As I stood at one of the computer terminals on the spacious, colorful ground floor of my laboratory building, checking my Google Calendar between appointments, I stretched and caught a glimpse of Robotics Post-Doc George making his way passed. Eager for some social conversation before a long meeting, I flagged him down.
“Up for coffee? Or a short walk?” I inquired.
“Sure–a short one, that is. Oh my goodness, is that your calendar?” he asked, an incredulous look flashing across his face.
I looked back at the terminal’s screen, a Pollock painting of overlapping events, color-coded by type.
“Um, yeah… but I can explain!” I replied with an slow, embarrassed smile.
The problem is that, in addition to putting down the places and times where I absolutely must be, I also put down places and times where I could do something, provided that I have the time, interest, and energy. I think of it as “keeping my options open.” That meeting runs longer than expected? No problem, I’ll end up missing that late afternoon technical talk, but I can still make it to this other interesting gathering or optional sports practice in the evening. Thanks to the lessons of Prof. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, I know, at some superficial level, that this is almost, if not entirely, counterproductive. His book, in a nutshell: the more options I have for how to spend my precious few free evenings, the more likely I am to end up sitting on my couch, twiddling my thumbs and surfing the internet.
However, there is a confounding factor at work. As my research and teaching responsibilities have evolved, my work day has transitioned from hours alone at my computer, wrestling some piece of code into submission, to hours spent assessing students’ understanding of technical material, spontaneously generating questions and hints to steer them toward a more accurate working model of how things work, or leading hour long problem-solving centered recitations for twenty or thirty very bright, but occasionally unconscious (slumbering) undergraduates. It is very rewarding, and has all the ingredients to facilitate flow: “the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”
Now that I regularly experience flow in the process of fulfilling my academic responsibilities, I no longer need athletic experiences, which, for several years, were the only way I experienced flow. In fact, rather than go to a wrestling practice, I am almost embarrassed to admit that I’d much rather recover from the demanding, rewarding day with a cup of tea or coffee and a good book, with a healthy dose of staring out my window and a dash of boredom.
However, doing whatever I feel like doing at the moment is not a recipe for lasting happiness and societal contribution. Discipline is doing what we don’t necessarily feel like doing at the moment, because we know our overall well-being will be greater in the long run.
For a while I was using that understanding of discipline to try and talk myself into going to sports practice after my new schedule of long, intense days, even if I felt like vegetating on my couch. (If you couldn’t tell, I have a really comfortable couch. )
However, that’s a rather obvious, and limited application of the principle of discipline. While it’s easy to say that I demonstrate discipline if I get myself off the couch to go work out, it’s also important to recognize that there’s discipline in limiting what I do so that I can do it well and still satisfy my own needs for solitary time and boredom and significant stretches of time where I don’t need to be anywhere at any particular time. I think this concept didn’t occur to me before, because my work used to be solitary, and I didn’t need to be anywhere at any particular time to do it. Being alone with my thoughts didn’t need to be scheduled; it was unavoidable.
Either I just wrote a very “well-researched” excuse for why I haven’t been training much lately, or I’m working out a way to balance an increasingly exciting career with a desire to evolve and flourish as an amateur grappler. I vote for the latter interpretation.
“There is a certain combination of anarchy and discipline in the way I work.”
-Robert de Niro
With the punch of a button on a console in the lecture room corner, a large chess board flashed up on the screen above the chalk boards. Prof. Sanjoy Mahajan returned to the center of the room, in front of the students taking his graduate-level class “Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering.”
“When a grand master looks at this chess board, he perceives several meaningful clusters of chess pieces. When a novice looks at this chess board, they see each piece individually. … Learning changes your perception. One result of teaching is a change in your students’ perceptions,” he explained. [Paraphrased]
I paused the video—Prof. Mahajan froze—and sat back in my chair. I had never thought about teaching in that way. It made sense that, to be effective, I’d need to change my students’ perceptions. I wanted them to see, for example, meaningful relationships and clusters of variables when looking at an equation governing semiconductor devices or a mathematical transform between time and frequency domain representations of a signal. But how?
