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Can the Olympics change your life? Yes, why not?
Sport models life. Elite sport distills the drama of life in the way theatre does. Everything is heightened: the years of practice and dedication, the suspense, the ups and downs, the triumphs and the disappointments.
It would be strange if we couldn’t find something in the grand theatre of the Olympics to inspire us.
It seems that all true things must change and only that which changes remains true.1
I’ve rebooted my efforts to learn Mandarin Chinese. The following is a set of thoughts and reflections on how this happened for me.
Rewinding briefly, in the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year, I was fascinated by Anna Kiesenhofer’s victory in the cycling road race. She broke away from the field early in the race, then built, and then held her advantage to the surprise and chagrin of favourites picked for the win, mainly riders of an over-confident Dutch team.
Here are some quotes from a post-event press conference with Anna Kiesenhofer:
I’m actually not a professional cyclist… I think nobody expected me to come away with a top result here…
I’m self-coached, I plan my training myself…
Stick to the basics… I just found out what works for me.
Now I think the best book about sport science is actually my own training plan, so I just looked what worked in the past, and do what worked.
Don’t trust authority too much.
In the Beijing Winter Olympics, Gu Ailing and Nils van der Poel stood out for me as athletes whose approach to sport is an inspiration for practice in life.
If you have any interest in winter sport it’s unlikely you’ve missed hearing about Gu Ailing (Eileen Gu, 谷爱凌), the eighteen-year-old freestyle skier competing for China, who reached a pinnacle of sporting success, winning gold in the big air and half-pipe events and silver in slopestyle. She is, as she said in a press conference, “living her best life.” 谷爱凌 is equally at home in the USA and in China. She is a sort of symbol for the connections that are possible between countries and cultures. She traverses the two cultures as easily as she traverses the half-pipe. Her Mandarin is perfect.
It’s easy to relate to the Olympics passively as one would relate to ‘mere’ entertainment that engages but doesn’t hit home with relevance to one’s own life. But it’s also possible to take the achievements of the olympic athletes personally in a vicarious way, just like we can read histories and biographies to understand things ‘which we cannot hope to experience personally.’
We need several lives, but we are granted only one. This is not just a problem peculiar to judges. It is as true of the noble lord who rules the state as it is of the noble lord who cleans his plate, or the aristocrat who banks at Coutts and the aristocrat who cleans his boots. In the nature of things most experience is vicarious, not personal. History enables us to understand many things about humankind, which we cannot hope to experience personally.2
Watching Eileen Gu, I was reminded that wherever one is in life, it’s a good time to begin again. The past is the past, the future is an abstraction. Whatever we’ve done, wherever we are, we have an opportunity to begin again, to practice what is most interesting, or most natural, intriguing, or rewarding.
Just begin again. What can we achieve by re-focusing on the ‘real game’ of our own lives?
Proust made the point that…
[t]here is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or even lived in a way which was so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. But he shouldn’t regret this entirely, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as any of us can be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached…Marcel Proust as quoted in Alain de Botton’s How Proust can change your life
Sport has fixed rules and criteria for success. Life does not. We are all, in a sense, athletes of our own lives. There’s nothing to win or lose apart from a sense of having lived fully, lived our ‘best life.’ We can be inspired by the dedication to practice and iterative improvement shown by athletes. We can search for and bring the lessons ‘home’ to ourselves.
Nils van der Poel is a Swedish long-distance speed skater. He won gold in both the 5000- and 10,000- meter events in Beijing. He exudes self-confidence that seems to be based on a deeply held conviction that he has trained harder than anyone else has, with higher level of dedication and intensity.
Here are some extracts from a video trailing Nils van der Poel during his preparations for the Olympics (video trailer below).
I think so much of it is that it took me 12 years to learn how to train properly. Some lessons are harder than others. (19:56)
There are skaters who think they will win olympic gold in an event I will run. I don’t want to tell them that they won’t. They’ve trained too poorly and too little. Let them hope. (19:10)
…they say about me: “It’s Nils, no one can train as hard as he can, it’s genetics, it’s his training background. There aren’t enough people saying: “Then I will start training as hard as he does.” (16:35)
I know what I’ve done, I know how successful it has been, that’s enough for me (17:12).
