I remind you that curiosity is correlated with effectiveness, accountability, tolerance for ambiguity, sense of personal worth, responsibility, creativity, and intelligence. Coaches with these attributes win — long term. Winning feels good. Winning coaches get paid. Paid coaches keep heads roofed and bellies full. Athletes often like playing for winning coaches. (I would wager that curious coaches also keep athletes healthier — because they wonder how they are complicit in injuries and work toward their prevention.)

Curiosity allows you to explore novel ideas and solve worthy problems. It takes the mundane and wonders why it’s there. Curiosity is the first step to your own evolution because every answer needs a preceding question. A curious one.

Let’s see some example opportunities in other coaches before we dig into getting curious about yourself. Let’s uncover some ignorance.

1. A strength and conditioning coach tells an athlete to lunge-jump in a weight room. She later tells the athlete it will improve in-game agility.

Lunge-jumping in a weight room will improve in-game agility — that’s a big leap over a wide informational gap. It’s an incorrect assumption.

She assumed moving fast in a sterile weight room will improve the athlete’s ability to make a decision in the milliseconds of a competitive play. Such a decision is based on a myriad of predictions: Where will the opponent go? Where will her teammates go? What does she believe is possible? How slippery is the grass and what does it allow her to do? What do words from teammates mean? And where will the open space be in the future? The only thing this coach can conclude is that the lunge-jump might increase the probability of a powerful leg due to changes in musculo-tendinous capacities. If this coach wants to increase the athlete’s agility, she needs to put the athlete in scenarios that demand similar predictions of behavior and space.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo darts through sticks.

Wait, the Westminster Dog Show has a category for humans?

Oh, no. It’s just a popular training method. This snippet of Portuguese practice is nothing more than exercise. It develops soccer skill as much as a Peloton helps Tour de France riders. At first glance, it kind of, sort of resembles soccer movements. Except there’s no ball, no opponents, no context. It’s just exercise. Which is fine if he is trying to work on his fitness, I guess. The colossal problem is that these scenarios are sold to the sporting community as skill development. The assumption here is that fast movement and changes of direction helps someone make better decisions about managing space, dribbling, passing, or scoring. They don’t.

3. Treadmill Dribbling: Exhibit A and Exhibit B.

Notice where both of these athletes’ eyes are. If either of these women watch the ball/puck this much, it’s a safety hazard. Especially the hockey player. That’s how you wind up with a concussed athlete who didn’t see a hit coming. Whoever thought these were great ideas made the same rationalizations as the coach barking at Cristiano in his Westminster debut. Coaches and athletes should know better, but culture still praises these activities.

4. A volleyball coach said, “If you don’t keep your eyes on the ball, and your eyes look up, your shoulders come up too, and you can’t make the pass. If your eyes look where you want the ball to go, that’s a bad thing. You can never take your eyes off the ball.”

Hoo boy, there’s a lot of assumptions here. Let’s cut through them quickly. Eyes can move without the entire body moving. The head can move without the rest of the body moving. The brain is a prediction making organ. It can predict where the ball will be and look elsewhere for more information. In fact, more skillful players look at more places in less time. They watch the ball less. This coach’s advice, arguably, makes his athletes worse.

So what do these examples mean for coaches and athletes? The athlete lunge-jumping won’t get more agile, Portugal will not win a World Cup despite having Cristiano Ronaldo, hockey players staring at the puck in a game could get seriously injured, and the volleyball coach gets fired because his team continues to lose. While I can’t guarantee these outcomes, how these athletes practice worsens their chances of success. They waste money, time, and energy. None of which should be wasted considering how competitive today’s sports are. The bigger point is that when coaches waste these resources, they gamble with athletes’ health and careers.

These examples prove why you have to be curious. Each one of them gets repeated countless times because they look normal, cool, helpful, and aren’t. What do you need to do instead? Keep reading — and definitely don’t click this link.

Play a game with yourself, one where you try to prove yourself wrong. That way, the goal is to identify all the informational gaps you unconsciously leap across. Useful questions are: What is the stepwise process for my conclusion? Is it true? Is the opposite true? What actually happened? And what else happened? Is it useful? Do I know? These kinds of questions create awareness which can spark a passion for learning. Awareness is inseparable from curiosity.

Next, become aware of conditional statements. Here are two examples. First, if you score a goal, you get a point. Rock solid logic. Second, if you look away from the ball, then you cannot make a pass. Do you know if that’s true? You can easily find out. Whatever the sport, try to look away from the ball for just a moment and still make a pass. Be patient, there will be some errors at first.

You could also look for research that supports or denies your conclusion. For example, baseball players are told to watch the ball hit the bat. Yet in the research, no one is able to make their eyes follow the ball all the way to the bat. If you are puzzled by this, it’s because you’re missing a key piece of information. The brain is a prediction making organ. It predicts the path of the ball. A home run is a correct prediction and a strikeout is a prediction error. The brain of a skillful player doesn’t need to watch the ball all the way to the bat because it predicts where it will be.

