Thursday, 22 May 2014

lessons from Jiro...

In the basement of a nondescript building opposite the Ginza metro station in Tokyo, sits one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants.  With only 10 seats, no menu, a three month waiting list, and a $400 price tag for a twenty minute meal, Sukiyabashi Jiro is an unlikely source for coaching wisdom.  

The proprietor, Jiro Ono, left home at the age of 9, and has been making sushi ever since.  Now 89, he has devoted his life to mastering his craft - a dedication beautifully brought to life in 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  

Last week, when it popped up on my Netflix ‘suggested for you’ list, little did I know that I would spend the next 82 minutes captivated by not only this brilliantly shot, visually captivating film, but by Jiro himself - a man of rare wisdom.  I have since re-watched it another four times - fearful I may have missed something on previous viewing.  

Jiro is an inspiration; there is so much we can learn from this little man, and the film that follows him.


In the opening scene of the film, Jiro offers the following advice:

 "Once you decide on your occupation.  
You must immerse yourself in your work. 
You have to fall in love with your work. 
Never complain about your job. 
You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. 
That's the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably."

Note that he did not imply ‘do what you love’ - but ‘love what you do’.  The distinction is important.  It implies that enjoying your life is an active process.  It does not mean that if you do not love what you do, you quit and find something else you may love.  What he is saying is that - like any relationship - success requires work.  It requires sticking to it when times are tough.  It requires realization of the dedication necessary to succeed.  

Such dedication is rare in these impatient days.  But true mastery is not available to the impatient. True mastery can’t be found in a Tim Ferriss book.  True mastery takes a lifetime…   


“Ultimate simplicity leads to purity”

People all over the world travel to Ginza solely to visit this 3 Michelin star restaurant.  That only serves sushi.  

Jiro does one thing.  He makes sushi.   No special rolls.  No appetizers.  And no sashimi.  Instead, he serves each person a daily menu of about 20 pieces of fish sitting atop of 2 inches of rice.  Placing it alone in the middle of a black plate, he serves each piece one at a time.  Each forced to stand on its own merits.

...perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away…
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


To become a master at something, we must be comfortable with the mundane.  We must fall in love with the tedious. Repetition means just that:  Repetition.  This focus for Jiro goes beyond his work: he repeats the same routine every day - even down to standing at the same spot when waiting for  the train.

“The techniques we use are no big secret. It really comes down to making an effort and repeating the same thing everyday….we do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.  There is always yearning to achieve more.”
- Yoshikazu - Jiro’s oldest son


“I don’t like days away from what I love.”

Jiro doesn’t take holidays.  He shows up every day.  Jiro was given a special award by the Japanese government.  He went to the award ceremony during the day and was back at work that same evening.  Apparently, he got tired of sitting around.

Nakazawa - Jiro’s apprentice - spoke about being tasked in making the egg sushi.  Attempting up to 4 per day for months, each one was rejected by Jiro.   When he finally made a good one, and met Jiro’s approval, he was so happy he cried.  And soon after, when Jiro finally called him a shokunin, he was so happy he wanted to throw his fist in the air - right there…”but I tried not to let it show…that’s what you strive for all these years!”

The joy in this young apprentice’s face, his respect for his mentor, and his obvious passion for his craft is inspiring.  

“there is much you can’t learn from words.  I have to keep practicing”
- Nakazawa 


A discussion between a fish broker at Tsukiji Market and Yoshikazu: 
fish broker: “These days the first thing people want is an easy job. 
Then, they want lots of free time. 
And then, they want lots of money. 
But they aren’t thinking of building their skills. 
When you work at a place like Jiro’s, you are committing to a trade for life.” 

Yoshikazu: “most people can’t keep up with the hard work, and they quit.”

At times, the film seems like it is more about Jiro’s son than it is Jiro.  Yoshikazu is in his 50s.  He works for his father.  And has done so for his entire life.  No family is mentioned.  His one interest outside of sushi is driving his Audi.  In fact, when he was a kid, he was convinced he would become an F1 driver: “yes - I’m crazy…my car can go 300km/hr”, he says day-dreaming…

His devotion is apparent in one scene where he methodically roasts sheets of nori, speaking of the necessity in doing one thing over and over again - until it becomes a part of your being.  And finding peace in this work.  His monologue is eloquent, and detailed.  But he never skips a beat - drumming the nori over the fire at a monotone pace.


Jiro’s all about the process.  To his customer, all they see is the sushi.  To Jiro, what matters most is the experience of making that sushi.

