“You’re not in the official squad Toby. You don’t get swimmers and uniform.”
This announcement from the head coach was in front of 30 of the best water polo players in the country – some of them my great mates. All of us were striving to be a part of the Sydney Olympics just 2 years away.
We were in the briefing room above the pool at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra for an Australian Men’s water polo training camp with Serbia.
When the coach asked if everyone had their gear, I was the only one who put my hand to say I didn’t.
I was on scholarship, living and training at the AIS at the time. The training block in the lead up had been the hardest I’d ever trained. I’d put everything into it but still hadn’t been selected in the official squad.
It was a completely fair response.
“You can join in the conditioning work and be part of the warm ups. But you won’t be getting game time. You can watch and learn.”
I wanted to crawl into a dark corner and hide.
I sucked it up and showed up to the sessions to do what I could.
At the end of the week, everyone was back in the same briefing room. The group was heading to Sydney for official games.
“Does everyone have their travel and accom details?”
I didn’t, so I stuck up my hand again.
“You’ll have to make your own arrangements if you’re going to come Toby.”
Another stinger in front of the group.
There wasn’t much point staying in Canberra by myself. So I organised a lift and one of the Sydney squad offered me a bed at his parent’s place. We’d be able to get to the sessions and the official games together.
One of the assistant coaches put me on video duty in Sydney so I recorded the training sessions and practice matches.
Then it was time for the first official game.
A minute, a few words and an old t-shirt
We were out at Homebush Aquatic Centre, built specifically for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This was an important Olympic preparation event. The whole squad was in a room beside the pool running through game strategy. I stood up the back listening.
Dry land warm ups were done then it was time to go poolside.
As I left the room, one of the most senior players grabbed me in the hallway. I’d only known him for about 3 months since he’d returned from playing professionally in Europe. He was at the AIS too and had been in the Australian team for 4 years. He was considered one of the best players in the world.
He took me aside and handed me a shirt with the Australian Water Polo logo on it. It was an older version, but very similar, to the ones the squad had been given.
“I want you to have this. I think you deserve it. I know one day you will be a part of this squad.”
Then he walked out to the pool deck. It was all over in less than a minute.
What stands out is the impact this had on me as a person first and foremost, and by default on my water polo career.
It wasn’t something that I sought out, or could control at all. I couldn’t ask for help with it.
At a time when I just kept on showing up, seriously doubting what I was doing, and seriously doubting whether I would ever be good enough, he took a minute, a few words and an old shirt to inspire me forever.
I didn’t make the Sydney Olympic team, but revisiting that gesture kept me going in the next 6 years in the lead up to Athens.
“We do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” – John Dewey
[This post started out as a book review and became a reflection on my own experiences of learning. The idea of fractal learning is one that I would love your feedback on in the comments. Is it useful? Could it be applied in a way that helps us to learn more rapidly or teach more effectively? With more depth or more focus on the passions we have?]
Josh Waitzkin has a fascinating story. He is:
2 x US Junior Chess champion (his father wrote a book about his journey called Searching for Bobby Fischer which was turned into a feature film of the same name),
Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion (2004) – the martial arts version of Tai Chi – and has subsequently coached others to that same title,
I’ve read his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance and loved it.
The Art of Learning:
The book explores Josh’s journey from US Junior chess champion to world champion as a martial artist in Tai Chi Push Hands. As he learned TaiChi, Josh began to see how his deep understanding of chess was influencing his learning process and vice versa. Josh subsequently spent years deconstructing his learning process across the 2 pursuits and shares his universal themes in the The Art of Learning.
Josh’s principles of learning:
Cultivating a beginner’s mindset A beginner is open to all possibilities, is excited to learn and is not afraid of failing. As a beginner there is no expectation to succeed or produce results.
As your skill level increases, so too does the expectation (often self-imposed) for you to produce results. We stop learning when those expectations make us too afraid of making mistakes. Cultivating a beginner’s mindset helps us overcome this fear of mistakes so we can continue to learn and improve.
Invest in loss By training, practicing and competing with people who are better than you, you will be forced into making mistakes (losses). These losses become investments when you take the time to reflect on them to understand what happened and why. Through this reflection you can learn and then refine and improve your skills and performance.
