Issue 314 - APRIL 2012
practise, perform and failure
THE HAPPY BLASTER
In 11 knots of wind charging along powered by a big sail with time to take in the crystal spring light is a great joy. But if the aim is to get better, make sure you’re doing more that just getting blown along. Otherwise it’s going to the gym without breaking sweat. Blasting joy – just try and avoid the over-comfortable zone by changing course and setting a few small goals
Harty takes a sideways look at the business of improving by challenging the way we practise, perform and deal with failure.
n this high-speed society where that most precious commodity, spare time, is squeezed daily to the point of nonexistence, what we all desire is more reward for less effort. The advertising people are only too aware of it, hence we’re bombarded with promises of “8 minute abs” rather than, “The long, detailed, painstaking road to weight loss.” 74
When it comes to sport and recreation, the prospects of the ambitious amateur seem bleak when we’re informed the only route to the top is via a minimum 10,000 hours of practice. Given a complex action, the golf swing, the tennis backhand, a twisting somersault, that is how long, we’ve been told, it takes the brain to join together a web of new circuits that allow you to repeat a certain action instinctively and flawlessly time and time again. It’s especially bad news for improving windsurfers. Time alone isn’t sufficient; nor do we just need time on the water; we need time on the water when conditions are good and suitable for learning the thing we want to learn.
Unless you’ve had a bit of recent luck with 6 numbers or have found a job counting shells on a Hawaiian beach (don’t scoff, I know a bloke who found such a job) then there’s not much you can do to extend that on-the-water time. However, there is a lot you can do to make better use of it. So this month I’m evading direct ‘how to…’ information in favour of a more Zen-like approach to the business of improving. The following advice is not plucked from the marijuana-scented pamphlet of a Californian Neo-Hippy sect but is gleaned from the papers of authentic scientists. Here we go.
Just as trainers are discovering that short bouts of intense exercise can have a greater benefit than hours of plodding, the best way to improve your windsurfing technique, fitness and awareness is to up the intensity of the session. One of the most intense situations I encountered was the indoor arena where 2 minutes of slalom, horribly over-powered, gybing tightly with someone always an inch away, equated to about 6 hours of normal windsurfing. If only local councils would fund a few fans …
Racing in general but especially indoors provides instant intensity. So it is racers who quickly rise to the top of the technique pile. Kevin Pritchard holds off Ben Profit at the London Indoor Champs. Photo by JC
One size does NOT fit all.
I broke off from writing this last night to watch a fascinating Horizon episode on BBC called ‘The Truth about Exercise.’ The presenter, an averagely fit but sedentary journalist, underwent a series of experiments to challenge some well held beliefs concerning exercise in general. This came on the back of recent government guidelines that everyone should take at least 30 minutes moderate exercise a day, 5 days a week. There was lots of very interesting stuff but the conclusions that jumped out as having immediate parallels with the way we go about windsurfing were: 1. When it comes to exercise, one size definitely does not fit all. People respond to it in very different ways. Some don’t respond at all. 2 A lot of people doing their religious one or two hour circuit in the gym, on a fitness level at least, are wasting their time. (Let me qualify that. Any exercise is better than none and there are plenty of other reasons to go to the gym – it’s social and there’s ample opportunity to stare at Lycra-clad posteriors.) 2. For the presenter, just one minute a day of intense pedalling on a static bike (made up of 3 X 20 second bursts) was more beneficial to his health than hours of walking. A sports scientist described many low intensity gym circuits as ‘video games for the body.’ They occupy various limbs but don’t achieve much. We shy away from intense effort because firstly, thanks to our litigious society, most exercise machines, like cigarette packets, come with a death warning.
Having to turn tightly around a buoy brings intensity, forcing you to be more alert and take up more impressive angles. John Hibbard on the edge Indoors. Photo by JC
“Please consult your doctor before doing anything.” And: “stop immediately if you get out of breath.” I thought that was the idea? Intense exercise is also less appealing because it’s quite painful. And when our muscles get sore, we stop for fear of ‘overdoing it.’ It turns out that most give up too soon. There is actually an overenthusiastic body safety mechanism whereby the brain, fearful of an overload, tells the muscles to feel tired and encourages you to stop prematurely, whereas you can in fact push quite a bit further. This is what repeated intense exercise trains athletes to do – push beyond that barrier. So to the water and perhaps you’ve spotted the message. Get intense! Be honest now. Apart from the occasions when you’ve swum half a mile for your kit, how often have you returned from a session actually out of breath? At the intermediate level of planing, hooked in in both straps, it’s both easy and enjoyable to be lazy and hack off for miles in a straight line. But this is the gym equivalent of spinning gently on an exercise bike with your hear rate around 80 bpm. You’re burning a very very little bit of fat, but that’s it.