Kaizen is a Japanese term, that roughly translates to improvement, or 'change for the better'.  It is one of process - of continual improvement in technique and practice;  a relentless pursuit of perfection.  

It is a term that came to mind while Jiro was discussing massaging the octopus.  Before cooking, Jiro used to massage it for 30 minutes.  Now he massages it for 45 - rendering it even more tender and tasty.

"The masters said that the history of sushi is so long...

that nothing new could be invented.
They may have mastered their craft...
but there's always room for improvement." 

Never stop learning

When the film was made, Jiro was 85 years old.  And even after over 70 years of experience, it is obvious he still has a lust for knowledge.  Every day is an opportunity to improve on the one which preceded it. 

“I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top…but no one knows where the top is.” 

It is a theme that is consistent throughout the film, repeated often by various characters

“Always look ahead and above yourself.  Always try to improve upon yourself.  Always strive to elevate your craft.”

”we are picky about who we sell to. We want customers who appreciate good fish. Even at my age I’m discovering new techniques. But just when you think you know it all, you realize that you're just fooling yourself...then you get depressed.”
- fish vendor at Tsukiji Market

“I would see ideas in my dreams. My mind was bursting with ideas. I would wake up in the middle of the night. In my dreams I would have visions of sushi.” 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

how do we eliminate doping in sport?

I wrote the following post as a guest-post for journalist Ollie Wiliams' great site Frontier Sports last year.  I thought I might update it based on the recent controversies surrounding bans for sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell.  


With the ongoing issues in American professional sport, recent IAAF retroactive testing – and subsequent banning and ‘re-gifting’ of the sullied medals – as well as the high-profile positive tests - and subsequent bans - of the second and fourth-fastest 100m sprinters of all time in Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, the never-ending battle between testers and dopers continues to dominate our world.

No matter the advances in testing, the doping battle remains in lock-step. The testers devise better testing technology at just about the same rate as athletes devise better strategies to avoid it. The headlines are no different now than when Victor Conte was relevant.
The names change (sometimes). The details change. But the headlines remain. For all the advances, for all the money spent, for all the words: we are treading water. At what point are we going to say, “That’s enough, this is not working. Anyone else have any ideas?”
Because, you know what? There are tons of folk out there with great ideas. But instead, we continue down the same path of Einsteinian Insanity. And with the coming onset of gene doping, it’s not going to get any easier.

So, how do we eliminate doping in sport?

I’ll tell you how: We can’t. Cheating is in our nature. Athletes are going to cheat.
In fact, “the idea of stimulating the body’s performance with all manner of concoctions is as old as mankind. The Inca chewed coca leaves to pep them up when doing strenuous work. Nordic warriors munched mushrooms before going into battle to dull the inevitable pain. Ancient Olympians chomped opium, among other things, to give them a competitive edge.” - The Economist, Q1 2012.

And not only has cheating been around since the inception of organized sport, it is actually hard-wired into us. 
In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely writes that despite thinking we are all honest, we in fact all cheat. We all lie. This doesn’t, though “stop us from thinking we’re wonderful, honest people. We’ve become very good at justifying our dishonest behaviors so that, at the end of the day, we feel good about who we are … cheating has less to do with personal gain than it does with self-perception.”

The problem is that anti-doping agencies don’t take into account this protective self-deception. Instead, they assume the athlete who cheats is a rational being that simply chooses to ignore the current code of conduct. You cannot control dishonesty with more stringent laws, improved policing, and increased deterrents, for the original decision is not a rational one.
I remember a famous Sports Illustrated expose in the 1990s that spoke of the difficulty:
A scenario, from a 1995 poll of 198 sprinters, swimmers, powerlifters and other assorted athletes, most of them US Olympians or aspiring Olympians:
You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance, with two guarantees:
1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win.
Would you take the substance?
One hundred and ninety-five athletes said yes; three said no.
Scenario II: You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance that comes with two guarantees:
1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win every competition you enter for the next five years, and then you will die from the side effects of the substance. Would you take it?
More than half the athletes said yes.

Add to this the societal pressures that often override personal choice in many poor and/or corrupt countries, and the entirely logical decision for some athletes to dope in search for a better life for themselves or their families, and it is easy to see why this battle remains at best a stalemate.

So maybe we need to formulate a new question. A better understanding of why athletes dope is necessary. A better understanding of effective deterrence is necessary. A better understanding of societal cynicism, corruption, and desperation is necessary.
In the meantime, what can we do better today? What steps can be taken immediately to close the gap between dopers and testers?

