In Via et In Patria

Today is exactly 20 days before my first triathlon race.

I have absolutely no doubt that I will complete my 30km bike ride given all the mileage I’ve covered doing 60km practice rides on weekends plus the fact that I’ve been riding bikes since my childhood days. All the more with regard to the 5k run segment  given that I’ve completed 2 marathons, several 21ks, 10ks and 5ks over the years. It is the 900m swim that I worry about.  Which is why this is where I find myself investing the most time and focus at this stage of my training.

To be sure, I’ve achieved quite a number of modest learner milestones over the past couple of months of my swim training. I used to rest a lot in between my 25m laps even while wearing a center snorkel. I don’t do this anymore.  My legs used to sink even while wearing a snorkel which was why I was advised to wear fins. I no longer am as dependent on fins as I was months back.  I used to struggle with my breathing and my hip rotation. These past few weeks I seem to have hit pay dirt as I surprised even myself that I could actually already turn my head without lifting it even as I learned how to rotate from the hips. Subsequently, my rest interval in between my 25m laps is now down to 1 min 30 seconds from 3 mins. Equally noteworthy today is the fact that I actually pulled off swimming 1,000 meters with no snorkel and no fins.

And yet, I feel I’m not there yet.  The actual pool which will be used for my sprint triathlon is 50m long. This means I need to figure out how to get used to resting only after 50m. Which in turn all the more firms up my resolve to move heaven and earth to practice swimming 900 meters daily.

There is a very vivid phrase that I chanced upon in my college years that perfectly describes where I am now as June 18 nears. In via et in patria. On the way and at home.  Meaning, I’m not there yet, but I am already there.  Stating the thing broadly, pay the price and enjoy the ride no matter how far your destination point might appear  to be. If you program your mind enough  to achieve it, you will eventually get there. But first you need lots and lots of pool time as my coach would put it.

Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s now famous 10,000 hours. In his book entitled The Outliers, Gladwell deftly shows how the Beatles and Tiger Woods kept honing their craft for 10,000 hours before hitting pay dirt.

Alas, that is not all that there is to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.  The path to perfection is not linear. Along the way you will come across hurdles and detours. How you handle these is as important as putting in the time to practice your craft.  This is by no means easy especially for someone who has never been that comfortable in the water.  I have lost count of the number of hurdles and stumbling blocks that have accompanied my journey as a swimming student.

And so it is in this precise context that  I rediscovered a poem in an entirely different sense what  I used to read to myself when I was struggling  in high school.

“When things go wrong as they sometimes will

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,tirE

When the funds are low and the debts are high,

And you want to smile but you have to sigh

When care is pressing you down a bit

Rest if you must but don’t you quit

Life is queer with its twists and turns,

As every one of us sometimes learns

And many a fellow turns about

When he might have won, had he stuck it out

Don’t give up though the pace seems slow

You may succeed with another blow. 

Often the goal is nearer than

It seems to a faint and faltering man;

Often the struggler has given up

When he might have captured the victor’s cup

And he learned too late when the night came down

How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out

The silver tint in the clouds of doubt

And you never can tell how close you are

It might be near when it seems afar

So stick to the fight  when you’re hardest hit

It’s when things go wrong that you must not quit.”

 

Enough said. Just keep swimming.   

 

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

Did you know that a louse (i.e., “kuto” in Filipino) once evoked a poetic insight? In 1785 the English poet Robert Burns chanced upon a louse on an otherwise fine-looking lady’s bonnet prompting him to write: “To see ourselves as others see us, it would from many a blunder free us.”

robert burnsMore than 200 years after it was written, Burns’ insight continues to resonate in the age of Spotify and YouTube albeit for an entirely different set of reasons. Thanks to the internet, virtually anything could be learned by anyone – from playing the guitar to cooking your favorite comfort dish, from mastering a language to mounting a grassroots political campaign. Notwithstanding the numerous things one can learn through the internet, it has its limitations. You may spend the requisite 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell popularized to master a craft yet still realize that your skill level is not at par with where you’d like to take it. You can pore over the various internet references for understanding the different words that comprise a language yet still feel frustrated about your seeming lack of progress. The missing ingredient? Critique in the form of feedback for us “to see ourselves as others see us.”

malcolm gladwellThat is precisely why training programs that are deemed most effective are those which employ feedback to sharpen the skill level of the learner. The same might as well apply to runners who aspire to improve their game. You can do all the strength training exercises until you pass out of sheer exhaustion. You can run all the LSD and tempo runs that your body can muster. But without feedback, you deprive yourself of learning more about what you’re doing right and what you could improve on. One powerful instrument of feedback is video analysis. Competitive basketball teams use it. Aerobatic teams leverage on it. Elite units of the armed forces can’t do without it. Runners who aspire to continuously improve would do well to use this technology particularly in improving their form.