After writing one last note to myself, at the end of my lecture plan, I closed my laptop and grabbed my wrestling bag. I drove through the rain and turned the last equation, and its graphical representation, over and over in my mind; I’d struggled, in one-on-one teaching situations, to get my students to see that the equation was computing the same quantity as the mechanical, graphical step-by-step calculation that’s also taught every year. How could I present it so that they would in turn perceive the equivalence?
I glided through one of Massachusetts numerous rotaries, which flung me out onto a highway. NPR burbled on and on about economic news in the background. At some point, I saw an additional highlighting box on my imaginary blackboard, and the verbal explanation to go along with it. The equation summed the terms in one order, we summed the terms in a different order when we calculated it graphically. This box showed in the graphical representation what the order of summation was in the equation. I was pretty sure it would work: I still struggled to perceive the equivalence, even though I know it’s there. This diagram modification helped me, so I hoped it would help the students too.
I pulled up to the wrestling club. It was the youth kids class tonight, and I wanted to say hello to Sean and Muz, and help coach. If a larger kid needed someone to drill with, I’d jump in myself.
Soon enough, I was in my crouched stance, facing off against the one big kid in the class, as we both tried to tap the others’ knee without getting our own knee tapped, playing around with fakes. Fake to the left, go for the right, or crouch a little lower, wait for him to commit to a particular defense, and tap the remaining knee within reach, as he darted around, catching my knees on occasion as well. A flurry of knee taps on us both and we’d share a big smile. We couldn’t even keep score anymore.
Muz made us drill a particular set up. I’d place my hand on the boy’s shoulder, and he’d push it upward and away as he lowered into a crouch and grabbed my nearest leg. Over and over, we drilled this. Repetitions are critical for physical learning.
However, when we were released from the structured drilling, and allowed to just wrestle, I decided to place my hand on the boy’s shoulder, and he didn’t crouch and grab my leg. His perception had not yet changed. I kept my hand on his shoulder, and verbally reminded him to use the attack we’d just been drilling ten minutes prior. An look of mild embarrassment flashed over his face, and then he followed through, pushing my arm up and grabbing my leg. “Good,” I told him.
Throughout the rest of our time wrestling that evening, I’d randomly place my hand on his shoulder. The time it took for him to perceive the attack we’d practiced went down. And my standards correspondingly rose. By the end of practice, if he didn’t attack my leg within two seconds of placing my hand on his shoulder, I wouldn’t give him his takedown. By putting him on the look-out for an opponent’s hand on his shoulder, his perceptions of how he could attack were very slowly maturing.
If his perceptions were changing, he was learning. And I had found a way to facilitate the process. I realized that this was one of many answers to “But how?” within the context of wrestling, just as the additional box on my imaginary blackboard was an answer to ”But how?” within the context of teaching equations.
1,2,3,4,…5,…6,….7,…8,…… I intoned in my head, ticking off each deadlift of the bar loaded up with weights by Coach, the mastermind behind this morning’s circuit workout. As soon as I felt the wheel-shaped blue weights make contact with the blue foam wrestling mat, I launched into the next upward push. Then a thought passed through my mind.
Let me just set it down for just a ’sec’ before the next rep.
For the eighth time, the blue wheel-shaped weights kissed the mat, but this time I let the mat support them too, for the briefest moment.
The blue weights fused to the blue mat, plastic weight casing melting into and interlocking with polyethylene foam and vinyl.
I pulled. Nothing. The bond was instant, and now fixed.
“Ten more seconds!!” Coach shouted out to the team, from his own station.
I pulled again, and felt my will to lift them begin to fray. I pulled again, collecting the loose ends of my will together, to keep them from further unravelling. Nothing. Without looking at the clock counting down to the next station-switch, I consciously decided to lift it, and the mat let go of my burden.