To be so determined, your life becomes very narrow, and that’s what it takes, to become the best. But that will also generate curiosity for other things. (18:10)Nils van der Poel: Genius or Fool, available: https://www.svtplay.se/video/33985666/nils-van-der-poel-dare-eller-geni
There are striking parallels between Kiesenhofer’s and van der Poel’s training philosophies: Both compete in classical sports in which there is much received wisdom on how to train. Both rebelled against this received wisdom, each developing alternative training programmes built on personal experience. They are both renegades. In referencing twelve years of learning how to train properly, van der Poel acknowledges the need to go through the sort of experiences or rites of passage that Proust called “…the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached…”
Nils van der Poel has made his training programme available for download at https://www.howtoskate.se/. In his introduction, he writes:
The common way to approach the sport seems to me to be to acquire some certain abilities (i.e. maximum strength, VO2max, threshold, technique, mobility, core stability etc.) and as the competition approaches you put all these abilities together, like a puzzle, and so you build the perfect speed skater.
To some extent I approached the sport in a similar way, but I believed that the puzzle only had two pieces. (1) Competition speed capacity and (2) aerobic capacity.
Instead the main idea of my training program was that you will become good at whatever it is that you train.
The idea was that whoever skated the most laps of 30,0 during the last three months prior to the competition would win the 10k.
My preseason (reaching up to 3 months prior to the prioritized competition) basically had two aims: (1) build the capacity to be able to skate a lap of 30,0 and (2) build a good recovery so that I could skate a 30,0 as often as possible. Since skating a lap of 30,0 is not so hard for a world cup speed skater, I mainly focused on building a strong recovery.3
The basic principles behind the successful ‘renegade’ training regimes of Kiesenhofer or van der Poel can give us energy in any setting requiring practice. There’s nothing particularly surprising in the ideas of ‘making it personal’ and ‘practicing the whole game’ rather than disjoint bits and pieces that one hopes will come together. Take, for the sake of comparison, the development of skills in “AI” (whatever that means). In his introduction to his fast.ai course, Jeremy Howard writes:
Harvard professor David Perkins, who wrote Making Learning Whole (Jossey-Bass), has much to say about teaching. The basic idea is to teach the whole game. That means that if you’re teaching baseball, you first take people to a baseball game or get them to play it. You don’t teach them how to wind twine to make a baseball from scratch, the physics of a parabola, or the coefficient of friction of a ball on a bat.
Paul Lockhart, a Columbia math PhD, former Brown professor, and K-12 math teacher, imagines in the influential essay “A Mathematician’s Lament” a nightmare world where music and art are taught the way math is taught. Children are not allowed to listen to or play music until they have spent over a decade mastering music notation and theory, spending classes transposing sheet music into a different key. In art class, students study colors and applicators, but aren’t allowed to actually paint until college. Sound absurd? This is how math is taught–-we require students to spend years doing rote memorization and learning dry, disconnected fundamentals that we claim will pay off later, long after most of them quit the subject.4
To learn or to train well you should start practicing what it is that you’re aiming to do. You should look for teachers who ‘teach the whole game.’ And you need to look beyond the teaching that you’re getting to find your own programme, your own style.
Gu Ailing does a routine before her runs, visualising and mentally simulating her jump(s). She has written an essay about fear: “I think everybody knows that everybody else is scared but it’s easy to assume that they’re not. That being said, I don’t talk about it with people I’m not super close to.”5
Imagine the whole thing, and begin practicing. It sounds easy. It is not. It is easy to get caught up in other things. Van der Poel describes how his competitors get caught up in the received wisdom of training programmes that are less intense than his. If that can happen to the world’s best athletes, it can happen to anyone. It takes relentless self-inspection and iteration to build regimes like those of Kiesenhofer and van der Poel.
There are as many obstacles and traps as our imagination for distraction allows. Sometimes we like the idea of getting somewhere more than we like the process of getting there. Sometimes there’s something easier or more appealing to do in the moment: if you add up all those moments of distraction you find that you’re putting a serious dent into your practice. Sometimes we think we want something when we haven’t really thought it through.
One of the things I have been afraid of is to speak a new language outside a familiar setting. I was close to overcoming this fear just once with French, but it required a very special setting to get there. I was at a Nebbiolo wine-tasting dinner. I was there through the kindness of a person I had worked for in the past who had organised the event as part of a new business venture in the wine industry. He had invited me. I could not have found such an event without an insider’s invitation (and could not have afforded it had I been able to find it). It was the sort of event where a giant truffle is held over your shoulder and grated onto your pasta, and the waiter keeps grating and shaving until you say stop, which was a word that didn’t occur to me for a very long time. I had no conception of this sort of luxury before experiencing it. After dinner, a french winemaker or wine-industry person was there and I wanted to talk to him about wine. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about: perhaps it was to debate whether one would choose French or Italian wine to supply a desert island that one could simulate oneself to be stuck on. He didn’t know much English and so I began speaking in French. I remember feeling fluent, feeling able to bring a sentence or two across, then a whole idea, then a world-view. My confidence began to build, I let myself go even as I realised that I was making mistakes. I have no recollection of the extent to which the other party understood me. The point is that I felt I was able to speak French without fear.