What attitude is to aptitude, form is to speed. More to the point, form is fundamental. Thus, the insistent admonition of many coaches to work on one’s form first. Then, you can progressively work on your speed next. Your form, after all, influences your speed or lack of it. Most importantly, form, is ultimately about efficiency which is a requirement of endurance. And endurance is what long-distance running is all about.

And so compelled by this insight and disturbed by a string of running injuries (i.e., most of which have since healed) which came in the heels (pun intended) of my aspiration to improve at the sport, I decided to invest in a form analysis session after accidentally discovering the availability of such a service. Thanks to certified ChiRunning instructor and The Dream Marathon Head Coach Lit Onrubia and his company called Forward Lean Running, I uncovered a number of valuable take-aways which I have no doubt will improve my running without risking even more serious injuries. These, incidentally, are the two important customer value propositions of ChiRunning.

coach lit onrubia

Chi Running is “a revolutionary form of moving that blends the subtle inner focuses of T’ai Chi with running.” It was developed by Danny Dreyer based on “his study of T’ai Chi with Master Zhu Xilin and internationally renowned Master George Xu, and his 35 years of experience, running, racing ultra marathons and coaching people in intelligent movement.”

oct blog chi running bookHere are just 5 of the numerous benefits that running enthusiasts could look forward to if and when they decide to give form analysis a try.

Pattern

The first thing that impressed me about Forward Lean Running’s form analysis is the premium that it assigns to the diagnostic approach. As phenomenologists would put it, “first you describe, then you prescribe.” To find out what I’m doing right and what I could improve on, my running form was recorded at various speeds – from the warm-up pace to the comfortable race pace, from the comfortable race pace to the sprint race pace. In addition, various vantage points were used for recording upper body and lower body movements across the various paces. In the process, an overall pattern of my running form was established. This effectively served as the baseline of the form analysis.

oct blog forward lean runningStrength Finding

Yet another thing that made me appreciate form analysis is its conscious effort to engage in strength finding instead of dwelling on errors and their attendant correction right away. More specifically, the form analysis session zeroed in on the various form focuses that I got right. Form focus are two intrinsically-related terms that Dreyer uses to describe the bite-size exercise that works on a specific body part that contributes to achieving the Chi Running form. This conscious effort to identify and affirm your strengths as a runner naturally builds a sense of confidence and fulfillment. When I was told, for instance, that I was actually observing the forward lean form as I was running, I was buoyed by the affirmation to all the more continue to seek to improve. I must have done something right along the way. The feeling is no different from the positive vibe that inescapably wraps you when you hear or read “Kaya Mo Yan” – the current Milo Marathon tag line – while you’re in a race.

Development Opportunities

From the very beginning, it was the possibility of chancing upon my areas for improvement that made me invest in form analysis. I’m glad that I was not disappointed. By uncovering the blind spots and red flags in my form and technique, it allowed me to set my sights on specific, measurable and achievable gaps that I could improve. Fortunately, most of my blind spots require mostly small tweakings here and there. Yet however small these tweakings may appear to be, their impact and effect on one’s efficiency are exponential once they are applied in actual runs. Cases in point are the corrections I was advised to work on with regard to the consistency of my forward lean (i.e., that I should maintain it especially when speeding up), the circular and rearward movement of my legs (i.e., that I should lift my right leg more) and my cadence (i.e., that I should constantly check if I’m over-striding by rolling my eyes downward.)

Learning Applied

An unexpected plus that came my way after what I thought was the completion of the analysis is the quick-win application of insights that apply to my form and technique. Instead of being sent off to work on my development opportunities, Coach Lit actually directed me right there and then to integrate the necessary high-value adjustments to my form while I was actually running. My cadence involved one such adjustment. Months back, I experimented with various SPM (i.e., strides per minute) permutations on a running track. Based on my trial and error attempts, I thought that I would have to settle for 170 strides per minute which was at the extreme lower end of Dreyer’s recommended SPM. In the course of the form analysis, I discovered that I could comfortably do 175 or even 180 strides per minute by simply adjusting my stride length and synching it with the metronome. It was the adjustment to my stride length that I found most helpful. It really is one thing to read about things. It’s altogether a different matter when you apply what you read in real life.

