Friday, August 23, 2013

Sport Ethics: "Be Smooth"

I watched a amazing double play last night and marveled at how seamless and flowing the entire coordinated action was. The integrated flowing precision of the play while adapting on the fly reminded me of how important being efficient and flowing can be to sports achievement. When he spoke to the media for the first time in six months, the Seattle Seahawks powerful half-back Marshawn Lynch was asked how he felt. The man known for "beast mode" running over people, simply responded, "smooth," capturing a powerful insight into how strength matters little unless allies with form and efficiency.

In an ESPN Magazine article Aaron Rodgers described the result of his endless repetitions in his off seasons as well as how he has grown over the last five years. He reiterated that what he achieved was to be smooth. Smooth captures an interesting and vital concept when thinking about athletic and professional accomplishment. I would like to explore its nature and importance.

Smooth is the anti-thesis of turbulent and chaotic. Hitching, jerking, choking, hesitating and waste stand opposite of smooth. Smooth actions maximize outcome for energy expended. Smooth operations epitomize efficient energy deployment, a smooth action simply does not waste motion or energy so it maximizes quickness and execution consistency. Being smooth represents integrity of action and judgment expressed as expertise.

Smooth encompasses two domains: physical and mental. First, extra or needless motion slows down action and exposes players to greater disruption. The more complex and less integrated the motion, the less smooth and the greater the probability things will go wrong. Smooth physical action minimizes inconsistencies in performance and requires the least energy because no extraneous motion occurs. Smooth action permits the body to bring maximum energy to bear upon the movement and because it is smooth, it increases the consistency of action and results. 

Second, smooth actions flow from integrated decisions that adjust to the situation and deploy technique in face of unpredictability. These decisions proceed without hesitation or second-guessing because the person represents the pattern emerging in the situation and responds cognitively. This minimizes openings that  opponents can disrupt. As actions grow into a single, fluid motion, they minimize what can go wrong and minimize the profile to be attacked by an opponent.

Rodgers talked about the micro-adjustments he made over the years such as footwork, arm angle, release point. Each evolved, but more importantly, over time these changes coordinated with each other and then integrated. He learned to release faster and more accurately under attack. This hard earned smoothness minimizes friction which  maximizes  predictability in his suite of skills and confidence to employ them. Repetition, continuous learning and adjustment resulted in coherent dependability.

If you watch a beginning athlete or a beginning anything, she or he moves very cautiously. Often they master one skill at a time in sequence. They then try to connect them together. Their actions hesitate, jerk and seldom link together well  or the same way each time. Each action becomes an adventure with little reliability or confidence.

Athletes and professionals master small aspects and then mesh them together. Tennis and volleyball players practice tosses thousands of time before a consistent serve emerges. Then they work on swing, angles and release points. Most important they learn to translate lower body strength into explosive energy. I could break down any athletic or professional skill suite this way. To achieve smooth integration of a skill suite involves committed discipline and practice.

SMOOTH requires integration of skills and synchronization with context to achieve. It requires endless practice and refinement. Social psychologists talk about the idea of flow that I have often mentioned. In flow, an athlete has prepared so that the kinesthetic, intellectual and perceptual dimensions of suite of actions flow together. Actions possess a rhythm and resonance where the athlete precisely repeats what works and can slow down the world as they act.

Each motion and skill involves thousands of micro-skills and adjustments. These must be mastered and blended into a master action suite. This action must then coordinate with fellow teammates or adjust to conditions. Think of a rower in eights. The angle of repose changes as the wind or place in race changes. The angle of one’s wrist, shoulders, elbows and back and legs must all be monitored, coordinated and then adjusted on the fly. From a distance it looks beautiful and powerful, but each sweep, like each Aaron Rodgers' throw or Albert Pujols' swing requires incessant monitoring, adjusting and fusion of perception, power and form.

Dave  Cameron discusses this in terms of kinetic chain or transfer and the importance of efficient and effective energy impact maximization. This involves mindful practice, refinement and adjustment. Talking about a baseball swing he points that that actions look smooth because there is a proper transfer of energy as it flows through a chain. The energy flow is close to seamless from one step to another. Any movement that siphons energy away from the kinetic energy in the chain of action will diminish the energy output of the bat or action. Put simply this swing analogy applies to all professional actions:

Swing energy = Total energy - Energy lost to excess movement and bad timing.

Even more simply:
Smooth is good; herky-jerky is bad.
When you listen to scorers, they will sometimes complain of a “hitch” that subverts their shot. Other times they might talk about how they had to hurry a shot, and to hurry means they could not synchronize in adjusting and executing. The hitch or jerk induced or self-inflicted subverts smooth. It upsets reliability, induces tweaking and over-thinking and can undermine confidence. Opponents will try to hurry or disturb rhythm or fluid motion to throw off the skill and the mind of athletes.

Being smooth in executions means that practice and experience reinforce each other. Mindful repetition enhances the integration and etches the neural pathways that support habitual and instant action as well as refined decision making under pressure. Experience builds psychological, physical and memory capital for a person. It builds a mental toughness flowing from “I have seen this before, so my body and mind do not panic.” Internalized experience supports smooth action because athletes don’t panic or choke in face of surprise or opposition; like good professional they adapt and call upon extra energy and focus to stabilize emotions and perceptions that permit focus upon actions. Every pick and roll or double play embodies unique aspects but great teamwork makes it all look smooth.

Smoothness reveals “thought-less” expertise. The repetition and adjustments from game to game and season to season mean athletes and professionals constantly must learn. The learning results in refined skill and adjustment. Athletes improve  proficiency as well as decision-making. The learning manifests as reliable performance under stress. 

People compliment actions by calling it a  “smooth operation.” They seem to mean something went off without a hitch, notice that word again. They often refer to the actions relative to a plan, like a litigation strategy or football play. However, we seldom really mean an operation that went off exactly according to plan. The old truism “no plan survives contact with reality” carries real weight.

We need to distinguish between an operation going exactly according to plan and one that achieves its outcomes. In reality, the plan condenses to a direction or momentum, but not an exact rendition of what unfolds. Outcome based “smooth” means well trained and experienced athletes and professionals improvise, adapt and achieve outcomes within the plan’s goals. It looks smooth because their actions seem fluid and continuous with the goal even as they must perceive, process information and make new decisions constantly and seamlessly.

A smooth operation achieved its goals by executing but also adapting in countless micro decisions to small and unexpected obstacles or surprises. The individuals and team worked together kept their cool and achieved the outcomes with practiced efficiency. In smooth success, small things matter and the hours of practice to orchestrate internally and externally come together.

Good athletes, good teams, good professionals make it look easy, make it look smooth, but it never is.

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