Stay in the foam
You can increase your intensity on the water, no matter the wind or what you’re doing. Wavesailing is a pastime where increasing intensity has the most obvious and immediate impact. I don’t mean seeking titanic pounding walls, gouging harder and dicing with the death zone, but just doing more of it by staying in the intense area. On wave weeks I start by timing the interval
between people’s rides back in. At the beginning it may be as long as 20 minutes. They see getting through the break as an opportunity to have a rest whilst blasting off to the horizon. I first suggest they halve their reaches out to sea, which in turn doubles their wave-riding opportunities. The ultimate goal is reached when the last barrier of white water is their trigger to seek an unbroken swell and gybe onto it. It’s the flying equivalent of spending the whole session taking off and landing with very little cruising. The advantages are over-whelming. 1. Working the instincts. You don’t have time think too hard but have to react instinctively to what’s in front of you. So long as you’re in the right frame of mind, you’re naturally more alert, responsive and take up dynamic positions where you’re ready to move. 2. Moving. To ‘blast’ at speed with a powered up rig, you need tension through your body. Stay on a reach for more than a few minutes and you stiffen up and will approach the gybe or the wave-ride stiff and rigid. But if you stay in the foamy area, you’re always moving. High performance windsurfing is all about dynamic, graceful, movement. Sailing like that is truly aerobic. I remember vividly my first wave-sailing heat. Having 7 minutes to score 3 jumps and 3 rides, even as a butcher’s-dog-fit 23 year old, I crawled up the beach at Rhosneigr begging for oxygen. Short 5-10 minute sessions of maximum intensity (in or out of the waves) followed by a cup of tea and a little lie-down is the way to go.
Although waves appear endlessly testing, it is possible to sail even big ones, quite lazily, by taking long rests out to sea and staying clear of the foamy areas. What makes guys like Brawzinho so good is that they’re forever looking to up the intensity. The size and power of the waves remains out of their control but they’ll spend the whole session within the impact zone and seek out those areas where their technical ability is going to be most challenged.
Brawzinho going down hard in SA. From his foamy track you can see he’s followed the lethal path of most resistance all the way along the lip. It’s at these moments of maximum intensity that we learn the most…Photo by JC The theme will be picked up again shortly.
LEARNING to LEARN
The National Football League of America spends millions every year attempting to identify sporting genii at a young age. They test explosiveness, agility, strength and intelligence. They employ the best analysts to study miles of match of footage and yet they still get it spectacularly wrong. Less than half of those elected for greatness are still in the league. It’s not that the measurements are wrong it’s just that they’ve been testing the wrong attributes. They’re now discovering that at least as important as pure performance is growth potential – that’s the ability to keep on learning. Those who end up making it have the ability and desire, from an early age, to train themselves. A basic selfawareness and honesty allow them to identify their own mistakes and customise their workouts so they skip over the performance plateaux where others get stuck. They’re not necessarily mavericks who are deaf to advice but nor do they run with the pack and just do what they’re told. They also possess that quality of ‘grit’ – a mixture of stubbornness and resourcefulness that makes them battle towards a long-term goal. It’s the Johnny Wilkinson/Dunkirk factor. To progress to windsurfing’s upper levels, you have to be a smart self-analyst and you have to know yourself. Think of something you can do well and ask yourself how you learned it. Was it through watching, listening or re-reading the manual 100 times? I had a guy on a course last year, who was like a farm dog. You give him his breakfast and
assuming we can swim and are not crippled with fear. He looks pretty calm Photo by JC
then he’s gone for the day, exploring, chasing rabbits; and you don’t see him until nightfall when he’s hungry again. Ed, who himself was working in educational research, wasn’t a words man. They confused him. He just needed one tip or a concept at the beginning of the day that he connected with. He’d then disappear and organise his own session around it. When he came up to you wet, bleeding but ever smiling, you knew he was ready for another nugget. His progress was astonishing. On the pro level, for me, one of the most impressive learners is Daida Ruana Moreno. When I first met her in the late 90s (and indeed her twin Iballa), I suspected her lightning journey from zero to looping in the blink of an eye, was achieved through a certain looniness and being surrounded by the uber-talented Pozo posse. But from her crazy, happy-daft demeanour, I suspected such growth may be short-lived. How wrong can a man be? She turned out to be the smartest and most analytical of them all. She would identify the moves and skills she wanted to learn and then target someone she most wanted to imitate and whose style she could relate to. She would spend hours on the beach watching, videoing and search minutely for the key that unlocked the move. And then go out and focus on those key elements. The truth about windsurfing is that due to the open environment, you are going to spend most of the time practising by yourself (although I can recommend a fine coach). You can have all the natural power and grace in the world but unless you have the ability to work out where it’s going
wrong, and then vary your approach before you dig a disruptive furrow, you’re heading straight for that miserable plateau. And perhaps most important of all, is how you deal with failure because the windy path is littered with potholes.
