Saturday, August 17, 2013

Musings on Mastery

Have you ever noticed how smooth and graceful expert athletes look in action? Mastery breeds grace and beauty, even (especially?) in the midst of heavy breathing and perspiration.

it must be easy if they all do it so similarly, right?
mastery x 3 at the Olympics

Experienced dancers make impossible moves look strangely normal. Until you try them yourself.
Huh? Left foot goes where? Spin and stop on cue? How did she lift that leg so high? How did he just walk forwards / backwards?

how most of us feel
doing the moonwalk
how it's supposed to be done -
smooth personified?

Think of the Top Dog in your physical activity -- from dancing to swimming to rock climbing to squash to high jumping -- and how effortless he or she looks doing it.

I suppose that in anything people practice -- knitting, public speaking, cooking, changing a diaper -- mastery begets incredible fluidity, yet seems so out of reach to the beginner. Realizing how repetition and practice result in both greater success and greater fluidity across so many different activities gives me hope for those activities in which I am highly mediocre, and even those I can't imagine ever getting good at.

What I think I look like diving
What I look like diving

There is no magic bullet, yet consistent practice will consistently (if slowly) improve our mastery of whatever we put our minds to improving: whether it is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice or weekly fun participation, you will improve with practice.

Earlier this week, I ran a "mini-marathon" 10.5km race (in Bangkok, where, yes, heat index is somewhere close to 1,000,000), with a 10k time of just under 50 minutes, which was a respectable time for me.

Me, near the finish of the Khao Yai half marathon,
feeling ready to collapse!
photo: ShutterRunning

Tirunesh Dibaba winning a
world-class 10k --
I'm not sure she's even sweating

As comparison, the master, Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, won the women's 10k at this week's World Championships with a time of 30 minutes, 44 seconds, nearly twice as fast. And you know she looked way smoother than I did...

We must remember that the practice and repetition needed to excel in a sport, art, or other activity by default require reducing the time we spend doing other things. The more we focus on a single activity, the better we THAT activity, but you know that swimming, tennis, dancing and high jump champions will by necessity struggle with those other endeavors that they haven't mastered.

I know this isn't new, but it bears reminding ourselves, first, that practice makes Better, if not entirely Perfect and, second, that those masters of our chosen sport have certainly foregone improvement in other activities to get there. We all have 24 hours in each day -- how do you choose to spend yours??

Some links

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell
How to moonwalk

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