21 June 2020

The plus, minus and equal of improvement

He was a fierce competitor, good student and generous in sharing his knowledge

My friend Sarath Weerakoon makes life easier for me.  He shares with me little gems that he frequently sends out to the many young people, cricketers mostly, that he mentors. These, he tells me, have been gathered from conversations with dozens of coaches. It can’t be just that of course. Gems are not a dime a dozen. They have to be extracted through a long and tiring process that yields little and even then rarely. It takes practical knowledge and much reflection. Sarath has done that, obviously.

They are simple lines. So simple that one can read and understand quickly enough. So easily that one forgets as quickly. Some lessons have to be learned and re-learned. They become second-nature through application. Practice.

Here’s something he send me recently.

‘Want to improve? Find three people. Plus  - someone more knowledgeable  and experienced, that you can learn from. Minus  - someone less experienced, that you can mentor/guide. Equals  - someone at your level, that you can compete with. Each serving a purpose,  pushing you in all angles to level up.

Chess is what I know best, even though I am a fan of almost all sports with a decent enough knowledge of rules, personalities, histories and nuances. Chess however, iss where I usually go for examples.

Way back in the late seventies and early eighties the Chess Federation of Sri Lanka, lacking resources, came up with a novel strategy to develop talent. Back then there were very few books to learn from. We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have qualified coaches either, apart from infrequent coaching sessions conducted by Grandmasters from the Soviet Union brought down by the Russian Cultural House for a few days. The Federation came up with a 10-10 idea — the top ten players would coach the top ten juniors.

Coaching is a big business today. It’s a bit like English tuition. Anyone who knows 10 words is ‘guru’ to anyone who doesn’t know a single word, to put it crudely.  There are gullible parents and coaches who prey on gullibility. There are very good coaches too, this should not be forgotten. Back then, though, past students coached present students for the most part. Free of charge. ‘Giving back to the school,’ was what is was all about.

The top ten were generous. They were also young, some, like Harsha Aturupane, were actually still in school. They agreed to help the juniors free of charge. And so they were paired off. And the juniors got the ‘Plus’ — the knowledge and experience of the best in the island. The juniors benefited immensely. They became better players.

The second is a personal story. A few years after the 10-10 program, while still a student, circumstances forced me to coach the junior team of my school. That was my ‘Minus’ — I had to learn so I could teach, I had to think so I could respond to their innumerable questions. That’s what made for the single spike in playing strength. Today, the one reason that I can maintain a decent playing strength is coaching/mentoring.

The third is self-explanatory. That which is learned has to be tested. You take on the competition, you do your best, you make your mistakes, you learn from them, you become better and offer stiffer competition.

Chess players are told to study the classics, the games of the greatest chess champions. Those games and relevant analyses teach us a countless number of lessons. We can’t extract all the secrets, but our understanding of the game improves tremendously. The games, then, are like mentors. Biographies of great exponents in other sports can serve the same purpose if, as it could happen, you don’t have a real-life, hands-on, here-and-now coach/mentor.

We can also reach out to younger players. Impart knowledge freely, guide them, mentor them and this helps perfect our own technique on all counts, as an individual player and a member of a team. When we teach people who to read a situation, we invariably learn to read situations better. Sometimes we realize some startling truth only when we see someone we are mentoring misread something.

And of course there’s no substitute for competition. That’s where the plus and minus factors have to be applied. That’s where we discover strengths and flaws.

Plus. Minus. Equal. Three words. Easy to understand. Easy to forget. Unless you think about it and put thinking into practice.

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

The 'never give up' of sports
Do you have a plan?
Strengths and weaknesses
It's all about partnerships