Failure is currently something of a sexy subject especially in business. A thread through the biography of the late Steve Jobbs is about how he was driven and inspired by failure. It’s the same with a lot high achievers. Richard Branson, Bill Gates, David Beckham (no, really) all at some stage have screwed up spectacularly, and then gone onto to be stronger, wiser and a lot richer. Recruiters in Silicone valley now regard a failure or two as a positive on someone’s CV. But it does all depend on how you fail. We can identify 3 performance zones.
1. The Comfort Zone
It’s a familiar expression across many fields of endeavour from sport to business to wooing a new partner. It’s where you’re relaxed, succeeding, totally in control of the situation and performing well within your limits unchallenged mentally or physically. I see a lot of ‘comfort zone’ windsurfing. It’s the intermediate that knows his patch intimately and only goes for carve gybes in that flat spot behind the little headland next to the clubhouse. It’s only a criticism if the aim is to improve. In comfort zones, egos can raise their ugly heads and breed an attitude of ‘to fall is to fail’ and ‘wet hair bad, dry hair good.’
Just looking at the pics below I get a bit squirmy. My most frightening, intense and painful moments in windsurfing have been catapulting on a speed run. It’s a fine balance. You know you can only train to go faster by pushing, taking more power, a smaller board and going broader and broader through wilder seas – but eventually you will crash which at that speed is rarely a positive. Realising that bad crashes are bad for body, kit and confidence, we would go for maximum intensity but starting with very short periods – perhaps 5 seconds at a time before backing off. The gradually lengthen it until we could hold it for a whole 500m run. It’s during those short bursts that you learn the most.
Gonzalo Hoevel, top slalomer, losing the tail and the back strap in 40 knots of wind totally maxed. It’s very scary stuff but success at this level of sport depends on how you handle the highest intensity … Photo by JC
2. The Thrash Zone
This is the other end of the spectrum. It’s the beginner skier trying to negotiate a black run (the steepest), falling most of the time and so far out of their comfort zone that they don’t have the skills to control the situation. If they do make a good turn, they have no idea why or how to repeat it. In windsurfing most of have spent many gruelling hours in the thrash zone. It can be brought on either by conditions, which are way over your head or by going for a move while lies outside your skill set. It’s going for a full planing gybe when you still can’t get into the back strap and are terrified by the speed of a broad reach. You bear away, trip and get flung onto the sail. It’s a crash that happens too suddenly and violently for you to extract anything positive. And it’s when you repeat it a few times that really bad defensive habits can form. Do your utmost to flee the thrash zone. It’s a destructive place both mentally and physically. Aspiring loopers, who despite years of aspiring, still can not pull the trigger in the right way, have certainly spent too long in the thrash zone, which has shaped their whole relationship with the move. A good coach (and that may be yourself) should haul you off the water and instigate a new plan when they see you repeat the exact same fall more than 3 times.
3. Happy Falls – the sweet spot.
This is where we want to be. It’s that spot where you’re tested but not terrified; challenged by the conditions and/or the environment but have a feeling for what is happening.
and how quickly you recover from injury. Photo by JC
In charge of your own destiny, you must surface from each wipe, replay it in your head and decide whether you’re any the wiser or just sorer. Good falls open a door. In the Vulcan, an opportunity for repeated wipes if ever there was one, it’s that moment where for the first time, you didn’t just pop and whiplash as the tail caught, but where you got that first momentary sensation of sliding backwards on the nose. During loop training sessions I have seen people emerge from horrible crashes punching the air with delight; because although they slammed violently onto their buttocks, they felt the nose actually rotate through the wind. At that moment a blinding light shone from a very dark tunnel. In the carve gybe, it might be that feeling of holding the edge a little longer than usual, and where despite tripping over the straps, they got a feeling of accelerating through the wind and out of the turn, rather levelling off and stalling on the tail. All those falls at least provided a positive sensation and inspiration to return and build.
