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5 November 2017

To gain an edge in learning – and sport – make the revision harder than the exam

Instead of over-preparing for the future, under-prepare for now.

By Ed Smith

As an undergraduate, I became sceptical about revising for exams. First, the relentless distillation of underlined notes and bullet points, reducing subjects to a skeleton, seemed counterproductive. It cut out the interesting bits – tangents, connections and surprise – and dulled our brains through over­familiarity. Second, revision notes created a kind of dependency. Attached to these notes in the run-up to exams, students were disorientated by having to write essays without them when it mattered.

Undergraduates, I felt, were accidentally making exams harder by making revision too easy. What if you reversed the process and made revision harder than the exams? One way of doing so, I eventually figured out, was to write an essay right now, on the subject you were thinking about, without notes or preparation – as if you’d got the dates mixed up and the exam had come unexpectedly early.

To make the future easier and more familiar, you had to make the present harder and more alien. Instead of over-preparing for the future, under-prepare for now.

I’ve never made the connection before, but professional sport suffers from its own “revision notes” syndrome. There is an over-reliance on repetition, reductiveness and the elimination of risk; and under­investment in surprising and demanding practices designed to make real matches feel easier.

Edge, a perceptive new book by the football writer Ben Lyttleton, explores this theme. It describes how Thomas Tuchel, the pioneering 44-year-old German coach who enjoyed success at Mainz and then Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, trains defenders to improve marking and tracking at corner kicks. Tuchel found that during practice, defenders were falling back on what was tried and tested: grabbing the attackers’ shirts. Cheating, basically. In real matches, players are likely to cheat as far as the referee allows them to. But surely there was a better way to improve than just honing cheating?

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So Tuchel made his defenders hold tennis balls while they marked and tracked players at corners. He took away the crutch of artful cheating. If they practised “pure” defending, based on superior movement and anti­cipation, “real-life” defending would be easier in comparison. Tuchal – described in German as a Querdenker, or “problem solver” – was, in effect, making revision harder (and more fun) than the exam.

I saw something similar in cricket. The Kent batsman Graham Cowdrey mastered the sweep shot against spinners by not wearing pads (leg guards) during practice. The pad is a second line of defence if you miss the ball. Shorn of that safety net, you watch the ball more closely or risk getting hurt. Practice, again, becomes more demanding than the real thing.

The 35-year-old Petr Cech, Arsenal’s goalkeeper, has kept more “clean sheets” than anyone in Premier League history. He recently posted a video of one of his training workouts on social media. Surrounded by four differently coloured cones, Cech tries to catch a succession of table tennis balls fired at him by a machine. Between catches, his coach calls out a colour. Cech has to touch the correct cone before instantly readying himself to catch the next table tennis ball.

“If you’re a professional goalkeeper for 20 years and somebody keeps shooting the ball at you, after a while, just catching it from 15 yards will not make you progress,” Cech said last year. “So you have to find a way of making that exercise more complicated so you know your brain will switch on and go further.”

The approach is known more widely as “differential training”. Instead of pursuing an abstract ideal of perfection, differential training revolves around variety and risk – just trying stuff. The advantages flow from the fluctuations.

The best cricket coach I encountered had a surprising way of fixing poor form among batsmen. Instead of retreating to low-level defensive drudgery to “rebuild confidence”, he got us to practise demanding but controlled attacking shots. And he would trick us into thinking that the whole experience was not professional practice at all, but just a game he had thought up on the spot. “Maybe try this – we’re just messing around, remember? No one is judging you.”

He pushed us to recapture finesse, flow and self-expression. If your body could arrange itself to play demanding shots, the basic ones would become easier. In the process, you recaptured not just form, but also joy. An appealing logic follows: future advantage may not belong to machines, but to superior teachers. We learn when we are engaged. So the most precious resource in any elite system is a teacher or mentor who can engage talented employees.

Phase one of ultra-professionalism and specialisation – the mistakes of which are now becoming clear – was about control and compliance. Employers pay their talent considerable money, so in return they get to own the whole person, proceeding as though they had all the answers.

The next phase – which is currently limited to the enlightened fringe – will be very different. Given that high achievers must inevitably spend so much time on mastering their discipline, the challenge is to refresh and elevate the way that they prepare and perform. Systems, in other words, should be designed to avoid boredom, not to create control.

Highly professional organisations will end up going full circle. They will need teachers who can restore playful absorption to highly pressured employees.

The edge, in my opinion, will reside in fun – the serious kind of fun that follows from immersion in developing new skills and approaches. 

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over