Learning Through Sport
1. It is the most direct way of internalising feedback from reality — fast
In a previous issue, we talked about Josh Waitzkin’s way of mastering learning as a skill. If you remember, a lot of his own life experience was related to sports, after him switching from Chess to Tai Chi.
This happens to be for a good reason: many sports are a vivid way to practice your OODA loop in real-time. “OODA” means observe-orient-decide-act. What makes sport an amazing school for this is that more often than not, those three steps have to be squeezed in a fraction of a second. Even (especially?) muscle memory has to be built and nurtured for years for us to be able to reap “instinctive” benefits.
For this kind of school, however, sports that maximise direct feedback are much more relevant. I love running and swimming, and have been practising for many years: the feedback on a suboptimal form is rarely immediate. And when it is, it happens through the form of injury.
Other sports have that direct feedback loop. If you are climbing a wall, a cliff, or a mountain and you fail a move, you fall. If your swing or shoot is not well calibrated, you will miss. If your balance is not right, you will fall from your surfboard and miss the wave.
That is why I love martial arts, especially sparring. If you do a mistake, you get punched. Having another human being trying to exploit the tiniest of your imperfections is the most challenging way to learn fast. Note that it does not have to be violent: in a competitive situation, even a light tap on the nose, the mouth or the chin is usually taken very seriously by our brain.
2. It cultivates visualisation
Having to internalise the right posture, the right movement, the right response to external stimulus forces us to visualise those in our mind. This visualisation is exercise is a cognitive exercise that shapes the brain with new patterns. Those patterns might not be directly transposable: punching someone and writing an email are hopefully two very distinct activities in our minds.
But associations get created that help us grow our thinking process beyond our current limitations. This was the case for Josh and chess mastery leading him to tai chi world championship. This is the case for another chess grandmaster, Maurice Ashley. For him, it was the other way around: integrating aikido brought him to another level in chess.
3. It lets your unconscious brain work his miracle
For me, running is probably the highest-leverage activity I can dedicate an hour on. When I was spending 14h a day 7 days a week studying math and physics — if you are not familiar with the French preparatory school system, don’t ask — running for an hour every evening was my way to reset my brain (and body) and let the mass of information unconsciously sink in. Some of my classmates would actually ask me if I was crazy in some way to “waste” such an hour out of the 15 awake ones we had available for studying.
This background work is a fundamental aspect of your brain learning new skills. IF you have practised an instrument, you are most likely familiar with spending an evening trying to play something, consistently failing to reach the quality you are expecting, moving on, going to sleep… only to wake up the next day being able to play it as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Often you would end up wondering what the problem was the day before, even doubting if you were remembering the experience accurately.
It is also a way for the brain to express himself freely, especially in a world of email, Slack, and other interruptions. Martial art is a great way to disconnect fully: if you start thinking about something else in the middle of a fight, it usually does not end for the best. But again for me running is the absolute most productive. This is when I usually plan my day, generate 95%+ of all my creative ideas, and even run my retrospectives. All of this in a non-pressured pace and away from all interruptions.
How do you integrate sport in your learning routine?
How did it help you with your other skills?
Originally published at https://systematizesuccess.substack.com.