IN SEARCH of FLOW
The state of being all performers - sportsmen, musicians, chess players - search for is what they call ‘flow.’ In common parlance it’s being ‘in the zone’ – a feeling of relaxed concentration where your skills are perfectly matched to the task. You’re in the perfect place between bored and stressed. There’s an element of automaticity, a feeling in windsurfing of the board sailing itself. From a medical standpoint, when you have ‘flow,’ activity in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is greatly reduced.
That’s the area associated with cognitive processes and which lights up when you’re thinking about things or working them out for the first time. I was at an Olympic test diving event at the Aquatic centre last week. It was the 10 metre platform event – the big scary one. Here was ‘flow’ in action. It takes just over a second from take-off to smacking the water within which time the champion Qui Bo squeezed in 4.5 somersaults and pierced the water in perfect form without a ripple. There is no time for logical thought. He extends his ankles and from that moment something automatic and wholly wonderful takes over. In windsurfing, ‘ flow’ is paramount. A gybe, a tack, a ‘Chacho’ all involve a series of interconnecting skills that have to blend in sequence within an all too short time frame (a gybe should last not much more than 4 seconds) and demand that you react to changing wind and water. If for a moment you try to process verbal instructions (“pass front hand under back hand, twist foot out of strap … etc”), you freeze to a halt. The problem is that we associate flow with the pro and that mountainous 10,000 hours of practice. Volume of practice is always going to be important if you aspire to greatness but research is showing that by being smart about the way you practice and employing a few mental strategies, you can experience flow at a much lower level with a lot fewer hours. In fact in just a couple of minutes a day. To finish – here are just three training tricks. www.windsurf.co.uk
FALLING FOR FUN
They say the best place to be for learning is somewhere between your Comfort Zone and your Thrash Zone, the latter being where you’re over-challenged both technically and mentally. In the maximum learning zone, you are falling/failing some of the time, but each fall brings a flood of realization, an “I know what I did wrong …” moment and an instant correction strategy. Some of the biggest whoops of joy and Eureka moments come after big wipes where, despite the impact, the end of the move has shown itself and you’ve had a sniff of what it should feel like. Finding that learning zone comes from selecting the right conditions and a move or exercise which matches your skill set.
Learning to plane and get in the straps, you have to bear away with a big sail - on the road you will inevitably catapult. Rita from Adelaide goes down with style but is learning all the way. Thanks to happy conditions, the right kit and so the right level of failure, she had it cracked in a couple of days. Photo by Peter Hart
The right falls are the ones where, when trying something new, you knew what went wrong and what to do about it, even before splash down. Photo by Dave White
Forward loops and vulcans are probably the moves where people spend longest in the ‘thrash zone,’ falling repeatedly and violently in the same spot with no feeling of improvement. Photo by Matt Buzza
And lets not forget that the falling experience is even more fruitful if the water is warm and transparent.
Main course or Tapas?
My favourite meal is ‘tapas’ or Greek ‘Meze ‘ where at various times small and varied dishes arrive on the table. They somehow seem tastier and more desirable for being smaller. By contrast in the US when I’m presented with a plate and a portion that would feed a small village, the very sight of it can kill my hunger. It’s just too big a task and I don’t know where to start. With people who want to have fun as well as get better, I’m finding more and more that in terms of technical practice, less (but good quality ‘less’) IS more. We’re returning to the ‘intense’ theme. Imagine you’re a pianist practicing for a recital, would you think it best to spend an hour playing the piece through ten times; or to isolate a phrase that was tripping you up and focus on it intently for 5 minutes. The latter is generally more fun and more fruitful.
If you’re going out for a 2 hour session, isolate just one element of a move that is confounding you and practice it intently for just 5 minutes. Examples.
Hooking in and out.
