This is the companion REFLECTIONS Transmission for the On Playing, Training & Challenge conversation that Patrick Oancia had with Yuval Ayalon. It would make the most sense to first watch or listen to that episode. You can find the link to that episode here.
I’d like to frame this transmission reflection as Yuval’s journey from competitive gymnastics to a more contemplative handstand practice. Which he initially didn’t expect would unfold as his present career.
In gymnastics, when a gymnast works on fundamentals, doing the drills repeatedly, they try to drive their skill so deep into the subcortical structures that it becomes automatic. When a certain task can be performed on autopilot, we can say that this task performance has become a skill. Or that the performance became skilled.
Judging an athlete on writing skills.
In that part, Professor Ballard is talking about how once a physical skill becomes well-learned or over-learned, the detailed description of how to perform this skill stops being available to the person. So that is, they can do it, but they can say very little about the details of their experience. And he quotes an essay by David Foster Wallace called “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.”
Tracy Austin is a tennis player. And Wallace, who is a writer, had been incredibly disappointed by her memoir. For example, her account of how she had won at the US Open in 1979 sounded like “I broke her, then she broke me, and then I broke her again. So we were at 4-4.” And I can see how a writer may find the expressive power here quite poor. But Wallace makes much broader conclusions.
The final conclusion that Wallace makes in this essay is that if we are wondering what’s going on in the mind of an athlete when they are showing top performance is that there is nothing at all. And then he writes, and I quote:
we, spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able to truly see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it – and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.
Although I understand what Professor Ballard was trying to illustrate by quoting this essay in the context of his book,
I feel like, from the moment I first read the quote and then the whole essay, I have been in a never-ending internal dialogue with the point of view expressed by Wallace.
I’d like to use examples from Yuval’s transmission conversation to address certain points brought up by Wallace.
A gift you have to work hard to get
First of all, Wallace talks about top-level athletic performance as a divine gift.
As much as I agree that it’s pretty amazing that someone can repeatedly hit a far-away target with a ball, it’s not a divine gift but a skill acquired through practice and hard work. By definition, a skill is an ability to perform a certain task reliably under various conditions.
In this Transmission conversation, Yuval talks about how after the competition season is over, there is this time when you learn new tricks. And the first time you can do something new is a memorable experience. But then you start practicing to repeat it and eventually be able to do it under pressure and be judged on it. And a lot of this Transmission was actually about dealing with stress. So in some ways, if top athletes are gifted, they are gifted with resilience and the ability to withstand stress or perhaps to appreciate the challenge as an enjoyable process. Only a small part of the athletic skill is based on genetics, and the majority of it is dedication to consistent practice.
Pyramids, inverted trees, and the loss of awareness
Secondly, the main point of Wallace’s essay, which was also the reason why Professor Ballard decided to quote him in his book about brain computation, is that
when a skill is learned, we may lose the ability to describe it.
This is actually a very important question, which is of paramount importance in Baseworks, and therefore I really want to focus on it…
First of all, let’s clarify that skill is not necessarily something fancy like a handstand or being able to hit a flying drone with a tennis ball. Using a spoon without making a mess of your face and clothes is a skill that takes months to acquire. Touch-typing is a skill that requires quite a bit of training, which many people never acquire.
Once the skill has been acquired, we tend to stop paying attention. This allows us to build more complex skills on the foundation of pre-existing well-learned skills. This creates a pyramid of skills that goes back in time, and it becomes increasingly difficult to be aware of the skill building blocks at the very basis, or foundation, of this skill pyramid. I am saying pyramid because it’s easier to connect it with the idea of foundation. But it’s also helpful to imagine this pyramid as an inverted tree. The idea of “Hierarchical Abstraction” in the title of Professor Ballard’s book partially refers to this inverted skill tree.
In his essay, Wallace feels disappointed by a tennis player’s inability to describe her experience of winning a tennis match in detail. However, I am anticipating that in his own memoir, Wallace would not be talking about the experience of typing the letter “T,” or typing the letter “A,” or explaining how exactly his fingers find the right keys when he is typing.
