Friday, May 14, 2010

Chapter 2—A Competitive Learning System, Part 4, More Drawbacks

Triggers Performance Anxiety
In a competitive society we are often expected or told to “be confident” even before we know what we are doing. It’s good to have confidence in our ability to learn. But how can we be confident, especially in competition, before we’ve really learned the basic skills? True confidence doesn’t come from false bravado, but from hard-earned proficiency and the knowledge that we have the skills necessary to succeed. And whether we’re children or adults, when we haven’t developed these skills, that little voice inside us knows, and tells us, that we don’t know what we’re doing.

Performance anxiety occurs when we’re put into competition before developing a deep inner confidence in our skills and ourselves. If we haven’t adequately developed the necessary physical, mental, and emotional skills in a cooperative environment, it’s almost impossible to develop secure confidence or perform at our highest level in competition. There’s always another contest and even if we won the last one, there’s still someone wanting to beat us in the next one, and the next, and the next. Watch people compete at any level, in any endeavor, and you will often see performance anxiety manifest. Experienced competitors are often better at dealing with or masking their anxiety, but even the best often tighten up or “choke” when the pressure is on.

In general, everyone has some performance anxiety potential, even five- and six-year-olds. It seems to be a natural aspect of the human condition, and it may be connected to our innate fight-or-flight response, hardwired in the limbic brain. But I have come to the conclusion that most of performance anxiety is artificially induced. It only seems natural in a highly competitive culture where nearly everyone is thrust prematurely into competitive situations.
Early experiences of failing or losing under pressure etch the first traces of performance anxiety deep within our emotional cellular memory, and in our subconscious mind. Present performance anxiety is intrinsically related to past experiences of failure in learning or performance situations. And once this anxiety is ingrained in our cellular memory, it often remains as an inhibiting response to perceived pressure long after we stop competing.

Induces Choking
Choking is the ultimate expression of performance anxiety. Sports provide the clearest examples of choking, but it occurs in all areas of life. In 1993, tennis professional Jana Novotna, lost a match she was dominating in the finals at Wimbledon. She was about to ascend to the pinnacle of tennis, when she missed an easy shot. She started thinking about that error and ended up “losing it,” missing shot after shot, including several easy ones. After the match, she was crying on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder. Novotna was one of the best players in the world at the time, and yet she completely choked and lost all confidence in her skills. This response was the result of previous experiences earlier in her life. (She eventually redeemed herself by winning Wimbledon in 1998.) This is not an atypical example. In fact, it is quite common.

The 2005 U.S. Open Women’s Golf Championships was more of a Greek battlefield than a golf tournament. Annika Sorenstam dramatically blew her chance to win her third major tournament of the year on the way to winning the grand slam (all four majors for the year). No player, man or woman, has ever won all four of golf’s major championships in one year. Having won the first two majors that year, Sorenstam was heavily favored to win this tournament also. But with all the hype around her possibly winning golf’s grand slam, she tightened up and choked it away.

In the same tournament, Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie, two of golf’s new stars, also choked their chances of a title. At the top of the leader board going into the final round – Wie in the lead and Creamer one stroke behind – by the end of the day Creamer had gone eight strokes over par and Wie was eleven over. Lorena Ochoa, in the same tournament, was two strokes out of the lead until, at the last hole, she shot a quadruple bogey eight and dropped far out of contention. In October that same year another top pro golfer, John Daly, about to win a pro tournament in San Francisco, missed two three-foot putts and fell by the wayside. These disastrous chokes are common to professionals in every competitive field. Again, it can be argued that even at the highest levels, more competitions are lost rather than won.

Choking is not due to some mysterious “fatal flaw” in our character, but to patterns etched into our cellular memory through past experiences in competitive situations for which we were truly unprepared. In our culture, we are all put into competition before we have learned the mental and emotional skills to keep us from choking. Put in situations too advanced for our skill level, before we have mastered the fundamentals, we make inevitable critical mistakes that mark us as “losers”. Such common scenarios, repeated over time, program deep inner self-doubts into our cellular memory that often prevent us from performing at our full potential.

