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Better at Getting Better: A Learnable Skill

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 6, 2014
Updated: Thursday, November 13, 2014

Professional athletes used to sell insurance, tend bar and find odd jobs during the off seasons. Today they are likely to spend every off season hour working on their game, often with the aid of science, technology and expert coaching. The idea, according to James Surowiecki, is that no physical skill is a static quality. Skills need ceaseless attention and practice to evolve toward the highest possible level.

While athletes have always worked out, Surowiecki thinks the present obsessions with perfecting every aspect of performance is a growing trend that extends beyond sports. He calls it a performance revolution, aided by scientific knowledge and new technological tools, that has pervaded many organizational and industrial arenas. In a New Yorker article, Surowiecki says there used to be a general attitude that athletes who make it into professional sports already have the skills they need. Today, he says, innate athletic ability is "taken to be the base from which you have to ascend."

Athlete using dynavision board dynavisioninternational

It's not enough to eat right and stay in shape, he says. You need PhDs in several fields examining specific skills and the science behind them. Sprinters need straight line explosive power. Baseball players need rotational power. And all sorts of devices have been developed to measure and improve speed, strength, reaction time, while keeping track of how various bodily functions perform during exertion. For example, the Dynavision D2 consists of a large board with flashing lights that a trainee has to slap as they appear, while also reading vocabulary words or math equations displayed at random. It's advertised for use in rehabilitation, as well as for improving hand eye coordination and reaction time. Basketball players have to learn footwork, positioning, and shooting skills, and the NBA Dallas Mavericks also give players Readibands to monitor how much and how well they are sleeping.

A Smithsonian Magazine story by Erica Henry explains how Olympic athletes and their coaches are using new apps like Ubersense an AMPSports to get real time data on the performance of skiers, bobsledders and other competitors. No more lugging big three ring binders, spreadsheets, or heavy video equipment. Using the new apps, every split second of what an athlete does is recorded. Coaches can pull up video, charts and comparative analysis on smart phones or tablets with the click of a button, pinpoint gaps in strength or skill, then tweak a workout plan and send it right to the athlete's phone. Ubersense co-founder Krishna Rachandran told the Smithsonian that members of elite teams are pushing their limits, and "we are able to take what we have learned from them and make it available to the masses."

Surowiecki cites similar drive in cerebral endeavors. Powerful computer programs allow chess players to practice against the best, and continually review and analyze their strategies. He says training of classical musicians has improved, and because more highly qualified musicians are competing for a shrinking number of jobs, standards for performance are rising higher than ever. He says in the last three or four decades American businesses and organizations have learned to make products better and employees more productive.

The ethos underlying performance revolutions, he writes, is captured by the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement, brought about by relentless examination and effort. It requires continuous elimination of waste, correction of error and teamwork. Airline safety and small unit military performance have greatly improved, he says. But some fields have not. Why? Surowiecki says emphasis on speed and volume has actually weakened customer service. He asserts that the performance revolution has had less impact on medicine and education because training of doctors and teachers, for the most part, has not undergone continuous improvement. He says teachers in particular get little help to continuously improve. He thinks the idea of the "natural born teacher," just like the notion of innately talented athlete, needs to be scrapped. Instead, he writes, we need to embrace the idea that teaching skills can be taught, learned and continuously improved. He advocates training techniques used successfully in other countries, where teachers can study their own work and that of colleagues and have opportunities to get better at getting better. Read Surowiecki's article here.

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