The experience of winning is a very strong emotion, which acts as a motivation that pushes people to compete. In fact, competition is also a very strong driver in increasing average athletic performance.
For example, when Yuval compares his current handstand teaching career with competitive gymnastics and circus performance, he says that nothing beats the adrenaline involved in going on the apparatus in a competition or going on stage for the first time in a new act and that he finds both experiences similar. He says that at that age, he had enjoyed dealing with stress and it made him feel proud, which also shows that he does have a competitive mindset.
So yes. Tracy Austin must have considered the emotion associated with winning as the most important part of her winning experience, And yes, Yuval clearly enjoyed the thrill of competition and the adrenaline of challenging himself. But neither of these examples sufficiently proves that it is ultimately impossible to be aware of the details of the experience associated with a well-learned skill performance.
The experience of a well-learned skill
In fact, in this Transmission, we heard Yuval describe how gymnastics had started for him as something that was purely fun. He mentions that he has always liked the sensation of flying. And that he enjoyed the experience of being in control when he could land on two feet after doing a few twists. He also shares an anecdote about his mother, who saw him performing a routine over and over again and wondered if it was fun at all, and he told her “it’s the best”. These examples pertain to the quality of the physical experience he truly enjoyed.
Later Yuval talks about how he discovered handstand as a discipline in his early 30s after he already retired from competitive gymnastics. Although handstand is an absolutely fundamental skill for him, like walking for most people, Yuval explains that he sees Handstand as a practice that will allow an unlimited amount of exploration. This is not an adrenaline-driven experience. We could, perhaps, describe it as contemplative. In fact, in the part of the Transmission that was not released due to some technical issues that Patrick mentions in the very end, Yuval was talking about how handstand practice allows him to stop thinking and turn off the mind. Oh and by the way, Patrick and Yuval will pick up on that second part at some point in the future!
Inclination towards contemplation increases with age. And competitive sports require strong young bodies. So with many of the top athletes being below 30 years old, it is quite natural that at this age people are less likely to give deep accounts based on the contemplative analysis of their skill.
So, is there a tendency to lose awareness of the details of skill-associated experience? Yes. This makes our brains more efficient.
Is it possible to not lose the awareness? We believe that the answer is Yes. It is possible to observe and describe one’s sensorimotor experience, if one desires to. And there’s actually a benefit to doing it.
What is the benefit?
For example, Yuval is talking about the danger of repeating some incorrect movements too many times. Because one may become skilled at something which is either not allowing them to progress or which may hurt them. We can call it a maladaptive skill, but it’s still a skill.
So if you’ve gone through your entire life, and very early on you developed a skill, which is now at the very foundation of your skill pyramid, it may be super difficult to access it in order to somehow change it.
Rebuilding the foundation – Difficult but not impossible
For example, it’s possible to correct even a very heavy accent if one trains enough. The reason why so many people continue speaking with very heavy accents is because they have built the 2nd language pyramid on the foundation of the 1st language pyramid. Yet, other people mostly understand them, so there is no need to rebuild the foundation. When we apply this to movement, what often happens is that when people begin to practice some kind of movement modality as adults, they may be building the new skill on the pre-existing foundation. Which is not necessarily suitable to support an unlimited development. So they may easily get stuck.
Remember how Yuval said that his handstand practice will allow him unlimited exploration? That is possible because he is continuing to build gymnastics skills on a foundation which is perfectly fit for gymnastics. And by the way, he describes his gymnastics training process as predominantly linear and structured – which is what you need to build a foundation. On the other hand, if he wanted to become a doctor, for example, or an accountant, he would have had to build an entirely new foundation.
So, when we sometimes say that Baseworks is a foundational practice, what we mean is that our method is specifically designed to access the basic skill-building blocks which lie close to its base. Or when some people hear about our method, they often say, “oh, well, essentially, you teach body awareness.” Yes. Especially in this context – when we discuss how over-learned skills escape awareness, what we teach is making you more aware of the experience of producing a movement. So that it becomes easier to modify deeply internalized movement programs.
To finish, I’d like to encourage you to stay tuned for the next part of Yuval and Patrick’s conversation.