Saturday, 19 June 2010

Soccer Strategy - broader implications

With the World Cup in full swing, It has been quite interesting to reflect on the games and what they offer in the way of strategic insight. Sport is not everyone's cup of tea, and I admit to have gone through periods when I greatly enjoyed watching sport on TV and others when I had no interest at all.

When I was young, of course, football was my chief sporting passion, and like most boys my age, school consisted of waiting to get into the playground to kick a ball around in the rough and disorganized games we played then. We would kick anything around at a pinch - usually a tennis ball - and the players' skills and personalities became five minute legends amongst us. By the time we got to secondary school, the organized nature, muddy pitch, invariably cold showers and the increasing gap in physical abilities took away most of the fun from the game, and with it my interest.

Looking back on those years, there are several points come to mind, both as it affected me and with regard to the way it was taught and skills developed.

Skill was a function of physical capabilities

You might have all the ball skills in the world, but if you can't run to save your life, you're not going to make it as a forward. (After seeing the England match with Germany, I would add defenders should be able to run, too. Unless, like me, they rarely leave their penalty area).

Get in there and kick the ball

This was largely the approach we grew up with as kids, and is reflected in English football to this day. Those with some skill and talent were, no doubt, given some ideas of tactics and worked on stamina and other attributes, but by and large, we learned by playing. We developed only as much skill as we needed, which wasn't very much.

Commentary reflects approach to play

Commentary here in Japan is very different to the commentary in England. Whereas the English style tends to be descriptive of the game, who has the ball and what are they doing with it, Japanese commentary is much more discursive, offering a commentary that links to the events of the game, but doesn't describe what is happening. It often centres on the tactics the sides are using. The game, too, tends to be more thought out in Japan (to its detriment, I might add), with kids in school endlessly practising set plays and spending very little time playing games.

Practice has different aims

While one might imagine that the aim of practice is to improve in a skill or to improve as a team, there is a clear disconnect between practise methods and stated or inferred aims. Clearly, there is more at work here than meets the eye. And this is as it should be - sports practised at school and professional levels do have different aims. But good practice will help you to achieve those aims - so it behoves you to be clear on what you are practcising and why.

Eye level vastly changes the game

This is another important point with wider implications. What you see on TV is not what you see when you're playing the game. The pundits and armchair critics might think very differently if the view they had of the game was the same as that of the players. (The first time I saw a live match I was surprised by how little I could see and consequently how boring it was. Not what I had imagined at all!!)
In practical terms, this means that the skills you are developing, the tactical/strategic awareness, must be operable from ground level. The awareness of the individual must be attuned to this level of play.... it is obviously much easier to see what is going on from the spectators viewpoint, but much more important for the man on the ground to be able to assess the situation.
(Picture above is by Tenmyouya Hisashi)

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Neglected Giant - Hasegawa Tohaku

Hasegawa Tohaku, one of the lesser known giants of the early Edo art world was the subject of a large retrospective exhibition at Kyoto Municipal Museum, from late April through to May.

As an exhibition, it contained surprises and delights - although I consider myself relatively knowledgeable about his work - certainly I have seen quite a lot over the years - this exhibition gave me a real sense of his oeuvre for the first time. Organised thematically, it gave the viewer a clear sense of his development, from his artistic beginnings as a painter of religious works for temples around the Noto peninsular, to his move to Kyoto, where a series of commissions catapulted him into the big time as a contender for the premier court artist - a niche which was being carved out by the Kano family under the guidance of Eitoku. It also gave a sense of how important patrons and contacts were. Tohaku had the good luck to be recognised by Sen no Rikyu, the tea master, who combined the roles of priest, aesthete and politician, and managed to secure the commissions that would allow Tohaku's ability to flourish and bring him to the recognition of a greater circle, including Hideyoshi. It was interesting that his circle of patrons also included the warlord Takeda Shingen (an enemy of Hideyoshi's master, Oda Nobunaga), and that several important and well known portraits, ones that often crop up in books and articles about these historical figures (including those of Rikyu and Shingen) were by him.

Looking at his major decorative panels, despite being faded and worn, one can not only see the magnificence of the design and colour, but it also makes one aware of the threat the Kano's must have felt. Similar in scale and materials, showing awareness of what the earlier generations of the Kano's had achieved, Tohaku's work is a departure, showing a creative talent given far more play than the house style of his rivals allowed them. Coming from a different tradition, he had not grown up seeing and copying the work of previous generations of painters in this tradition, and so his work has a freshness and originality that is rarely seen in Eitoku's work. There is less bombast, but just as much energy and power, and an equal, if not greater technical command.