Around we went, a train of young adults, collectively sucking in air and then throwing ourselves into the next task before us, be it slamming the medicine ball into the black gym floor or pulling ourselves up so that our chin rose above the rack mounted high up on the cinderblock wall, and eventually, I was back where I started.
I lowered myself to reach the deadlift bar, and out of nowhere, Coach was suddenly in my ear, and this time, I was not just replaying some past encouragement in my mind.
“Elena, I am right here! … Don’t let this mentally defeat you!” he commanded.
1,2,3,4,5 I intoned again. He kept commanding me to lift, to keep going. I couldn’t see him: my eyes were focused on the far wall, past the teammate swinging a hammer down onto the enormous tire, past the stationary bikes and the patch of mat where a boy was sprawling and spinning, sprawling and spinning.
6,7,8,9,10 I continued. It was as if we were both lifting the weight, even though I was the only one holding the bar.
“Good job. Time!” Coach called out, for everyone to hear, and move on.
As I progressed through that last round, I never again had Coach in my ear, lifting the weight with his commands: I had to continue finding my own internal source of motivation. Sometimes it was the satisfying THWACK of the medicine ball, and sometimes it was dwelling on the following poster:
As we cooled down, I couldn’t help but wonder, How do coaches do that?
I came up with a few theories in the shower afterwards, while, a few stalls over, a training partner sang at the top of her lungs, but it was nothing but idle speculation. Magic, I concluded. For now, I’ll call it magic.
… the two girls above, captured on (digital) film by Mark Lovejoy of Wrestling Roots, wrestling their hearts out in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“Once you reach a certain level of competency, the mental skills become as important to performance as the physical skills, if not more so.”
–Gary Mack, in Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence
I consider myself to be very lucky—I have multiple, distinctly different people who I’ve come to think of as mentors. I feel confident enough to find my own answers, with the safety net that I have wise, experienced mentors to turn to when I get stuck, or even just to share something I’ve found to work for me.
My self-concept as an athlete has changed dramatically, in a fairly short period of time, thanks to mental exercises, like identifying “reasons” why I can’t succeed and, one by one, doing what I need to throw those “reasons” out the window. However, that shift has also exposed mental adjustments that I have to continue making to my attitude, expectations, and interpretations of situations in order to continue progressing and having fun.
I now more consciously observe the athletes around me, not so much for their technique, but for their attitude and self-talk. When I take younger wrestlers to a tournament, how do they interpret their performance after a tough match? When I ask fellow competitors about their upcoming tournament, how do they express their readiness?
While I can (and have) sought advice from my wonderful mentors, I am finding this simple practice of observation to be just as instructive. When I come across a poor reaction to a situation, it’s obvious. (For example: He is becoming frustrated, and it’s hurting his performance!) I recognize that I’ve had the same reaction myself at some point, without recognizing, in the heat of the moment, how counterproductive it was. Seeing someone else react that way makes it all the more obvious that it’s wrong.
The flipside, of course, is also true. When I hear someone I respect express an attitude toward competition (or life—very similar, in may respects) that resonates with me, I try to slowly absorb their healthy perspective into my own worldview.
“She’s too pretty to wrestle!” the coach said, as I was cooing over the photos of his adorable daughter sliding across the screen of his smartphone.
I straightened up, in mock exaggerated offense, with a huge smile, to contradict him: “No one’s too pretty to wrestle!”
“She is,” he responded, with finality.
I didn’t push the point.
He’s not the first parent to express concerns about the effects of wrestling on gender expression. It makes me self-conscious as I go about subtly (sometimes not so subtly) proselytizing, because I am not exactly a femme fatale myself. Not according to current runway standards, anyway. I’m no ugly duckling either, but I’ll wait until short and stocky becomes vogue again before I contact a modeling agent.
