A DELAYED REWARD EVENT

In a previous piece I pointed out that track and field athletes, and people in general, usually posess an Instant Gratification/Reward Syndrome or a Delayed Reward Gratification/Reward Syndrome. Usually there is a problem if we attempt to have an instant reward personality perform a delayed reward task. The converse is also true. One of the real drawbacks for me in teaching was the fact that it sometimes took decades before I would get feedback from students about what my efforts on their behalf REALLY meant to them. One of the very special places I taught for the better part of a decade was St. Albans School in Washington, D.C.. In many ways this was a pedagogue’s dream job. The students on average were very bright, motivated, and generally well behaved. The fact that politics and political science was a very high interest of mine, made the fact that I had students ( Al Gore, Billy Mondale, Teddy Kennedy, Elliott Richardson, Neil and Marvin Bush, Kim Agnew, Bill Graham   etc. ) whose parents were very highly placed in government and business should have made the experience there permanently and terminally attractive. The adminsitration of the school was very tolerant and patient with my unorthodox style and form of teaching. The pay was good and the amount of recognition and respect was ego-sating. But despite this I always had the itch to move on. And did,… in 1975. 

Recently, Jon Sade, one of the students at St. Albans that I introduced to jazz in the cultural anthropology class I taught there ,  sent me  an music review from the WASHINGTON POST. He enclosed a brief statement, ” I read this today and had flashbacks to your Anthropology class and our Jazz/Blues Club at St. Albans. Some of what the subject says seems intuitive and almost obvious, but intersting still. I’m curious how he demonstrated it scientifically.”  Jon’s title on the note paper read, Merrill Lynch – A bank of America Corporation, Jonathan Sade, Managing Director- Investements . So he’s a pretty sophisticated and accomplished guy. And, thirty five years later and he stills ponders questions and issues we discussed when he was a teenager. Made my damned day ! Thirty five years too late for me to really grasp what I was really teaching and communicating because the instant reward itch had already prevailed.

The “HE” Jon refers to is Vijay Iyer, a trained physicist, who is currently respected as one of the most prominent voices on jazz piano( 2010 Jazz Journalists Association award winner as Jazz Musician of the Year ). He was an undergraduate at Yale and got his PhD in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley. His PhD thesis was Technology and the Arts. It has always been a goal of mine to explore, explain and expand in my own mind and fashion how art/creativity/intuition interacted,… and in fact ultimately become and enhance science and technology. In describing Mr Iyer’s approach the reviewer states, “….at the University of Cailifornia at Berkely, where he produced a doctoral thesis that focused on the ‘role of the body in music perception and cognition’ – that is, the part played by bodily experience in the comprehension of music. The two spheres may seem worlds apart. Yet speaking of his two lives, the pianist reveals that in some ways, each was made posiible by the other.” 

Years ago Jeff Atkinson was a 1500 meter runner I coached at Stanford University. He won the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1988, beating Steve Scott who was virtually unbeatable at that time by an American. Jeff went on to make the finals in the 1500 in 1988 at the Olympics. At one time he was the American record holder at the 1500 meters indoors. He once attempted to criticize and diminish me by stating, “You coach like a jazz musician !”. The broad smile that immediately spread across my face gave him a moment’s pause.  “Did you hear what I said ?” ” Yes —hole I heard what you said !” And my smile became even broader. He shook his head and wandered off and finished the workout. I was very happy in the fact that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do,… my best emulation of Mile Davis and John Coltrane. However and conversely, I was saddened because he did not understand or appreciate the inherent benefit he was geting from the approach I was taking in my coaching “style”. that so greatly benefitted him.

The 100 meter hurdles for women, and the 110 metter hurdles for men, are in fact the most technical events in track and field. These hurdlers have to be technically and scientifically very sound for at least the ten hurdles between the start line  and the finish line. A serious mistake at any one of the ten can spell instant and complete disaster ( Gail Devers in 1992, Alan Johnson and Perdita Felicien in 2004, Lolo Jones in 2008 ). In no other event in the sport is the athlete challenged and held accountable at that level of efficiency, at that velocity, that number of times ! David Oliver was the reigning king of the men’s 110 hurdles for 2010. In the process he tied the old American record for the event and then within weeks set a new American record, just 2 one-hundreths off the world record. He did this despite the fact that he was having dental issues that required three root canels after he set the American record. This process can to some degree be traced back to a meet he was invited to in Paris several years ago. I advised him to visit the Picasso musem there and see if he could see just how this creative genius was able to express himself at the end of his career with just a few strokes and minimal material. He visited the musem and reported back to me that he could see the progression from the complex and convoluted to the simple and plain, yet still communicating the same complex physical images and deep emotions. I told him that the task that faced us in his event was the same process he witnessed at the museum. We had to take complex ideas and very technical stuff and break it down into the fewest creative and scientific strokes . In order to do that we had to emulate what I heard and felt from seeing Picasso,…. and hearing Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  At the same time we had to make sure we never lost sight of Sir Isaac Newton and his physical laws of motion and movement. When I observe him hurdling I am reminded of John Coltrane, by way of Gene Ammons , with Newton very much in attendance. Vijay Iyer states, ” Physical ( physics, < my insertion > ) logic can be used to generate musical ideas.” It is also true that the reverse if also true, namely,  musical and intuition ideas can be used to enhance and better implement physical ( physics ) concepts. It is from this perspective that I proceed in coaching all events. Iyer states, ” The body is in the musical space, interacting with the instrument.”. In my coaching approach, the body is in  a/the musical space interacting with science and technology, but when done properly it is difficult to identify one to the exclsuion of the other. 

In Zurich after the Diamond League Meet Bobby Kersee and I were sitting down going over some schemes and traning value for the 400 meter hurdles and the 400. We were discussing the percentages of training loads ( volume versus velocity ) and types of energy sources ( aerobic vs anaerobic , lactic acid vs alactic ). As we got deeper and deeper into the discussion it became clearer and clearer that where we may have started out with science and technology, we were going to end up with intuition and creativity carrying the day in order to put the science and technology to the very best use. This recalls a discussion I had with John Smith about sharing coaching and training ideas with other coachs and clinics and seminars.

Look, man I ain’t afraid to share ALL my stuff with these other coaches.

Why John ?

Because they can not take my s–t and beat me with it.

Really ?

Hell no ! First of all, they do not know how to mix it because there is no rescipe out there to tell them. And even if there was, you still have to understand how to tamper with it to make it just right. All of it can not come off a page.

So ?

So ? So, I got the s–t right here in my head, but I also got it in my gut. They both tell me what to do. You have too many coaches out here who do not know how to use their gut and guts. So they will never be able to beat me because they are not multi-dimensional enough.

Oooooh.

Oh.  By the way I think it was/is fitting and proper that David Oliver ran his best time( 12.89 ) in Paris, the birthplace of his Picasso phenomenon and awakening. 

Thanks.

Brooks T. Johnson

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