His later work, especially the sumi-e, shows not only his technical brilliance but also an imaginative use of the medium that has rarely been equalled - his famous Shorinzu-byobu (Pine forest screen) was displayed in the last room, and made this very clear. Also there was a slightly earlier version, and also a cryptomeria in the moonlight version that displayed similar qualities. This was clearly the 'centre-piece' of the exhibition, (unusual, perhaps in being in the last room) and yet was fortunately not over crowded. Wisely, the organisers had us leaving on a high note - often these large exhibitions finish with a room of contemporaries and followers, which can lessen the impact that has been made.

This exhibition, especially the sumi-e provided a useful antidote for the usual labeling as 'Zen paintings'. Whatever the origin of the style,(and like much else, it was closely associated with Zen culture, though not necessarily practice) Tohaku himself was a devout follower of the Nichiren sect - these quintessential 'Zen' paintings had nothing to do with that sect.

Now for Kaiho Yusho?... One can but hope.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

If I Rest, I Rust

This is the motto of the great tenor, Placido Domingo.

It is applicable to a range of great achievers in any number of disciplines, but the concept of how to work and study, how to practice, differs from person to person, from art to art.

I have found this to be true myself - though sometimes it is difficult not to rest... or to become busy with other things or side-tracked or to become absorbed in other areas of practice. This is particularly true of the learner who feels a need to develop in several areas..concentrating on one may result in resting in another, with subsequent drop in level of overall technique.

While this is natural to a certain extent, there are also basics to any art that cannot be rested with impunity, which must be maintained all the while you are working on improving other areas of your skill. For the learner, the trick comes in knowing what you are doing, what you are not doing, and what you have to concentrate on to do.

This is one of the advantages of having a teacher who regularly 'tests' you. By testing I don't mean any kind of formalized test, but of simply looking over your performance, and your own concomitant desire to perform well. When I was studying sumi-e, my teacher would visit me once a week and review the work I had done since the previous week. On the few occasions I had nothing worth showing, I felt quite bad about it.

There have been other occasions when I have thought my ability the the area I had been concentrating on was sufficient... to continue to practice would be to overwork the technique and make it stale rather than improve it. Usually this was when I had been working on some specific area of technique which I finally felt I had a handle on. Of course, although I might have sorted out one part, almost invariably another area had been neglected and I was unable to perform the technique as well as I should have.

But rest for one person might be normal for another - compare two of the greatest fencers of the twentieth century, Nedo Nadi and Edoardo Mangiarotti. In his fascinating book, "By the Sword", Richard Cohen notes describes how both men were trained by their fathers, who were also fencers of some skill. While Nado was made to train two, then three sessions daily, always fencing against the senior fencers of the club, Mangiarotti's training was far more relaxed - he rarely trained more than a couple of hours a day. Both men went on to win many Olympic and world championship medals, with Mangiarotti following on from Nado as the leading competition fencer of his day. Clearly there is more to learning than simply "time on task".

Friday, 4 June 2010

Domestic Strategy II

The strategy I described previously is effective for stripping paper off an old board, but how should we see it in the light of potentially wider applications?

First off, you should look at the reason why it works.
The principal reason for it's effect is that in stripping off the upper layers first, it exposes the lower layers to the action of water, which dissolves the glue, so making it easier to remove the layer as a whole.

To what extent can this be transferred?
This is a physical phenomenon - the ultimate result comes about from the reaction of water on the glue that lies under the bottom layer of the paper, combined with the physical action of the scraper. This strategy is effective because it allows the water quicker and more complete access to the area where it is required. Application before the looser upper layers of paper have been removed requires the water to soak through these layers first, before acting on the glue. This results in a loss of time as well as wastage of water absorbed by the paper.

There are also secondary benefits from adopting such an approach: it gets the activity going, providing a framework which allows the details or finer work to be filled in later. It is like the rough sketch of the painter which allows more detailed work to precede later. Overcoming inertia is important in any number of asks, and for this alone, it is worth considering the value of this approach.

If we allow our imagination free reign, we can see that if we applied this to large scale strategy, this approach would translate to peeling away the outer layers of defenses to reach the interior defenses; in small scale strategy, successful attacks upon outer defenses can also have a strong psychological effect, as well as setting an opponent up for more punishing attacks.

In examining an action for its strategic efficacy, it is necessary to establish the reason it works well and see if that end point is replicable. If it is, than perhaps it has meaningful applications in other areas. This is something that should certainly be considered before application in important situations, especially if it is an approach that comes from an activity that has very little downside to making a mistake - obviously, no-one is going to suffer greatly if your paper stripping is ineffective or slow.

And this, of course, is the value of traditions which have preserved teachings - both those that were learnt in times of extremity for use in extreme situations (strategy) and those that taught the use and application of difficult materials in the creation of beauty and durability (the arts).