Petr Cech. Photo: Getty
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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.

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?

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. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.
 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia