Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Philosophy of Racing: The Law of the Excluded Middle

by Mark Hill

Between Yes and No all things consist. The Law of the Excluded Middle is mentioned by St Thomas Aquinas (ca1225 – 1274) and Jakob Bohme (1575 – 1624). These classic philosophical arguments demonstrate simple yet complex truths which can equally be applied today to the tactician's handbook or an Olympic campaign. They refer to the ability to attend to the finer details and yet maintain a clear perspective of the whole. They teach that to truly know something one must be able to fully develop one's mind.

In performance we often need to combine almost indiscernible detail with the bigger picture. It is within these moments that advantages are gained, weaknesses exposed, and races won and lost. Devoting time to philosophical study of the game and its tactics can increase our understanding and perhaps foster that winning edge. At worst it can help one to endure the tedium of time spent waiting and travelling.

What is the philosophy of racing? At its most basic level we can call it a battle strategy. At least, it operates largely on a psychologically strategic level where we need to understand the rules. These are not necessarily the written rules but the unwritten ones.

The philosophical rules of how you and others play that game, especially the boundaries, and the rules pushing ‘no go’s and grey areas, are imperative to understand. We have the game plan rules, rules concerning when one is incorrectly judged for pumping and rules where your opponent gets away with pumping. These rules exist everywhere and the list is increasingly becoming endless and is always changing, sometimes obviously, sometimes less so. A large part of our racing skills are based on that extra percentage fraction, a deep (or, at least, deeper than your opposition's) understanding of those fluctuating game plans; the rules of defending, attacking and being streetwise, namely conversion. And beyond these are higher laws to which everyone is accountable: The Whole.

Successful people and teams are quick to understand not only rules external to the team but also internal rules, as in relationships between coach and sailor. And, sometimes, the best way to see the whole is to step away – completely.

So in looking at it from a broader sense, a focused passion for competition and sailing are at our core but when passion gets turned on its head, when the race is not won, the goal not achieved, how can we stop the passion turning into self-destruction? Depression? Can we survive failure by having another passion, by fully developing our mind? Can that other passion be accommodated within the program and even enhance it?

Can we use the philosophy of understanding as a tool for analysis in our racing strategy and therefore an understanding of ourselves? An example we can relate to is when a sailor turns to coaching. Here, teaching a thing enables a different perspective to doing the thing, therefore you gain a deeper understanding of the thing and the essence of how you actually do it. In turn you have improved your game.

Looking at the philosophical aspects of racing from the eyes of a different discipline can work in much the same way. Not only does it allow a break from the intensity of racing and campaigning, it provides fresh eyes and insight upon return.

Cross disciplines need not be limited to science, they can encompass the arts where they seek to inspire, console and take us to another world. Here can be found those presenting complex emotions and issues succinctly with clarity of purpose.

Cross discipline can be a strategic tool in a program not only in terms of gaining operating advantages but in the ability to enlarge one's world and consequently one's emotional maturity. From another passion, strength of character and psychological well-being will build and not only carry us through the campaign, but will maintain us in life after it. So to gain and maintain a competitive edge we can look beyond the immediate passion for a greater understanding of the detail and the whole. The whole now encompasses something outside racing and way outside our immediate universe.

Everyone has their own way of assimilating information.
For some this is the written words of Byron and Shelly, for others music or visual art and often combinations of several such arts. Surely though, the best way, is to utilize and therefore train all the senses.

“Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish” Michelangelo

For me a study of Michelangelo has been particularly fruitful and inspirational. He is an excellent example of the Renaissance Man, a man for all seasons. Through his study and mastery of many disciplines he continually enhanced the whole of his understanding and therefore his talents in each.

“Genius is eternal patience” Michelangelo

Michelangelo was called divine by his contemporaries within his own lifetime. He outlived five Popes, including the ferocious Warrior Pope Julius, commissioner of Michelangelo’s paintings on the interior of the Sistine Chapel. He survived with distinction the high stake politics and rivalries of medieval Florence and Rome, staying on top of the artistic tree for over 70 years. This could not have been achieved without cross discipline and a passionate lifelong drive to raise his levels of understanding.

“The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that it is too low and we hit it” Michelangelo

He set new bars for fresco painting, architecture, drawing and sculpture, each more than once. In his later years, some 60 years after creating The David, he attempted to deliver his finest works. I say attempted because he was never satisfied and destroyed much prior to his death.

“Trifles make perfection but perfection is no trifle” Michelangelo

Aged 89, his speed and accuracy of carving unnerved his students, yet even with his undiminished skills and accumulated experience he felt unable to express his final visions.

“I saw an angel in marble and carved until I set him free” Michelangelo

What his vision and immense drive and ambition did include, however, were profound philosophical dreams which drove him far beyond the artistic standards of his day.

Exploring the works and depths of the mind of Michelangelo has taught me many things which cross over and unify my passions. Some of the key points being:

• looking for ways of reinventing the past to suit the new
• seeking simple yet elegant solutions
• maintaining integrity in adverse situations

There are times when I am painting that I find myself staring at the canvas for hours on end, knowing what it is I wish to accomplish, yet not knowing the next stroke to make it happen. After a race I can pontificate endlessly to discern at which point I allowed my opponent to get the edge, yet can't seem to pin it down.

But it is there sometimes, in the midst of rigging my boat, that the painting I have struggled to envision is revealed to me as clear as day.

I have had to teach myself patience, but I thank Michelangelo for the following words which I have learned to live by:-

“Belief in one's self is the best and safest course” Michelangelo

I would like to thank JoElle Gragilla for her objectivity on The Whole.

Mark Hill is a Yachting New Zealand qualified coach, who has done an Olympic 470 campaign. He is also an art and film lecturer in Wellington.

Marc Hill

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