This winter morning at dawn, I lay on my stomach on the floor of a warehouse-turned-Crossfit-gym, bleary-eyed and stiff, wearing a formless sweatshirt and sweatpants, attempting the “Scorpion” stretch. I turned my head toward the young woman beside me and noticed just how well she performed femininity at 7 AM on a frost-laden Friday before New Year’s. (The idea that gender expression is a social performance was introduced by post-structuralist feminist philosopher Judith Butler, but I only know that because I looked it up on Wikipedia.)
The specifics of this woman beside me—mostly her hair and outfit—aren’t important; she simply gave off the distinct impression that she had, moments before, stepped off the set of a photoshoot for a women’s fitness magazine. She made the squats that followed look graceful. If she entered a Miss America pageant with Olympic weightlifting as her talent, she’d start a new national trend.
I can appreciate her style, and still love mine. And I’ve been developing my many varied styles since I could choose my own clothes and express my own preferences to the hairdresser. Wrestling didn’t change it, and trying wrestling won’t change how other girls express themselves either, regardless of whether they choose pink sparkly nail polish to adorn their nails, or the grit and grime of a machine shop, or both.
“You’re wrong, Coach! You’re wrong!” I said, shaking my head back and forth, tears brimming. I had pulled him aside between bouts of getting beat up by two high school training partners I usually handled fine.
This was my last practice before we left for the US Open in Cleveland, and I had slowly, and not so silently, been unraveling emotionally for about a month. I was terrified. “Muz, I’m going to the US Open, and I’m going to get smashed!” I confessed to the Harvard assistant running practice for high school students one Sunday. “No you won’t,” he responded, simply. I was unmoved.
No matter how emphatically Coach expressed confidence in me as I stood, hunched, in his basement-level wrestling room reverberating with loud music, I didn’t believe in myself.
Within 24 hours, I was in a minivan packed with wrestlers and coaches headed west to Ohio, on my way to a national championship where I would demonstrate a textbook-quality example of not committing to my shots.
Fast forward almost a year and I was on-weight for the 55 kg/121.25 lbs. division of this year’s US Open, undeniably skinnier and jogging exuberantly along the Charles River with Irish folkdance music blasting in my headphones, on my way to visit Coach for a few last words of advice and to borrow a tripod. He started wrestling an imaginary opponent and expounding on the necessity of me opening up and attacking, like I have in practice: “You’ve got to perform, Elena. Perform!”
I was laughing—his air-wrestling cracks me up—but half-jokingly asserted that “I think you’re more nervous than I am!”
“I just thought, the way you were talking, that you might have lost confidence in your offense,” he responded, looking genuinely concerned.
But I had more confidence than I’d ever had. I’d gone to several good warm-up tournaments and, under pressure of competition, risen to the occasion a couple times. I’d started committing to my shots in matches. I went through my taped matches and composed a collection of video snippets of my takedowns, to reinforce the belief that I can commit to and execute good shots in competition. I read the majority of a book by a professor who studies human performance under stress (aptly named Choke), and had a sequence of small but important conversations with my coaches this fall. All together, I was inspired to believe in myself.
I tucked the tripod under my arm. “You’re wrong, Coach. You’re wrong!” I said again, but this time, it was with an ear-to-ear grin.
“Good,” he responded, returning my big smile as I ran past him, back up the hill toward the main road, fired up and ready to go.
The referree motioned for us to return to our corners. I was breathing hard, but standing firm at the center, mentally readying myself for the next period and regaining control of my breath.
Looking at me quizzically, the referree, who’d already officiated a bunch of my matches that day up in some eastern Canadian city, asked “Where’s your coach?”
A smile grew as I lifted my hand to tap my temple. “Right here… I know what he’d say!” I responded, as I recalled one of my coaches telling me to “Wrestle solid. Have fun!” and second coach inform me, “If you get headlocked, I’ll kill you.”
This is something I wrote a long time ago. In the spirit of cleaning the house, I thought I’d finally post it.
As the sun slipped beneath the horizon, our plane made its own descent from cruising altitude down toward San Francisco’s airport.