Now, let me make a little informational jump. The relative speeds reached by hockey pucks, tennis, volleyball, and soccer balls, are similar to a baseball pitch. Especially when you compare the distances traveled by each object. Therefore, we have decent information to conclude that volleyball defenders cannot truly watch the ball hit their arms — nor do they need to. Hockey and soccer goalies make predictions of opponents and object flight paths instead of trying to watch the object the entire way. Lastly, I’m not saying that athletes should avoid watching their balls, pucks, or whatever. I’m saying that a better understanding of what’s really happening in sports is fundamental to designing better practices and giving athletes better cues.

Look at all the information we can get from finding some ignorance within ourselves and following our curiosity. Let’s keep going.

If you make concerted efforts to discover your ignorance, it’s enjoyable and fascinating. It feels good to be rewarded for your directed efforts. Like finishing a great book or learning from a mentor. When your ignorance surprises you, it can be painful. Especially if you expected to know better.

    • Like one of your athletes getting hurt in your training or physical therapy sessions.
    • Like losing six straight games while believing your practices are useful.
    • When you assumed your relationship with your partner was hunkey-dorey until they said, “We need to talk.”
    • Like when you assumed you were doing good work but your boss fired you.
    • Like when you assumed grinding is the way to success, despite feeling terrible and not seeing any signs of progress.

 

When your ignorance hurts people you’re intending to help, it’s morally right to learn from it. If you’re paid to help them, it’s your duty. You have to be willing, or even eager, to discover what you don’t know — even if that means looking in places that might scare you.

In the strangest of ways, life gives you a curriculum you never asked for but it’s lessons can be exceedingly useful. It’s your choice whether or not you learn them. If you choose to maintain your ignorance, it is not bliss. It is willful ignorance and leads to repetitive and painful lessons. They will continue to show up until you learn.

Our definition of curiosity must become an unconditional passion for learning. Otherwise, your growth is conditional upon your comfort. You will fall short of your potential. The growth I’m speaking of is less about doing uncomfortable things out in the world and more about examining internal discomforts — like why you assumed your relationship was hunkey-dorey. Or how you missed the warning signs to a non-contact injury. Or why admitting you weren’t good enough to win is so hard to hear. Or, on the other hand, why won’t you tell yourself you are good enough? Or why do you feel you need to grind despite it not giving you any measurable results — what do you gain from exhausting yourself day in, day out? Seriously, what — do — you — gain? Where is the evidence for your choices? Why commit to such an expensive faith without any evidence? You deserve progress in exchange for your effort. But progress may not appear in the form you expect or desire.

ON PROGRESS

If you require difficulty to be a condition of your growth, you’re making an overpriced and risky assumption. When “The obstacle is the way” becomes your default mode of thinking, you look for obstacles as though they’re landmarks. “Ah ha! difficulty — that must be the path!” And in doing so, you don’t see the simple, direct answer. Or you choose to overlook it, “No, too simple. Too Easy. That’s not it.” But sometimes the clear way is the way. Simple is often the answer. (And just because the path is traversable doesn’t reduce your growth points.)

Prove me wrong. Where’s the evidence that progress always has to be difficult? It can be but does not need to be. Actors mess up their lines, laugh, call them bloopers, and still learn the script. Kids grow by the day without any idea what an obstacle is. I love to learn, play, and follow my curiosity and I grow. It’s easy and enjoyable. I love to read books that teach me things and point out my ignorances. Where are the obstacles in any of those? The only obstacles I encounter are those which I create. If I create them, I can dissolve them.

The key is a willingness to walk whatever path takes you where you want to go. It’s not that complicated. It might be uphill, or downhill, and you might get lost along the way but at least you know you’ve made measurable progress. Once you’re unconditionally committed to your growth, there are no more obstacles. There’s just the next step.

THE GRIND SUFFOCATES CURIOSITY

Let me take a moment to talk about “the grind.” It strangles curiosity. How many people grind endlessly, sacrificing themselves in devotion to their goals, without evidence that it’s useful? They cling to a single directive, work, and refuse any other possibilities. There’s no learning when you lock yourself into one mode of thinking and acting.

The grind is this cultural Kool-Aid that too many drink and call it “a good work ethic.” It’s gospel for some. If working hard got the results many of us dream of, there would be no middle class and no one percent, plebeians of the middle ages would have become kings and queens, and every baseball player suffering through the minor leagues would make it to The Show.

This effortful idea is seductive. For one, you get tons of praise if you continue to choose difficult things despite missing the destination you want. Secondly, the variable and unpredictable rewards are as enticing as slot machines — spend resources and rewards are given rarely and at random.

Thirdly, working yourself to a pulp is becoming the modus operandi for everyone in sports. Stray too far from “normal” and they come after you with pitchforks and Twitter comments. Idols and legends tell you they worked hard to get where they are, but that’s a mark of their ignorance. They have no idea what actually created their success; or their egos don’t want to attribute it to luck.

Why are so many so scared to rest? Or is it that they are too scared to do something different, despite it being more effective? So then the question becomes, what are you really willing to do to achieve your goals?