Motivates Through External Rewards
To compete, most people require some form of external reward, even if it is only the recognition of being the winner. This starts off innocently enough in children’s games where we are often bribed to compete; offered a soda or some paltry reward if we are the winner. Early on in school, we often compete for a teacher’s gold stars. From there it goes on – the quest for A’s in school, trophies in sports, big bonuses in business, and status in society.

In America it is increasingly difficult to motivate children without offering some external reward. They often want to know what they are going to get before agreeing to do what you ask them to do, having been conditioned to respond this way by virtually every aspect of society. This is prevalent in school, in athletics, and at home. Parents often motivate children to perform tasks, from cleaning their rooms to doing their homework, by offering some form of reward. In my tennis program, some children have asked me what are they going to get if they do what I’m asking. I tell them they’re going to become good tennis players, but that is usually not the answer they’re looking for. This aspect of the competitive system – using external rewards (bribes) as motivation – results in many children losing the ability to motivate themselves simply for the enjoyment of doing the activity itself. They become conditioned to expect external rewards.

This mercenary mentality has also contaminated the world of professional sports. How many professional athletes would put in the countless hours of grueling training and work if there were no giant carrot dangling in front of them? Many athletes are now more consumed with the carrot than with the love of their game. It is arguably the same in almost every competitive industry, from sports, to the arts, to technology and business. When external rewards and punishments become the main motivators in any game or contest, the competitors become mercenaries.

Fosters Overwork
Americans work harder, and longer, with less enjoyment, than citizens in most other developed countries. Many people do become highly successful in our competitive system, often at the expense of a healthy and balanced character and personal life. Successful people must work hard to maintain their lifestyle. Sixty to eighty hour weeks are not uncommon in many top professional echelons. (It takes a lot of effort to make a lot of money and then keep track of it.) Desire for material rewards and prestige, and fear of failure are less-than-optimal motivations. As primary motivations, they don’t produce psychological health or the best long-term results in the development of character.

On the other end of the economic scale, the poor, and increasingly the middle-class, must work as hard, or harder, just to survive, pay for their homes and raise their children. Many work two or three jobs, sixty or more hours a week at minimum wage. Whether rich or poor, most people are constantly on the go, trying to get ahead within our competitive system. The weekly schedule of any family includes one activity after another, from the moment they wake up to the minute they go to bed. Weekends often cram as many fun activities into two days as possible, and frequently include children’s sporting events or performances. There is little time for the downtime so vital for our overall development and well being; the time when we can quietly contemplate the bigger questions of existence and get perspective on our own life or the world at large.

Provokes Conflict
Competition can elicit camaraderie through teamwork, but it also stimulates and provokes conflict. In subtle and not so subtle ways, we are taught to cooperate with and respect the players on our team, and to regard the other side as enemies. Yet even among teammates there is a constant battle to get ahead. We often compete against our teammates for a chance to stand in the lineup or get more playing time. Camaraderie, team spirit, and bonding reside in constant tension with the competitive desire to be number one.

As in war, to see our opponents as human beings is considered weakness. It diminishes the “killer attitude” so highly regarded in competition. This explains why verbal aggression and trash talk are rampant in sports. Look at the common sports vocabulary. We “beat the hell out of,” “crush,” “destroy,” and “kill” our opponents. We call them bums or losers, pussies or faggots, to anger and distract them and lower their self-confidence. Many players frequently taunt their own teammates in the same fashion.

The higher the stakes, the greater the frequency and intensity of such hostile/aggressive behavior. Examples include late hits in football, cheap shots in hockey and basketball, and baseball pitchers purposely trying to hit batters in order to intimidate them. And legendary race car driver, Dale Earnhardt, was called The Intimidator for good reason.