In letting go and speaking in these circumstances I was practicing ‘the whole game’. I wasn’t breaking things down into exercises. I was trying to talk to someone and using all available knowledge beyond self-censoring notions of true or false to express my opinions about the superiority of Italian over French wine as a supply for a desert island setting (or was it the other way around?).
With Mandarin, I am right at the beginning. I’ve been looking at bits and pieces of the language for the last ten years or so. I’ve signed up to various services, bought various books, signed up to podcasts, etc. I’ve tried: Skritter to practice characters, Pleco as a dictionary and for reading material, Outlier Linguistics as a dictionary add-on to Pleco and for its character and pronunciation courses, ChineseClass101 and ChinesePod for spoken material, Glossika for pronunciation practice and gaining familiarity with phrases. I have various books.
I have dipped in and out of different approaches and programmes in waves of enthusiasm. Over time I’ve developed a very basic sense of familiarity with the language. I can (or imagine I can) piece together bits and pieces of spoken conversations. But I have no confidence in speaking, and I wouldn’t know where to place myself on any scale of competence.
In terms of the standardised Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK), I’m probably at a level of HSK 2 or 3 in listening comprehension, and HSK 1 or 2 in speaking, reading, writing.
Uneven progress has muddled my sense of what level I’ve reached and how to make progress from where I am. Should I start at the beginning with HSK 1 characters and move forward from there? As soon as I start spending time on learning basic words and characters, I become attracted to HSK 2 or HSK 3 level reading material. I then start looking up words, start worrying about pronunciation, switch to practicing on Glossika, etc.
This is about as far away as one can be from the sort of practice or training programme that van der Poel or Kiesenhofer represent.
Part of the problem was that I hadn’t figured out where I want to get to. Do I want to be able to participate in conversation? Do I want to be able to read? Am I interested in writing and calligraphy? All of the above? A few years ago I began trying to learn the classical Thousand Character Essay after seeing a classical scroll of calligraphy in the Shanghai Museum.6 This was an enjoyable but time-consuming project, I made it to about 150 characters before my energy dissipated and I moved on to the next thing.
On occasion I became more interested in learning about learning than in learning itself. It was more interesting to read about what one should be doing than actually doing it.
Do I regret not having been more disciplined in my practice? I might be reasonably advanced by now if I had practiced in a more focused way. Ten years is a long time. But a better way of looking at the last ten years is as a period of figuring out how to practice. If it took Nils van der Poel ten years to figure out how to practice, why should it be any quicker to figure out how to learn Mandarin? And, remembering Proust’s reflection, fatuous and unwholesome incarnations of our projects are part of reaching the stage that is possible for us.
Just begin again. There is, as Hermann Hesse wrote in his poem “Stufen” or “Steps”, a certain magic in every beginning, which protects us and helps us to live:
…Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,
Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.7
Last weekend I signed up for an assessment of my level with a Shanghai-based language school, which offers personalised live lessons online. I was nervous beforehand, studying various phrases, convinced that I would be tested by asking to introduce and talk about myself. I rehearsed lines about working for Siemens in the train sector.
The language consultant asked me about my goals. She had a record of a previous query I had sent a year earlier, which I had not followed up on at the time. She joked that in my first query I had self-assessed my level to be higher than what I assessed it to be now. Then she said she would assess me. She would say a sentence, which I would have to remember then repeat and translate. While I understood the basic gist of most sentences and felt reasonably sure about my translations, I had difficulties in remembering the original and repeating it back.
The experience was liberating. Speaking Chinese in a context like this was something I felt uncomfortable with. I felt my memory freezing as I tried to repeat sentences back. Yet going through with the assessment opened up a new door to motivation and a commitment to study and learn every day. At the very least I can take the thirty or sixty minutes of time I typically spend over the course of a day browsing news and replace that with language practice. It’s not an olympic commitment, but it could be a life-changing one.
I now have an assessed level to work from. This Tuesday I will start a refresher course at HSK 2 level. I aim to complete HSK 3 over the course of about a year with two 50-min lessons per week and plenty of practice between.
As I get into the programme I will remember the advice of Kiesenhofer and Van der Poel to ‘keep it personal’, to not trust the received wisdom of how and what to learn too much. And I’ll keep the pure joy and spirit of Gu Ailing in mind, her way of simulating her routine in her mind before setting off.
I think the Olympics can help us to draw courage. Seeing what is possible with concentrated effort can prompt us to think about how we can begin and try again as athletes of our own lives. Change is the only constant. We can always begin again, again, and again.
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Opening quote in Nils van der Poel’s training manual published after winning the 5,000 and 10,000 m speed skating races at the Beijing Olympics. See later.