“Folks, I’m happy to report that the game is now in the 7th inning, and the Giants still have the lead!” the captain chirped over the intercom. I turned to the passenger beside me, asking “Don’t the Giants play football?” She gave me a strange look, then shook her head, amused.
Within twenty minutes of touching down, my brother’s ancient car careened over to the curb by baggage claim, and we’d loaded my two humongous suitcases, sports bag, and purse into his already cluttered trunk and back seat. I had everything I needed for my brief stay at Stanford as a “visiting researcher:” my laptop, a couple Quals-related textbooks, wrestling shoes, and what turned out to be 40 pounds of workout clothes. (How in the world did that happen? I blame it on poorly planned packing at 3 AM the night before.)
The following day, I spent most of my time simply wandering around Stanford’s vast campus, complete with shady idyllic groves, a posh shopping center, palm-lined lanes, bubbling fountains, and bicycle traffic circles, all drenched in California sunshine. Fleets of smiling, nonchalant, well-dressed students on bikes glided by. It was as if I’d stumbled out of MIT’s grungy underground tunnels on to the set of The Truman Show: The College Years. There were no bleary-eyed engineers power walking to class in sweats here…
The professor who gave me a key to my temporary office space explained it this way: “At MIT, it’s go, go, go! At Stanford, we work hard, but one must always appear relaxed and on top of things.” This professor also pointed out that I was wearing a great deal of MIT gear, remarking that the bookstore has a nice line of more appropriate apparel. Then he apologized that the sky was a little gray. “It should clear up by the afternoon!” He was not the first, nor the last, to complain about the weather.
That evening, I trekked over to the other location on campus that was near and dear to my heart, even before I’d seen it in person: the Stanford wrestling room. Patricia Miranda had wrestled here, while capturing countless national and international medals. I nervously knocked on the head coach’s door and introduced myself. He graciously showed me his team’s training facilities. When we peered together around the wrestling room’s side door, we saw two team members working with an assistant coach. “Here’s our, umm…, smelly wrestling room,” the coach remarked. “Smells like home!” I replied, drinking everything in.
Hopefully he didn’t think I meant that my apartment smells like a wrestling room, even though it does sometimes, when my laundry is backed up. I simply meant that there are wrestling rooms filled with people who’ve become my wrestling family and now feel a lot like a home away from home… Of course that warm fuzzy feeling is sometimes temporarily forgotten when you’re trying to maintain a plank position in between sets of push-ups at the very end of a practice and the Head Coach of Stanford is yelling, “If you want to go to Cornell, Harvard, MIT, or Yale, let your knees touch the ground! If you want to wrestle at Stanford, STAY UP!” which is exactly where I found myself not long after. And yes, my knees did hit the ground.
My first work week concluded with my host research group’s Friday meeting. Twenty students in haphazard but roughly concentric arcs surrounded the long conference table, and our professor efficiently announced the major news items, accomplishments, and meetings of the week. I had been kindly warned, beforehand, that I might be called upon to present five or ten minutes of material to the group after introducing myself.
As I whipped up a small presentation and simulation demo of this summer’s work in my home research group in Cambridge, I felt a wave of gratitude for the work my advisor had done to make our robotics toolbox from which I easily generated simulations for this presentation to my new collaborators, and also a wave of recognition that I had indeed learned a great deal this summer, in particular. Far more important, though, was the fact that there seemed to be certain expectations about my knowledge and experience–some self-imposed, others explicitly stated by those around me.
When someone asked about Rapidly Exploring Random Trees, our professor mentioned that I might be able to answer their question, and I could! Suddenly, I was not one of a sea of groupmates with the same knowledge; I was a visiting “expert” on a set of tools that were complementary to, but somewhat distinct from the tools known by my new groupmates. Perhaps most important of all was that, when fundamental topics and concepts came up that I didn’t know as well I as thought I should, I felt a healthy sense of urgency to bring my knowledge up to the level that I imagine the title “visiting researcher” implies.