Hope

Lastly, I left the session with a sense of hope and optimism that despite the fact that I only discovered ChiRunning after years of winging it with grit and tenacity, there is no way to go but forward now that I know what I know. This time around hopefully I could do so with minimal or even better, zero injuries. In the song “Betamax” popularized by the Pinoy band Sandwich, lead singer Raymund Marasigan enjoins the listener to keep moving forward: “Padayon! Ipagpatuloy ang agos!” Notwithstanding the original context of the song, its core message of forging on  augurs well with how Dreyer envisions ChiRunning: “In ChiRunning, basic principles of T’ai Chi are employed to optimize the flow of energy in your body to reduce the use of force for moving forward, and thereby reduce the risk of injury.” (ChiMarathon by Danny Dreyer, p 13)

 sandwich 2

Whiplash

march blog whiplash movie poster

“What is the strongest tree?,” a student once asked his master. The master replied, “The strongest tree is the tree with the deepest roots.” “But what is the tree with the deepest roots?,” the student pressed on. The master paused for a moment and then said, “The tree with the deepest roots is the tree that faces the harshest winds.”

The preceding anecdote augurs well with the central theme of “Whiplash,” a 2015 Oscar best picture contender which recently earned the Best Supporting Actor Award for veteran character actor J.K. Simmons. Simmons portrayed the role of Terence Fletcher, possibly the harshest albeit talented music teacher ever to figure prominently in a major motion picture. At the receiving end of Fletcher’s harshness is Andrew Neiman who is portrayed by Miles Teller. “Whiplash” chronicles Neiman’s struggles as a driven and promising jazz drummer aspiring to greatness in the course of his training in a New York conservatory. It is in the pursuit of his musical aspiration that Neiman seeks out the notorious Fletcher first as  teacher and eventually as coach and mentor. The latter he pulls off by qualifying as back-up drummer in  Fletcher’s award-winning college jazz ensemble.

“Whiplash” also happens to be the title of a Hank Levy jazz composition which was extensively used in the film as a rehearsal and competition piece. The enthralling piece foreshadows the numerous crests and troughs of Neiman’s journey to musical mastery against the backdrop of Fletcher’s persona as both a nurturing teacher at times and a terrifying mentor most of the time. In itself, the song embodies the perfection that is the object of Neiman’s numerous sacrifices en route to his ultimate dream. In this respect, the movie both inspires and shocks as it presents  seamless tableus of what exactly it would  take to be great at something.

1. The Rule of 10,000

In his best-selling book “The Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell points out that the Beatles, Bill Gates, Mozart, Bill Joy and Steve Jobs all share one thing. They all zealously  decked a minimum of 10,000 hours to hone their craft before they achieved career breakthroughs.

“…research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.” (p 43-44)

march blog outliers

“Whiplash” affords its viewers a well thought-out cinematic treatment of Gladwell’s rule. There is Fletcher’s fascinating storytelling of how jazz greats like Charlie Parker paid their dues to achieve their celebrated status – a story that becomes the template for Neiman’s own journey as a first year music major. To get a clean shot at his dream, Neiman does not only dissect the music sheets to distill the secrets behind each composition. He literally breathes and lives out the music sheets. Posters of his idols adorn the walls of his room obviously to inspire his already inspired drive. Listening to the pieces he seeks to master everywhere he goes becomes as second nature as eating and sleeping. He downloads what are presumably YouTube posts to understand how his idols practiced and performed at the top of their game. Most importantly, he knocks himself out practicing and practicing and practicing in sync with the original recordings even after his hands literally bleed. Talk of making the Rule of 10,000 rule your life as an aspiring musician.

2. Love is Blindness

His musical progression though is by no means linear. At the same time that he embarks on the roller coaster pedagogical approach of Fletcher, Neiman falls in love with Nicole, (Melissa Benoist) the girl of his dreams. This is where the movie becomes even more intriguing as it offers a different take on how love could, take your pick,  mesh with or mess up the life of a musician as driven as Neiman. You’ve probably heard variants of the story of a promising young scholar from the provinces who qualifies for a scholarship in a premier university in the city only to lose it all after falling head over heels in love with his supposedly academic muse. Well, that is not what quite happens here. Neiman realizes that his love of drumming could not co-exist with his love for Nicole. They would have to compete for his undivided attention. The option he chooses would no doubt dismay the viewer but it is one proof of the power of his teacher’s ever growing influence in encouraging nothing less than single-minded devotion to his craft. To ignore everything, to notice nothing, to focus on only one thing, namely, his dream to be the best that he can be. Now we know of an entirely novel, but nonetheless,  disturbing take on the famous lines penned by the great Filipino poet Francisco Balagtas: “O Pag-ibig na makapangyarihan, pag pumasok sa puso ninuman, hahamakin ang lahat, masunod ka lamang.” (i.e., “O all-powerful Love, when you take ahold of anyone’s heart, everything could be forsaken in your name.”)

