CAN YOU DIG IT ? DO YOU GET IT ?

In the 50s, when I first became serious about jazz, there were many different forms and formats to the music. In addition, with so much emphasis on creativity and improvisation, there were always musicians that came up with different interpretations and approaches to the music as well. That being the case, there was always a question that loomed above, about, and around what was being performed. That question was, ” CAN YOU DIG IT ?”. What the question was actually posing was, did you understand and appreciate the texture, tone, or the ideas of the musician ? Did you get into the deepest essence and elements of what the musician was trying to convey ?  The verb “dig” was used, and apropos, because in many instances it required the listener to dig and plummet to depths of  understanding and appreciation that other forms of music did not necessarily require. The listener had, in many instances, to work as hard and as creatively as the musician to get the fullest understanding and appreciation of the possible genius, or fraud, that was being played out. The listener had to see the merit and beauty of what was being performed on his or her own. The listener had to go beyond listening and hearing. The listener had to bring their own level of creativity to a whole different place.

Skip Grant called me recently to congratulate me on the success that David Oliver enjoyed in coming back to the top of the 110 hurdles at the IAAF World Championships this past summer in Moscow, Russia. Skip Grant is one of the most unique and special people I have ever met. Skip, like me, was a product of the 50s. He grew up in Washington, D.C. during the time when it was one of the most racially segregated cities in America,…. despite being ” the epicenter” of world democracy. Skip never went to college, but became an icon and idol ( coach, teacher, athletic director, member of the board ) at the very academic centered and prestigious preparatory school, St Albans School for Boys . When you consider he was working among the greatest distillation of second generation power in the world ( the school was populated by the sons of business scions,  diplomats, politicians, senators, congressmen, and yes,….even Presidents ), for a black man to ascend to the heights that Skip did at St Albans is one of the most graphic examples of  a person blessed with the ability to “GET IT ” no matter how different and/or alien the environment or circumstances might be from what one might expect him to fully and comfortably grasp,…..and even exploit.

I often get questions and requests from coaches reading this blog about how to deal with issues and concerns involved in becoming a better coach. In many instances, especially after athletes that I have coached enjoy an impressive year, I am flooded with these questions in almost overwhelming numbers.  In too many instances what they are seeking is some sort of magic, quick fix insight or advice. I dismiss these with dispatch bordering on rudeness. What I am seeking are those coaches, who like Skip Grant, can “dig” what is really happening and who “get it” on a superior level,….even if it means going where they have not been before.

Superior coaching requires that the coach be able to see the craft as more than a single or double dimension challenge.  Superior coaching, like superior performances, occupies several dimensions,….some known and some unknown, and only sensed or felt. The pure science and math is not enough. When the inquirer starts to tell me about what she/he got from a lecture, clinic, or conversation that one of the assumed and self-proclaimed demigods of coaching shared with them, immediately warning bells go off in my head. When the principle piece of the exchange the inquirer came away with is the science and/or math, I immediately question whether the inquirer or the provider really “get it”. Do either or both really “dig it” ?

It has always been my position that coaching has to contain, and pertain to, art and beauty in the final analysis to really be validated and of sustainable  value. Hard science alone is not enough. At that, we are really only scratching the surface. The more we can intelligently delve and dive into the inner essence and substance of performance, seeking beauty and truth on several levels at the same time, just like John Coltrane did in  “A Love Supreme”, then we are beginning to move into the right depth and direction. Until we can attempt do what Piscasso did over his career,…… learn to turn ordinary and discarded objects into serious pieces of art, we are too fat with complacency and doomed to mediocrity.

Recently I have had a lot of the above thinking and concepts confirmed and expanded by reading certain articles in the NEW YORK TIMES. In response to an article entitled, “How to Fall in Love With Math” , Ken McAloon , the chief scientist of a software company in South Dennis, Massachusetts, who is responsible for mathematical optimization and algorithms, stated that he shared a” lament that more people aren’t  exposed to mathematical beauty.”. Further he states, ” ….in doing mathematics the most important thing is one’s aesthetic sense: everything is terribly abstract, and one’s ability to sense patterns, design and structure is all one can really rely on in pursuit of understanding,….”. In conclusion he states, ” That beauty is critical in this creative process is attested to by Godel and Einstein, who both believed that something mathematical must be beautiful to be true.”.  All too often we find the coaching “gurus” so caught up in the “science” and “mechanics” of the sport that they in fact do a disservice  to those who slavishly, and without question, follow their shallow lead in trying to separate athletics performance from art. This deficiency is addressed by Glen Miller, assistant professor of mathematics at City University of New York . He make a compelling point when he states, ” I believe that this distinction between the beauty of mathematical structures,…. and the usefulness of mathematics to model physical and social phenomena is a false dichotomy. “. In conclusion he offers, “So both aspects of mathematics are important: the alluring beauty draws one in, and the utility of it holds one’s interest enduringly.”.

Dr. Abraham Nemeth became blind as an infant. He later became a university mathematics professor. He developed a revolutionary Braille system called the Nemeth Code. He taught himself the piano as a child and later supplemented his salary by “playing  piano in Brooklyn bars.”.  He is credited with saying that he ” was increasingly drawn to what he later called the beauty of mathematics.”. It is obvious that even without “sight” he could still “see”. There are some among us that even with “sight” can NOT “see”.  Dr Nemeth stated that the more complicated the math became, the more limited Braille became. I would like to turn this idea on its head and reverse it by stating, ” The more complicated the task, the more limited the science becomes.”. It is true that Newtonian science is a base element of every physical movement in this universe, but it is also, and equally, abundantly clear that Newton in isolation is Newton in isolation,….. and when we are attempting to improve and/or execute a diverse, yet integrated movement we need to have the creativity to tap into other essential concepts and forms,….. abstract and otherwise.

At it very origins and source, track and field was “war games” for the ancients. Essentially, and at its beginnings, every event in track and field is about getting from one place in time and space, to another place in time and space as fast as possible in order to maim, wound, or kill an adversary. That being the case, a military attitude and discipline are at the core of success in war and in athletics as well. General Vo Nguyen Giap was the Vietnamese military strategist and genius that is credited with devising the tactics that allowed the Vietnamese  to defeat two major world powers( France and the United States ), despite the fact that both countries were far superior in terms of technical capacity and resources. In explaining the basis for his matchless success, he claims that he, ” had  the creative energy to achieve things its adversary can never expect o imagine.”.

It is hoped that the above has made the point that superior coaches are like Skip Grant. They “get it” because they have an  uncommon ability to “dig” down deep enough to see where all the relevant factors of success converge. This ability to “get it” is not based upon the “typical” education, knowledge or perspective . “Getting it” involves the ability to use good judgement and creative improvisation and sensitivity to attack and defeat a problem.  “Getting it”  requires transcending background and artificial limitations. It is fully accepted and understood that cold, hard science is a critical element in all athletic performance, but at the very pinnacle of performance, beauty, creativity, diversity and truth are all equal partners in the enterprise.

Thanks !

Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 – 0755

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