We have all seen reports on the correlation between aggressiveness in athletics being tied to aggressive behavior outside the athletic arena. This behavior is not coincidental. Our competitive system exerts ever-increasing pressure to win on people at higher levels. Where does it end? How many hours can someone work or practice? How much stress can someone endure without cracking? How much needless stress is added by an imbalanced emphasis on winning, and an unhealthy scorn for losing? Perhaps a more cooperative, excellence oriented focus in the early stages of learning would allow us all to accomplish a lot more, with a lot less stress.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chapter 2—A Competitive Learning System, Part 3, More Drawbacks

Ingrains Inadequate Basic Skills
When we are put into competition too soon, we try everything we can to win, because that’s the goal. But we often forget our basic skills and unconsciously resort to ineffective reactions. This is very apparent in people who start playing competitive tennis before they’ve developed their fundamental physical skills. Almost immediately, the correct form they’ve been practicing degenerates until they look more like they are fending off an attacker than playing tennis. It’s not a pretty sight. Unfortunately, whatever we are doing (and what we are feeling) is being programmed into our cellular memory, to become ingrained habit. Inadequate preparation of basic skills, combined with competition, limits our skill development, and increases the development of bad habits. We may do relatively well initially with inadequate skills, but eventually it works against us.

Ideally we will go back and develop the pieces that we missed. But this doesn’t always happen. Learning a second language provides an apt example here. If we are rushing through the learning process, it is easy to pattern grammatically incorrect sentence structure or inappropriate use of a word into our cellular memory. Someone may be able to understand our meaning, but our statements lose some of their power. Undoing a negative pattern takes far more effort than learning correctly from the start. Inadequate preparation of basic skills is a big problem in most people’s development across all disciplines. Once again, trying to win trumps learning the skills.

Cultivates Winning Without Skill
In every contest there is a winner. In a few cases there is a draw. But being declared a winner doesn’t mean you have developed proper skills or achieved competence, let alone mastery. Participants competing prematurely in any sport or endeavor exhibit more luck than ability, and certainly very little skill. In fact, most contests are lost, not won; they are decided by the loser making too many errors. Yet someone still gets the reward of being called the winner.

Even at the professional level, contests are commonly marred by less-than-optimal play and behavior. (In Chapter 5, I’ll explain why I prefer the term less-than-optimal instead of bad). All too often, even professional athletes play well below their abilities — a baseball or football player dropping an easy catch, a basketball player missing an open shot, a tennis player missing an easy volley, or a soccer or hockey player not scoring a goal on a one-on-one break. At the 2004 French Open Women’s Championships Venus Williams lost a match by making eighty-seven (!) unforced errors out of a total of one hundred points that she lost. Venus is a great tennis player, but her performance that day was pure mediocrity. Her opponent won only thirteen points in the entire match on her own. Yet she “won” the match.

Why do professional athletes tighten up, lose concentration, and miss easy shots that, at their level, they should not miss? In most sports there are situations where events are almost completely within our control. In tennis, it is the serve; we have the ball in our hands. In basketball it is the free throw; no one is blocking our shot. And professionals have been practicing these shots for years, probably tens of thousands of times. Yet even professionals frequently miss in these unchallenged moments. Clearly the problem is between their ears, and ingrained in their cellular memories. To me such incidents illustrate that even top athletes have been limited by premature competition. Their basic psychological skills are underdeveloped.

Produces Low Percentage of Good Players
One of the biggest problems in a competitive system is that far too few players or participants really develop high-level skills or the emotional maturity that true mastery requires. Let me give an example from my own experience. I have been teaching tennis to high-school boys and girls for thirty years. Surprisingly, I have observed that less than 10 percent become genuinely good players. The first reason for this is that most participants play tennis only during the high-school tennis season. Perhaps one-third play a little during the rest of the year. The majority are too busy with other sports, other activities, or schoolwork to find the time to play all year. It is hard to excel at something when you don’t maintain a consistent regimen. But in my experience, the main reason for mediocrity is that these kids are focused on winning before they have acquired the skills to play well. Some play for their school teams for four years, yet remain mediocre. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is the same with many team sports; there are a few stars, and the rest of the players just fill positions.