3. Kind Dad, Cruel Dad

As Neiman navigates his way through the labyrinthine route to the promised land that is musical mastery, one can’t help but perceive the workings of two types of fathers in his life – two fathers who are a study in contrast reminiscent of Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” Whereas Neiman’s biological father is what you would expect of 21st century fathers who have no issues about being there for their teenage sons even as they are conscious of quantity time as quality time, Fletcher is the exact opposite. The latter channels the exacting and distant demeanor of the old school father of the 60s. Or if you will, the battle-hardened sergeant major who would stop at nothing to turn a civilian into a cadet during boot camp. While Neiman’s father makes his paternal presence felt by way of regular night outs with his son at the nearby cineplex, Fletcher uses graphic insults and hurls chairs to uncover student potential. To Neiman’s dad whose presence in the young man’s life seems to suggest the assurance that “I am here for you no matter what,” Fletcher’s appears to say: “What does not kill you makes you strong.” Kind Dad, Cruel Dad, indeed.

march blog whiplash 2

4. Color It Red

Which brings us to how Neiman’s devotion to his craft almost gets him killed. Without a doubt, passion is the only word that comes close to doing justice to everything that Neiman gives up to turn his aspiration into reality. Passion, unfortunately, is also the reason why he ends up taking things too far eventually leading to a sad and unexpected career detour.

Thankfully, just when the viewer starts to think that Neiman’s dream has crashed and burned, passion is what enables him to turn his crises points into opportunities. How this happens is where the movie wraps itself around your heart and mind and does not let go until the closing credits.

Talk of passion rubbing off on the viewer. Along the way, Neiman’s passion along with that of his fellow musicians get past the celluloid screen and into the heart and mind of this writer. Having been raised on pop and rock music, I did not use to care that much about jazz music. Jazz compositions all used to sound the same to me. Sad. Repetitive. Unexciting. In fact, copies of “A Kind of Blue” and “A Love Supreme” have been gathering dust in my record shelves. Not anymore. “Whiplash” made me want to check out the rest of the works of Hank Levy, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other jazz greats. Thank you, Director Damien Chazelle!

5. Lessons from The Tiger Mom

How the movie ends brings to mind the two different outcomes of employing what Amy Chua calls the Tiger Mother approach. Chua is the celebrated controversial Yale professor who wrote a best-selling book entitled “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” The book is a riveting documentation of her unique real-life parenting style which is as razor-sharp and as laser-focused as Fletcher’s pedagogical objective. To wit: to bring out the best in each of her 2 daughters by pushing them beyond their limits. For Chua, the best indicator of exceeding one’s limits is through getting A+ in all subjects in school. To make this happen, it is critical that a well-meaning parent ground his/her parenting style in  the belief of a Chinese mother:

“The Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be 2 years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or a coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.” (p 4)

march blog tiger mom

The impact created by her parenting style  on her daughters compelled Chua  to engage in a rigorous self-reflection which led to her writing of the book. While the eldest eventually actualized Chua’s vision by becoming a piano prodigy, her second openly rebelled against her and as she would put it, humbled her no end. Thus validating her mom’s constant reminder to her to adjust to her children  instead of simply imposing her own cookie cutter approach to raising her kids the Chinese way.

“Yet my own Chinese mother had been warning me for a long time that something wasn’t working with Lulu (her second child.) “Every child is different,” she said. “You have to adjust, Amy…” (p 232)

But where Fletcher fails, Chua eventually succeeds. That’s because Chua, the Tiger Mother is able to imbibe the best traits of the two kinds of fathers above. More importantly, Chua, for all her strictness and harshness, is blessed with parental self-examination which I suspect is the ultimate point of the book and if you will, the movie. The intuitiveness that is so innate and natural among mothers may also help explain her edge over the elder Neiman and the harsh Fletcher.

Beware, then, parents and teachers.

Beware of imposing your pedagogy without any regard for where your children and your students are coming from. Chua’s mom is correct. Students, like our children, have different thresholds. No one is exactly the same. Under extreme pressure, one might eventually suffer a nervous breakdown or even be driven to commit suicide just like in the case of the earlier prodigy of Fletcher’s in the movie. Yet another just might triumph and break on through to the other side of virtuosity just like Neiman’s character or so we are led to believe in the final scene of the movie. But at what price?

In this regard, taking Kahlil Gibran’s admonition to heart might serve all of us parents and teachers  in good stead.

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls. For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams…”