Curiosity Part 1: Beyond Assumption
Consider the following lines:
What do you see? Yes, there are two lines and a space between them. But what else could it be? What could it symbolize? What might bridge the two sides? The curious mind recognizes the gap and searches for what may exist in the space.
Now, anything could fill that gap. The uber-rational mind adds a straight line to make the two into one. The biologist’s mind says it is the invagination that houses each hair follicle or a sweat gland. The child’s mind might say it’s a gopher’s home, two shut eyes, or the doorway to Narnia. The buddhist says, “why are you so attached to the lines connecting? Be at peace with the gap.” My mind says it is knowledge and ignorance, knowing and not-knowing, and a chance to get curious. The lines represent what we know, and the gap represents what we don’t. The curious mind is open to anything or nothing existing in the gap, to the lines connecting or staying apart. It just wants to know what’s there for the simple pleasure of discovery.
Curiosity is why we know it is the earth that rotates, and that it is round. It is why some people doubt Michael Jordan’s methods in favor of others; it’s why people find methods for mobility beyond stretching; it is why coaches get questioned or question themselves — and how they evolve.
WHAT THIS BLOG SERIES IS ABOUT
You might be thinking, “Why read about curiosity? Wait, this guy wrote a four-part blog about… curiosity?”
“Yes. It’s four parts. It’s that important, and that much of an opportunity.”
“Well, why should I keep reading? What you got?”
“I’m glad you asked. Curiosity is at the center of getting better — as a coach or an athlete. It’s what separates the great coaches from everyone else. It is a key elixir for improvement.”
“Really? I thought it was just hard work.”
“Great point, I’ll cover that. I’ll also tell you what Steph Curry, Patrick Mahomes, and Christian McCaffrey have in common. And how Mitch Haniger and Wes Schweitzer use curiosity as a staple in their practices.”
“Okay… You’ve got my attention. Tell me more.”
“No. I don’t have your attention, I’ve lured your curiosity. So, there’s a bunch of stuff that’s normal in today’s performance culture that quenches curiosity and stunts learning. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit. There’s a lot of stuff we could just not do and it would result in betterment. I love when solutions are that simple. Subtraction is awesome.”
“So what should I do?”
“I’m excited to tell you. And I’m curious what you’ll learn. Let’s get going.”
WHAT IS CURIOSITY, REALLY?
I find the most useful definition of curiosity to be a passion for discovery and learning. The more boundless and exploratory, the better. People are usually more curious about their external environment than internal, “What’s the new iPhone like? Who dates who? What does that Buzzfeed personality test say about me?” But it’s the internal environment that creates any passion for exploring one’s surroundings. “Why do I continue to grind despite being so unhappy? Why do I yell at my athletes? Why did I attach my sense of self to not knowing the answer to a question?”
A passion for discovery and learning might as well be a passion for mistakes. When you’re discovering new abilities, you make errors. Errors lead to learning. The random success here and there is delicious, and helps teach you what to do from what not to do. And yet here we are, still submerged in a sports culture that does not tolerate mistakes. It asks for betterment and learning without the means to do so. No wonder some athletes don’t get better. They weren’t given a chance.
WHY BE CURIOUS?
Sherlock Holmes said, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” What an incurious world. What a stagnant world.
Holmes wants you to observe, instead of passively receiving photons into your eyeballs. He wants you to notice the obvious mood change in an athlete that comes with overtraining. He wants you to observe the limp in yourself, or an athlete, that was absent last week. He wants you to recognize that perfect play never comes from perfect practice. He wants you to realize that when you blurt out seven cues at once to Stephanie, she gets confused, makes no changes, and repeats what she always does, which only results in you repeating the same cues again. Round and round you two go in a waltz that never ends because you didn’t notice anything. These observations are obvious, yet almost nobody by any chance observes them. They’re not curious.
Consider the countless athletes who adhere to a plan, they trust the process, but they never get the positive results that these “processes” promise. They dance through agility ladders under the guise of improving their agility, but when a game demands that they dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge, they perform the same as they did last month. Their practice did not improve their skills, and they did not notice. How about the statistic that athletes who rehabbed from ACL surgery and returned to sports are still four times(!) more likely to reinjure their knee? That doesn’t make it very good rehab, does it? Or how about the coach who runs a grueling practice the day before a game and then yells at his team for being sluggish on gameday. He doesn’t realize he depleted their energy and damaged their tissues, and recovery takes longer than twenty-four hours. All these people try and try and try and don’t get much better. If only they had been curious enough to ask, Is what I’m doing actually helping me?
The “world full of obvious things” that Holmes talks about is within and without. It is inside of us and outside of us, like the stuff in our environments, relationships, actions, and minds that we don’t pay much attention to, if at all. Like how frequently our minds fabricate stories that aren’t true, or even probable. These things happen in our very consciousness, and yet all of us, to varying degrees, are unaware of them. If you don’t notice these things, you can’t change them.
How about the athletes who believe they need to work harder than everyone else to accept themselves? I might say to them, “No matter how many calories you expend, or how much sweat you drip, you won’t accept or love yourself until you choose to do so. These things are completely separate, you see. Working hard is working hard and accepting yourself is accepting yourself.” It’s a simple observation, yet few are curious enough to look for it.
