Recently I was watching highlights of England’s 4th one-day cricket match against Sri Lanka at Trent Bridge, and in particular the stunning innings that Alistair Cook and Craig Kieswetter put in to win the match. After a while I started to notice a distinctive quality to their successful shots. (You probably notice this more in the highlights as you see them back-to-back without all the guff in between. And there were plenty of brilliant shots in this match from which to generalise observations.)
Even though everything was moving fast – the ball, and thus the bat, and indeed the body preparing the bat for the strike – there was a sense of space, of taking time. None of the shots seemed hurried. Rather, each player seemed to find time to consider exactly how to hit the ball, and then place their shot calmly and precisely.
And it struck me that this is an observation we can make about expertise in general. There is a sense of fluency. The brain can work fast enough to get everything done in a very short space of time without any sense of panic or scramble or extraneous tension.
The irony of this is of course that you can’t achieve this speed of execution by practising things fast. If you practise faster than your brain can currently grasp all the details it needs to get hold of, it’s all a bit of a mad dash. It doesn’t feel good, and you have given yourself no opportunity to increase your level of control. Alexander Technique practitioners call this ‘end-gaining’, i.e., impatiently snatching at your goal without due attention to the means whereby you attain it.
Slowing things down, by contrast, does give your brain time to digest what’s going on. It may seem nose-bleedingly tortuous at first. And you also find yourself losing your thread of where you were – so you need to shunt back and forth between the bigger picture context and the moment in the process you’ve got under the microscope. But the thing is, once your brain has had the opportunity really to hone what it needs to do thoroughly, it is amazing how quickly you can ramp up the speed. But try to do that too early, and you’re always tripping over yourself.
This is why you get phrases such as ‘Genius is eternal patience’. (Is that Michelangelo? I confess I first came across it in a Dorothy L. Sayers novel.)
Of course you can’t wait until you’ve achieved expertise before you go out and do your thing. One of the reasons Cook and Kieswetter did such a good job in that match is not just because they’ve put in the hours of practice, but they’ve also played quite a lot of cricket in their time. And it takes doing it for real to really grow into the skills you’ve been practising.
But there’s a case to be made for having a clear distinction between the processes of rehearsal and performance. You only get to display effortless insouciance in public if you take the time and attention to be painstaking in your preparation.
* The title of this post is a reference to Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.