The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Improvement in expert actions that involve performance

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Improvement in expert actions that involve performance
Some types of expert actions have a clear divide between performance and practice. In both ballet and basketball, experts spend time engaged in deliberate practice as well as time engaging in either a performance or a tournament. I claim that deliberate improvement is an element of not just practice, but also of the performance or tournament. And, as I see it, there are roughly two different ways in which one aims to improve during practice: with the short-term goal of improving one’s immediate actions so that they are better than ever before, and with the long-term goal of improving one’s future performance. I think that both of these aims may exist in expert action, and are at times in tension with the just-do-it principle, which states that in normal circumstances, experts do not attend to their occurrent actions, and that such attention hinders expert action.

Consider the latter case of acting with an aim to improve future performances. A vivid example of this is when an athlete or performing artist makes a major change in his or her technique, aimed at long-term results. For example, this is the type of improvement Tiger Woods engaged in when – already the best golfer in the world – he decided to revamp his swing technique, or when after winning eight gold medals, the swimmer Michael Phelps decided to revamp his freestyle technique.88 Or when the tennis phenomenon Roger Federer moved to a larger racket89. Such changes arguably require these athletes to increase their attention to and thought about what they are doing during practice. When Tiger Woods is working on his new swing with his coach, he is focusing on and analyzing the aspects of the swing he wants to change. And, presumably, while in the transition period, during which the swing is not yet mastered, he is working on it during tournament games as well. If this is correct, it is in tension with the proscriptive component of just-do-it, which says that experts in action ought not to think about what they are doing. Sometimes, at least, thinking is advised when one is working to improve an aspect of one’s technique with long-term results in mind.

Are examples of performing with the goal of long-term improvement in tension with the descriptive element of just-do-it – that is, with the idea that in normal circumstances, optimal nor near-optimal expert performance proceeds without thought? When Woods was working on his swing, he had what was for him a rather dismal string of games during a PGA tournament (citation?). And Phelps and Federer suffered as well. So even though these dismal performances were still better than what could be done by most anyone else in the world, you might say that since such experts are playing worse than they were before, they are not performing optimally or near-optimally. However, if we assume that in the middle of such a transition these experts could not revert easily to the old technique, they are performing optimally, for they are presumably performing as best as they can at the moment; presumably, there is nothing else they could have done at that moment that would have significantly improved their performance. Indeed, one might even say that Woods is a better player while in the transition process, because he is approaching what is ultimately a better swing for him. Or as Woods himself puts it, becoming a better player did not always mean winning more games (citation). And thus, if we understand the descriptive element of just-do-it as the view that an expert’s best performance proceeds without attention, such situations may, indeed, be counterexamples to it.

So what went wrong with Woods’ games when he was focusing on his new swing? I think the best explanation is not that the thinking caused the problem—most likely his performance would have been worse without thought—but simply that he had not yet reached the level of competence with this new swing that he had reached with his old swing. Attaining such a level and eventually moving beyond it would in part involve strengthening muscles, making many of the subroutines automatic to the degree that they could (though not necessarily must) be performed without thought, and, as I see it, acquiring a better understanding of the new swing.90 All this took time to achieve.

I also wonder whether sometimes part of the benefit of adopting a new technique is precisely that it refocuses one’s mind on one’s activity. In ballet, there are numerous techniques, some of which provide contradictory advice. For example, in Balanchine technique, your weight is kept to a large degree on the ball of your foot while in Maggie Black technique, your weight is kept more on the heel. I’ve worked sometimes for years in one technique and sometimes for years in the other. Both are remarkable effective! But why is this if they provide contradictory advice? Perhaps it is because both focus the mind on the movement and it is this that provides the primary benefit.

Whether or not that is the case, it seems that an expert’s radical change of technique for the purposes of improving illustrates a way in which experts think in action, and that such thinking sometimes needs to carry over to performance situations. But is it actually the case that experts think in action when they are improving in action, or (as someone might object) is it that when such individuals are improving in action, they cease to be experts? For example, one might argue that Woods’ experience does not really contradict the descriptive aspect of just-do-it, since in learning a new swing, Woods became a novice again (at least with respect to his swing), yet the just-do-it principle is, as I’ve emphasized, a principle about experts. Thus, this objection continues, just-do-it is still correct: experts do not think about their occurrent skills; rather, Woods, in thinking about his new technique ceased to be an expert.