The study of numbers to leave numbers
Another way of wording this principle might be to call it the study of a skill to make that skill automatic. By studying and practicing your skills, you gradually absorb them. They become intuitive, automatic, no thinking required.
Remember the basics of how to catch a ball? Keep your eye on the ball and watch it into your hands. Do you repeat this to yourself every time you catch a ball? When you’re first learning – sure. However, after practicing for a while, you don’t think about it anymore. In fact, often you forget someone even taught that to you.
This is one of the key difficulties for masters trying to teach beginners – they have forgotten what they have learnt and how they learnt it.
Making smaller circles (condensed technique)
Over time you work on finer and finer details within a skill, condensing your technique to use less effort to achieve the same result. To progress to smaller and smaller circles you’ll need to follow the above 3 elements every time:
adopt your beginner’s mindset,
invest in loss to understand and learn the finer level of a skill
then reflect, study, and practice the new “smaller circle” of the skill until it is automatic. Then you can progress to even deeper levels.
Slowing down time (enhanced perception) In a competitive arena, if you are “making smaller circles” by focussing on finer details of a skill than your opponent, you will feel like you have more time. The greater the difference in skill level, the greater the time difference will feel.
As I was trying to understand these principles, I started to draw. This is my original drawing and notes:
My notes on the side tie it back to Josh’s themes:
Level 1 Novice sees 3 skills to master
Level 2 Intermediate sees 3 skills to master
Level 3 Expert sees 3 skills to master
And so on
Cultivating a beginner’s mindset is about forever being open to, and then seeing the next 3 skills to master.
To move deeper into the pattern and down a level to more condensed technique you must invest in loss.
You progress to a deeper level when it is internalised by study, reflection and practice.
This drawing – of smaller and smaller circles within circles – immediately reminded me of fractals.
From Wikipedia: A fractal is a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns. Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale or they may be nearly the same at different scales.
I started to look for a fractal that would help me visualise Josh’s concept of “making smaller circles”. I found the Apollonian Gasket. Here is an animated version:
As the animation proceeds, it is exactly the same at each level – a bit like the drawing in my initial notes although with much more detail.
On the other hand, The Mandelbrot Set – one of the most famous visualisations of a fractal pattern – varies at each level:
Here’s an animated zoom of it (you don’t need to watch the whole thing):
You’ll notice that as you zoom into the structure, you don’t get an identical pattern repeating. Unlike the Apollonian Gasket, you get something different at each level. BUT it is still related to the whole.
Fractals really helped me to visualise Josh’s principles. So I wanted to step through 2 examples from water polo and web marketing to make these ideas more concrete.
I created a simplified water polo example:
Level 1 – A beginner, keen to learn, watches a game of water polo and sees 3 circles of skills she will need to learn to be able to play the game:
Level 2 – When she arrives at her first training session, the player becomes aware (with the help of her coach) that these 3 skills can be broken down further. For example she learns that in Ball skills there are 3 more circles – Passing, Shooting and Blocking:
Level 3 – This cycle of awareness of more detail (and capability to progress) then repeats and she then breaks each of these skills down even further.
So a branch of this water polo example might look like this:
Drawn out, the pattern of smaller circles looks like this:
It looks a bit like a very simple Apollonian Gasket. In reality, there a more than 3 circles at each level of water polo, so let’s look at web marketing to provide a more detailed example.
Web Marketing and Templates
We started to create web marketing templates to help us teach our clients how web marketing worked and how all the various pieces of the puzzle fitted together. In hindsight, we were deconstructing the relevant skills as we learnt them.
So let’s consider web marketing as a skill set you might want to master.
…the web has actually brought communication back full circle to where we were a century ago… communication is once again real, personal and authentic… word of mouth has regained its historic power…
Humanise your company.
If you believe these statements, if you truly believe them, then place your trust in your people and culture, and let them wow the world. Give them the tools – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and whatever else is next – to share that very same culture and grow those same relationships – in real time.
If your people and culture can’t be copied then surely that is the one thing you can fearlessly make public.