Friday, January 4, 2008

thoughts on 'optimism'

I think that optimism and confidence are good qualities. Cockyness is bad. I suppose I have all three. They are hard to separate. Cockyness bordering on arrogance can be really fun in friendly competition (assuming you are among people who understand the sarcasm and can take it). Outside of friendly volleyball or soccer or euchre I hope I am not arrogant. I dislike arrogance in professional sport but I understand it, especially in certain events like boxing or the 100m sprint. I think that statements like ‘I will win this game’ or ‘I will get a good job” are optimistic, confident, and they are cocky, but they are not arrogant. I have learned through sport that when I say ‘I will win’ and then I lose the world does not collapse around me. If instead I predict the loss or make no prediction I am less embarrassed and my opponent feels less satisfaction but the result (and not the prediction) is the only real item of consequence. Success is mainly a result of training BUT does the prediction itself have any bearing on result? Of course it does. Confidence improves performance. Fortunes have been made by merchants of this lesson. Optimists win and winning teaches optimism. To quote Fat Bastard: “It’s a vicious cycle”.

Where does it all begin? Is a child’s mind is a blank slate? Kate and I are talking about starting a family and we now have many friends with young children. It gets me thinking… and that is the source of this rant. I enjoy a good nature/nurture discussion or book. Lately I have time for books. In another life, I used to love defending ‘nature’ against Andy Wright who (as his 'mental-skills coach' title and sport-psychology study would dictate) believed that he could teach any healthy child to become Tiger Woods. I still disagree with Andy because sport is so physical. A common expression in volleyball circles is: “You can’t teach height” and the same is true for muscle recruitment (to a degree). But what about Tiger’s non-physical attributes? We are a product of what we learn much more so than any other animal. Academics are still sorting out the details: a little mouse brain is not a good model and the controlled human experiments that would be needed to get some good data are definitely a big no no. Today, after DNA sequencing and many decades of quality genetics research the nature/nurture argument is still an argument. We are physically different from each other and have different levels of hormones (which may predetermine stress or aggression) but the capacity of our minds is not easy to study. Genetically we are pretty much identical and there is virtually no genetic differences between human races - which is great if you tend to discriminate against ‘racists’ like I do. IQ tests tend to be at the center of much debate. Although IQ tests work – I like to think that they evaluate our environment much more than they do your genes. I have read
strong support for this, but debate continues today. I chose to look at it somewhat like Dawkins does: all genes exist because they survive. You might say that the purpose of ‘genes’ is survival. In the case of human beings genes have built a brain with a remarkable capacity to learn. That is their survival strategy. That is our inheritance. Children are super-learning-machines. They believe without question in St. Nick and the Tooth Fairy because they are programmed to learn and believe and accept all information from their parents and teachers. Learning capacity is our greates skill. That is why Darwin was able to step off the evolutionary treadmill and describe it to the rest of us. It is interesting to think that our genes have created a brain with the capacity for birth control. Whoops.

Because of our ability to learn it seems to me that happiness, optimism, kindness, compassion, wit or any other personality trait (desired or not) can be taught as easily as reading and writing. You are what you learn. And much of what you feel deep inside you is what you learned from your parents when you were a child. So here’s a case study in optimism:

Ziggy and Maria left Poland because they predicted that their children’s future would likely be pretty harsh. In Poland, in 1983, education and work was a given but wealth or even the comfort of a house, a car, or travel were not achievable. They had happy children but the prospect of happy grandchildren was looking slim. So my folks decided to ‘pull the chute’, to ‘bail’, (to ‘pyke’ as the Aussies would say) on their home and country and start fresh: new language, new jobs, no property, no savings, three young boys to feed. And I watched them succeed. Really succeed. That was my childhood. Maria decided to be a professional – it was difficult but obviously doable. Ziggy also succeeded by any definition of that word. My brothers and I owe them a big debt. How could I have grown up to be anything but an optimist.

And then there was sport. In Commie-Poland my dad spent a near decade training two or three times daily as a volleyballer. At the top level, only winning matters, all professional athletes are ‘professional winners’. In 1972 Poland won Olympic volleyball gold after two consecutive world championship titles. He was playing in the best volleyball league on Earth by far. In hockey-loving Canada, Ziggy found himself in small once-a-week city v-ball league on Tuesday nights. He loved the game too much to stop playing. I was a gym rat, I watched and learned. I think he played as much for me as he did for himself. I saw him do remarkable things on that court. It wasn’t really ‘fair’ for his opponents until he was in his late forties. He wasn’t flashy or arrogant and winning was enough; he got no pleasure from embarrassing weak teams. On the contrary, he was happy to teach anyone who asked for a lesson. He was an exceptional leader on the court. He rarely lost. I recall Canadian national team player Steve Smith showing up one night and Ziggy’s eyes lit up at the sight of a worthy opponent. Competition (for men more then women I think) is a fundamental human need. Not like food or sleep but like love and grandchildren. We can live without... but it just doesn't feel right. And you can mock ‘dumb jocks’ all you want but try arguing that sport is not a more productive outlet for a competitive urge than war or gambling. Assuming that the war is not necessary. I guess all wars feel ‘necessary’ to someone. That’s another blog post.

Ziggy learned how to win from his coaches. On the court he is an extreme optimist. I learned a lot form watching (and joining) him on that court. By the time I started playing soccer and volleyball at a reasonable level I had a selective memory. I forgot losses and remembered wins. This goes hand in hand with optimism and it has to be irritating to people. I know it irritates Kate. I firmly believe that I will win every volleyball game even though I clearly won’t. In beach volleyball the tournament format allows for only one winner and everybody else must finish their day with a loss. A selective memory is pretty vital to a positive outlook. I remember a few big losses in my past, and many many wins.

Optimism in sport might be most useful when opponents are equally matched. Sport (any sport) becomes a beautiful thing when both sides are brilliant and there is just one or two brief precious moments that decide the winner. I love those moments. Some tiny bit of luck or fortune often decides those games! Or does it? Does winning those games require confidence and optimism? Does losing requires a lack of these qualities? I sure hope so because those particular games are the most painful to lose I wouldn’t want to leave it up to ‘luck’.

Volleyball is pretty much done for me. Life goes on. I wonder if I’ll keep (and find a use for) an optimistic outlook on the rest of life. In any case I hope some confidence rubs off on my kids. I’m sure it will ;)

Thanks for listening. Here are some pictures from our recent travels. We finally got to see a roo.

This is a 'pretty-faced wallaby'.
We went hiking for a few days with our friends Alistair and Lib.

And here are Kate and I wet but smiling at the 'Woodford Folk Festival' (or 'dreadlock' festival or 'mud' festival or just 'hippie fest') where we spent New Years Eve. It was a lot of rain, some good music and lots of 'intersting' people.

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