It seems to me that the skill that needs to be deliberately improved ought not to be identified at such a fine level of grain such that any change an expert makes to her technique downgrades her status to novice. However, it is difficult to say just how fine-grained we ought to make this distinction. Nevertheless, even if one thinks that Woods’ decision to change his swing did dethrone his expert status, such a decision is merely a dramatic example of the sometimes very subtle learning processes that experts are continually engaged in, during both practice and performance. And so, even if we want to not classify Woods as an expert at his new swing, we would still want to classify him as an expert at his old swing, even while he is making subtle adjustments to improve it.

As I have defined an expert, an expert is an individual who has spent at least around ten years of deliberate practice in his or her area of expertise, where deliberate practice is to be understood as near-daily extended practice with the specific aim of improving, and who is still intent on improving. Clearly, Woods had spent more than ten years deliberately practicing golf when he decided to revamp his swing. And one could say that he had spent more than ten years deliberately practicing, not just golf in general, but specifically his swing. However, he hadn’t practiced his new swing for that long. Could he nonetheless still count as an expert at that particular swing? Clearly, if Woods picks up a tennis racket, he will not count as an expert tennis player; just as clearly, he could still count as an expert at his golf swing even if he does something slightly differently. No one, even Woods, ever swings a golf club in exactly the same way twice. But it seems that even these slight differences seem to occasion thought.

The tennis player Nadal comments on this:

You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis show up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth clean shot every time would be a piece of cake. But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one. From the moment the ball is in motion, in comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter or higher. The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes—shoulders, elbow, writs hips, ankles, knees—in every shot. And there are so many other factors—the weather, the surface, the rival. (2011: p. 6)

Nadal has practiced tennis for longer than ten years, but he hasn’t ever practiced any shot exactly the same way more than once. But if this were to disqualify him from being an expert, we would have no experts left.

Another way, I claim, in which experts improve during performance or in their ongoing daily work is with the intent of making that very action better than ever before. Of course, if one has only the short-term goal of winning a tournament in mind, experts typically ought not to make any major changes to their technique. Unless the only chance they have for, say, not losing a game is to try something utterly new, it is advisable that they work basically with the technique they have and push that as far as they can, but no further. Miracles are at best rare, and one will not be able to develop amazingly new abilities during a tournament. As the tennis coach David Breitkopf put it:
As a teacher, I will work with students on many different aspects of technique, but when they . . . [play in a tournament, they need to] trust their strokes. . . . [Y]ou go to war with the military you have . . . [and] in a competitive situation, you go to war with the game you’ve developed up until that moment in time. (personal correspondence)

Certainly, you can’t do something that you can’t do. And trying to do something radically new and unpracticed is likely to lead to no good. However, it seems to me that although you go to war with the military you have, at war you might be able to bring more out of this military than you had previously realized. Moreover, as research by Toner and Moran (2009) seems to indicate, subtle improvements in technique—not improvements that involve employing a new military, but improvements that you can make with your old one—are compatible with expert performance.

A study undertaken by Toner and Moran suggests that for expert golfers, subtle improvements to technique during performance, along with the concomitant thinking, trying, effort, and control which promoters of just-do-it despise, have – contrary to the principle of interference – no negative effects on performance. In this study, players were asked to make technical adjustments to their movements yet performance was not hindered. The researchers sum up their results as follows:
First, technical adjustments had no significant influence on expert golfers’ putting proficiency. This result is quite surprising as we expected that such a severe form of conscious control (i.e. making technical adjustments to a skilled action) would disrupt a normally automated movement such as an expert golfer’s putting stroke. . . . [I]n contrast to received wisdom, it would appear that conscious control (in the form of technical adjustments) may not inevitably disrupt task performance (2009: p.676).91

Quite contrary to the principle of interference, conscious control does not seem to disrupt expert level performance.

Now, it might be that there are certain actions that an expert does not need to improve and moreover that, apart from waking up feeling slightly different every day, do not come with much variation. The free-throw is the clearest example of this. Perhaps there are some basketball players that are such good free-throwers that they don’t need to improve. All they need to do is throw it in just like they’ve done a thousand times in practice. There still may be reasons for such a basketball player to not act entirely automatically. If, as I suggested in chapter four, high pressure situations are prone to make them consciously focus on their movements, they may choke, and a remedy for this may be to keep the movements present in the conscious mind. (Besides, waking up feeling slightly different every day, cannot be discounted.) Nevertheless, such examples might be example of expert action where the expert is not driven to continually improve.92

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