This tendency toward mediocrity doesn’t just apply to children. I have been teaching and observing adult tennis players for nearly forty years. Most people who play the game for many years don’t improve that much. They tend to plateau and stay at the same level no matter how many years they play. The reason is simple. Most people who play tennis go out on the court, warm up for ten minutes, and start competing. They don’t practice their basic skills; they just play matches. Playing this way ingrains poor physical, mental and emotional habits that limit their potential. They think they are only going to improve by competing, yet they never make much progress, and they don’t understand why. This tendency toward a minority of excellence and a majority of mediocrity occurs in almost every area of endeavor where competition reigns, from school to sports to business to politics.

Beats Down the Naturals
Wanting to do our best is a noble goal. But the side effects of a competitive system significantly diminish our chances of attaining this goal. The people we compete against do everything in their power to keep us from doing our best. They want to beat us. They don’t want us to play our best—unless they still win. This is how the competitive system works.

Some people are naturally gifted; certain abilities come more easily to them. In our competitive system, people with less natural talent are encouraged to do whatever it takes to beat the more naturally talented people. This may include questionable tactics, such as physical or psychological intimidation; or even cheating. When someone has a natural gift, it would be wise to fully support their development as they have the potential to raise the bar to higher levels. But this is not what is promoted in a competitive system. Some of these “naturals” however, also do their best to beat down and lower the confidence of the less talented, thereby hindering them from attaining their potential. Such behavior is subtly and at times overtly encouraged in the competitive system. And it is often interpreted as a sign of having the will or toughness to succeed. But it exacts a tremendous price on both winners and losers, on the naturally talented as well as those less gifted. Ultimately we all miss out through the potential that is never fulfilled, and the shining examples who might have been.

Precludes Relaxed Focus
People do develop focus when thrown prematurely into competition; but it is the focus of a startled rabbit. It’s natural to be scared when we aren’t sure if we know what we are doing, or whether we will be able to perform when it counts. With our ego and self-esteem on the line, our focus is distorted by tension. We go on a high alert, fight-or-flight mode that is not conducive to a relaxed focus or to peak performance. Performance anxiety obstructs the relaxed focus that produces the highest level of skill.

Discourages Physical Fitness
One of the worst side effects of over-emphasizing competition in the learning process is that many people develop an aversion to exercise and athletics. In school, children are at times forced to exercise and compete in ways that are stressful, not fun. Not surprisingly, many develop an aversion to exercise and sports. Physical Education can become a miserable chore for those who don’t do well in competitive environments, especially when they have learned to see themselves as losers from their earliest experiences. I believe this to be a factor in our current epidemic of obesity. Ask most people with a weight problem about their experiences in school physical education programs and organized athletics, and you will hear a litany of tales of woe.

Increases Self-inflicted Injuries
Another liability arising from the premature introduction of competition in sports is that habitual repetition of incorrect physical mechanics increases the chances of injury. An improperly performed mechanical action – a pitch in baseball or a serve in tennis – irritates and stresses muscles and joints. Such an action, repeated over and over, often leads to injury. It is a version of the well-known repetitive stress syndrome. Developing skill requires mastering proper form, which allows our actions to be more efficient and comparatively effortless. When we start competing prematurely, we shift our focus from skill development to winning however we can; and proper form is usually the first casualty.

Competitive sports, especially at higher levels, require exercise and conditioning to excel. At all levels, from recreational to professional, overuse is a significant issue, particularly for less naturally talented players. The only way to make up for a lack of talent is to train harder. And intense training takes its toll on our bodies. We accept as inevitable that our joints are going to break down as we age. But this “natural” event is greatly hastened if we push our bodies too hard. Look at the number of ex-athletes, from ballet dancers to football players, who can barely walk later in life. Pushing ourselves to extremes to compete is detrimental to our health.