As a coach, why broadcast and encourage such a useless waste of energy to your athletes? You don’t want them to grind, not really. You want them to get better.

When it comes to today’s sports, a competitive stage unlike any before, we cannot afford to waste so much time, energy, and biological tissue cells to grinding and obstacles that yield such little bounty. In today’s sports, you must be curious enough to find what works — what will make you a better coach? What will make you better than your competition? And if everyone is looking at difficult things to get better, looking at easy things is blue ocean — it’s wide open space. Looking at useful methods is, suddenly, revolutionary. (Cue the “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs.”)

CURIOSITY NEEDS AIR TO BREATHE

The curious mind finds what actually gets results, even if it means admitting your ignorance or looking ridiculous; or that your methods hurt athletes instead of improving them. Your curiosity can save you, it can lead you to useful knowledge and effective actions. But it needs space to breathe and wonder. This rarified air is not offered when grinding or looking for obstacles.

But how long should you let your curiosity lead you? You can’t follow it perpetually, otherwise you’ll never get anything done. If you are comforted by an exact number, I give you thirty seven percent.

No, I didn’t make that number up to comfort you. (But it would be funny if I had. What’s more curious is why you derived comfort from having an exact number.) Thirty seven percent is the number Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths recommend in their book, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions. In it, they use examples everyone can relate to: hunting for apartments and restaurants. They’re pretty lame examples, unless you’re a mega-foodie who wants to put an algorithm to her Yelp selections. However, the reasoning the authors provide is good enough for us to use with our athletes.

It all comes down to time. If you have it, explore. If you don’t, exploit what you know. Early in the week, far from competition? Explore. The day before competition? Exploit your strengths. Just started your off-season? Go on an adventure, real or metaphorical. In-season? You get the idea.

How much time and energy you are willing to invest into exploration is a personal choice. If you want to innovate, you probably shouldn’t exploit your same ol’ song and dance. Innovation needs exploration. If you want to be great at what already exists, exploit your strengths and still explore, but less so. However, the cost of always exploiting and never exploring is huge — and it is the norm. Hello, specialized knowledge and specialized athletes. Hello, opportunity.

A team of researchers studied people who had “hot streaks” in their career. They studied more than 20,000 artists, film directors, and scientists. Almost all of them had impactful work after they explored many other avenues.

David Epstein came to nearly the same conclusion in his book, Range. He just didn’t have an exact number. Epstein documented legend after legend who generalized across many domains before they specialized, and then had a notable “hot streak” in their career. Then they became household names.

But what if we truncated this process from a career to months or even weeks? What if instead of spending years following your curiosity down different domains, you spent Monday and Tuesday being curious and then the rest of the week was spent integrating what you learned back into your specialty? What if the first twenty minutes of practice were spent playing novel games before focusing on basketball? What if that replaced the monotonous warm-ups that most athletes hate anyway?

Well, if the data from the “hot streak” researchers, Christian, Griffiths, and Epstein’s transfers to athletes, it means the 63 percent of focused work that comes after exploration would be more useful and lead toward better results long term. This idea of curious exploration is similar to something already in the skill acquisition research — differential learning. It continues to be proven effective for performance.

Derek Thompson, a writer from The Atlantic, interviewed one of the “hot streak” researchers, Dashun Wang. He said, “Our data shows that people ought to explore a bunch of things at work, deliberate about the best fit for their skills, and then exploit what they’ve learned.” Thompson concluded with, “This precise sequence — exploration, followed by exploitation — was the single best predictor of the onset of a hot streak.” Grinding or obstacle hunting weren’t in the conversation.

However, all the coaches in the four examples I dissected earlier exploited what they knew. These exploitations will not lead to a hot streak because they are wastes of time. The coaches hadn’t learned whether or not they made good investments with their athletes’ time and energy. When you finish any exploration and are switching to exploitation, wonder if what you’re doing is useful or just routine. Be curious.

What do you consider fundamental? Is it really fundamental? How do you know? (I have a series of posts dedicated to these questions. It’s on the way.)

Why do the same drills or weight lifting movements as other teams? Why practice the same thing the same way as other athletes when your athletes have unique strengths and weaknesses? Do you know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to work on them?

Why ask athletes to practice five days a week, with a game on Saturday, and only offer one rest day? Is that schedule conducive toward health or skill? (It’s not.)

Do each of your athletes have equal capacities to share the same schedule and workload? (They don’t.)

Why punish athletes with words and/or exercise? Do you know if it helps them? (It doesn’t.)

Why do you coach? Why do you coach the way you do? Do you speak and act in ways that are useful for your athletes?

Why continue exploiting that which should be extinguished? If you are going to perpetuate traditions, norms, or behavior, you must know that they are useful. The time and energy of your athletes are resources too precious to be wasted. They trust you with their careers. Curiosity is a responsibility — and great coaches know that and act accordingly. No matter what.

The next post will stitch everything together so you can start creating more curious athletes.

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