Many of these overlooked things perpetuate useless practices, methods, beliefs, and choices. If coaches and athletes were curious enough to notice these things, they could learn and evolve.
CURIOSITY + ATHLETE
Curiosity in sports needs to start with the coaches because most of the athletes are already innately curious. They want to explore and discover and learn but aren’t allowed to because the norms in practices and weight rooms are rigid and abhor exploration. These norms are set by coaches.
You should facilitate and encourage curiosity in your athletes. (Facilitation and encouragement are not the same thing.) Curiosity is correlated with effectiveness, accountability, tolerance for ambiguity, sense of personal worth, responsibility, creativity, and intelligence (1). Skillful athletes are creative within their sport. They make novel and useful plays happen, and novelty is hard to predict. Athletes who are hard to predict do better. Athletes who can make more intelligent decisions, do better. How do they become more creative and intelligent? By letting their curiosity search for and fill in the gaps of their knowledge with evidence.
Curiosity shows up more often in youth and adolescent practices than collegiate and professional ones because they have had less indoctrination. Off they go, exploring what’s possible, playing different games with novel rules, being children and teens, and then the coach stops them and says it’s time to start their drills and/or weight routines. The irony is what the young athletes were doing, arguably, is better than what many coaches offer.
Curiosity might look like this in practice: Instead of always serving from the same spot behind the end line, the athlete serves from the side of the court, or the next court over, just to see what happens because she doesn’t know. An athlete swinging on a pull up bar explores how high he can swing and how far he can hurl himself off of it. Another athlete might wonder if she can still do a somersault like when she was a kid, and then finds out. Mitch Hanger spontaneously practiced his cartwheels in the middle of one of our sessions because wanted to, and he noticed he couldn’t do them equally side to side. Johan Cruyff created the “Cruyff turn” because he had the freedom to explore his skills in practice and games. Notice what’s missing? Militarized drills and techniques that are presumed to enhance skills.
Informational gaps are unknown and uncertain. When people explore such space, they make errors. Again, errors lead to learning. The “unknown” transforming into the “known” is learning. Athletes cannot explore the unknown if they are spoon-fed directions. They must figure out how they, uniquely, perceive and act within their ignorance. They must be free to explore. Only then can they become intelligent and creative agents of their crafts. Sport requires creativity, not monotony.
CURIOSITY BEGINS WITH IGNORANCE
Curiosity is actually dependent upon two things: the acute awareness of what you know and the understanding (and acknowledgement) of what you don’t. No matter your expertise or age, what you don’t know is gargantuan, nearly endless. If you’re curious, that’s a precious gift. You get to learn for a lifetime.
Your ignorance is composed of gaps between information, like the gap between the two horizontal lines at the start of this blog. It is the vacuum of nothingness that exists between nodes of knowledge. If you are curious, you will be invariably pulled to explore such space. How exciting. What might you discover? What might you learn? Wouldn’t it be fun to find out?
However, if you’re frightened by your ignorance, you’ll repel yourself away from the opportunity and relapse into the inertia of your biases and assumptions. How boring.
I prize my ignorance in equal measure to my knowledge. I see it as a compass pointing me to where I still have work to do. I test, poke, and prod at the boundaries of my knowledge and abilities. And in doing so, I learn where the fences are. Sure enough, the more I test, the more I learn which boundaries don’t matter. If they don’t matter, they dissolve. Once that happens, I realize a few things:
- I’ve played by rules that I don’t want.
- Those rules no longer apply.
- I am free to innovate.
There are few questions more riveting, and freeing than “What if…?”
This blend of knowing and not-knowing are the antecedents to this passionate wonder we call curiosity. It’s why people on the path to mastery continually say something along the lines of, “the more I learn, the more I don’t know.” They see the gaps in their knowledge and yearn to fill them for the sake of learning and improving.
THE BRIDGE OF ASSUMPTIONS (BEWARE)
Here are those two lines again:
Instead of filling the gap with knowledge, maybe you bridge it with an assumption. If you assume the lines must connect, your mind will generate answers that connect the lines. You might do this consciously, but more likely unconsciously. And that’s fine if we’re just talking about lines, but when we are talking about practices that shape athletes’ bodies and careers, such assumptions can lead to catastrophe. Becoming aware of what you do with the gaps in your knowledge is the first step to learning.
Popular assumptions from the past were:
- We see the stars rotate at night, so the solar system revolves around us.
- The ground looks flat to us, so the entire earth is flat.
- Michael Jordan won six rings, so his actions are the path to success.
- Foam rolling changes bodily sensations, and other people do it, so it is good and useful.
- A coach told you something, and coaches are presumed to be right, so you do it.
But are those gap fillers true? Or are they just accepted? Entire civilizations — for millennia — assumed the stars rotated around the earth. It took curiosity and new learning to correct the course.
What assumptions are you making today that you won’t make tomorrow? Aren’t you curious to find out? In the next post, I’ll address the most common assumptions I see coaches make and how to replace them with useful and curious coaching. Part three is about the nuts and bolts of becoming a more curious coach. Part four connects everything together.
Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.75