It can be right old heave ho which in strong winds absorbs a lot of strength and energy and leaves people out of balance. But if you just hook in and out as many times as possible for 2 minutes on a reach, you get to know where the line is in relation to the hook without looking down. You work out that actually you don’t need muscle power. You can do it with extended arms just by pulling down and lifting the hips. You can do it without moving the rig. You can even do it one handed (the front hand).
Getting into straps.
If you’re locked into long reaches, you don’t get to practice the sequence often enough.
In a short session, as soon as you get in, sheet out, step out of them and do it again. It gets you moving and you develop a feel for where the straps are, again without looking down. Semi planing you can lift the front foot in and out just BY tucking the front – until you’re doing it without effecting the trim.
There are so many elements you can isolate I don’t now where to start. OK so the rig change feels messy. Get out in sub planing winds with a 5.5 and for 5 minutes just do sail 360s until you’re handling the rig without looking at the boom or mast and your hands are automatically moving to the right places. In planing conditions be even more focused than that, thinking about just one element of the rig change, like moving the hand back as you carve, or moving the front hand forward on the boom before the rig change.
THE TWO MINUTE PRACTICE STRATEGY
Performers of all genres seek ‘flow,’ that semi hypnotic state of relaxed concentration where with minimum brain intervention, you complete a complicated task seamlessly, beautifully, effortlessly. It’s the state we associate with pros, who have put in the 10,000 hours, the minimum, it is claimed, needed to drill complex actions. Researches suggest now, however, that volume of practice can be less effective than shorter sessions, as little as two minutes, where you identify a specific element that has been giving you trouble and then focus on it intently. Then just go and have some fun. In windsurfing, this is the best way forward. Long reaches are the killer as they stop you repeating many of the actions that cause grief, like hooking in, moving easily into the straps, and of the course the gybe. In a 2 hour session, go and fill your boots but at least dedicate 5 minutes to isolating and perfecting a tricky detail.
The rig change is where many stumble because they don’t do enough gybes to practise it. So much good would come spending a few minutes just flipping the rig focusing on just one element, like balancing it before release. Pic by Peter Hart
Most use too much effort to hook in, because they never consider it a skill worth practicing. But if for 2 minutes on a reach you hooked in and out 50 times, you’d discover you could do it without bending the arms… Pic by Peter Hart
In the carve gybe, it’s the carve wherein lies the root of most issues. So in a 5 minute carveathon, think of nothing but holding that pressure through the toes to keep the board accelerating through the wind – and so overcome the dreaded downwind level out. Pic by Peter Hart
Once in the straps and settled, people are so relieved that it would take a howitzer to shift them. It will contradict your every instinct but spend a whole reach moving in and out of them, finding that position where you can move the foot without upsetting the trim – it’s lifechanging stuff. Pic by Peter Hart
In studies on flow, they talk about giving the head another focal point other than the body or equipment as a way to make you focus on the outcome rather than the minutiae. So look where you want to end up, not for trouble.
Practice and Performance – when to think and when not…
The golfer Annika Sorenstam draws an imaginary line between practice and performance. Having those intense practice bouts helps you do that. Working on a skill you have your brain switched on. You’re thinking about what you’re doing, analyzing the result, considering new options, thinking about the next attempt and what you’re going to do differently. 80
…without looking down, without moving the rig and even do it one handed. Pic by Peter Hart
And finally and most important of all, brain monitoring has revealed that you’ll perform more instinctively and smoothly if you keep a smile on your face. I think we may have found the key! Pic by Peter Hart
And then when you step into the performance zone, you switch the brain off and work more instinctively. In windsurfing that might mean having a more general focus or strategy like gybing around a mark, heading for a point upwind, trying to overtake someone etc.
Which state would you rather be in when windsurfing? And the final and most important findings are that you have to do whatever you have to do to your regime to make it enjoyable because people who are having fun are learning a lot more than those who aren’t.
Peter offers a treasure trove of more technique gems next month. If you have feedback about his articles or if there’s a topic that you’d like to see covered, suggest it to him by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. His extraordinary clinics are pretty full this year but check out remaining places on peter-hart.com
And to finish here’s a truly unexpected (and yet believable) finding regarding flow. Researchers asked people to smile and then frown and monitored the brain activity. Although the facial expressions didn’t reflect the real emotions, those who smiled were sharper and more intuitive. Those who frowned were slower and more deliberate.
Published on Oct 4, 2012
Harty takes a sideways look at the business of improving by challenging the way we practise, perform and deal with failure.