I will discuss three: 

1. Improve the testing

2. Change the penalty 
3. Involve the athletes

Improve the testing
There are two primary reasons why drug-testers are keeping up with the dopers right now: 1) improved testing technology, and 2) increased reliance on investigation and intelligence.
The advent of the biological passport and carbon isotope ratio testing is a significant advancement to the technology available to the testers. Problem is, they are both extremely expensive, and are not used often enough.
According to Alan Abrahamson: “The IAAF … authorized 97 such cutting-edge tests (CIR) last year; 35 were out-of- competition and turned up no positives; 62 were done in-meet, when ordinary tests would likely turn up nothing; nine of the 62 came back positive. Using the carbon-isotope test raised the return rate in track and field to 5.75 percent overall … and to 4.97 percent in cycling … The Thai Weightlifting Federation performed an out-of-competition test on 26 weightlifters; 25, or 96.2 percent, came back positive, according to the WADA report.

Also – drug-testing agencies are increasingly taking a proactive stance against doping, rather than the traditional reactive method of devising tests for drugs that are already found in the system. USADA alone has spent over $50m on anti-doping research in an attempt to predict the new drugs that tomorrow’s athletes may be taking.
But for all advancements in testing technology, it is the increased reliance on investigation and intelligence that shows the most promise going forward. It’s what brought down BALCO. Biogenesis. Armstrong. The Australian links with organized crime. And it promises to be the driver in bringing down any other organized ‘support’ networks that are frequented by doping athletes – professional and amateur alike, including - we can assume - the recent case with Tyson Gay, and his controversial short ban.
Because such things are investigated by government agencies, local and national policing departments, funding is much easier. But it is imperative that our national and international anti-doping agencies partner with these investigations.
Australia was the first country to standardize this in its anti-doping program in 2006. Many others are following suit -some going so far as to rely on law enforcement completely. Former USATF CEO Doug Logan has grown weary: “Regrettably, I now conclude we should give up this fight and bring the troops home. Leave the regulation of drugs to governments and their law enforcement auspices. Dismantle the drug constabulary, the ‘ah dahs’ of this world; USADA [US Anti Doping Agency], WADA [World Anti Doping Agency], and all the others.”

I personally feel a single, international anti-doping agency (such as WADA) that oversees all anti-doping efforts worldwide could streamline this process massively - opening up far more efficiency and increased funding.
Currently, anti-doping efforts are undertaken by at least 10 types of organization, including national anti-doping organizations, Olympic international federations, national federations, and national Olympic committees. Add to this the myriad anti-doping efforts of professional sports, and it seems like there are far too many players, with differing levels of expertise, interest, and scope.

A single world-wide organization would reduce or eliminate the number of potentially corrupt authorities, Agencies like the Russian lab responsible for testing at both last year’s IAAF World Championships and the recent Sochi Winter Olympic Games require protection from corruption - only possible if an independent authority was responsible for its business.
Clearly, Russian anti-doping efforts have been stepped up – RUSADA tested more athletes than any other national anti-doping agency in the world last year; more than three times as many as USADA in the United States – but if those responsible for the handling and testing of samples can be corrupted, all tests are for nought.
If we improve the testing, and continue down the path of investigation and intelligence, will that be enough to eradicate – or at least significantly diminish – doping? 

Probably not. 

We have to ask serious questions about why athletes dope, and whether bans are deterrence enough. 

If not, what can we do?

Change the penalty
First of all, let me get this out in the open: lifetime bans do not work. At least, not as a deterrent.

Yes - they punish the individual who cheated, but it is near-sighted; it is not helping the long-term fight. It is not a viable long-term strategy in eradicating doping in sport.
Even WADA president John Fahey is critical, stating that simply getting tough on the cheats serves to reinforce the code of silence within the sport. 

At the present moment, what sane athlete would come forward?

A perfect example is Dwain Chambers. Chambers can barely squeak out a living bouncing from small competition to small competition. His Diamond League ban has been lifted to an extent, but he has a total of zero sponsors. Meanwhile, those who take the traditional route of 'deny-deny-deny' come straight out of their ban and immediately into the high-profile and big-money Diamond League. What athlete in their right mind would help the authorities after seeing what has happened to Chambers?

Zero tolerance is a death penalty. It doesn’t work as a crime deterrent, and it doesn't work as a doping deterrent. The anti-doping leaders know this: Fahey – and Dick Pound before him – were both clear on this issue, feeling it would be counter-productive in the long term. Lifetime bans are, for one, too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention from an athlete, and for two, totally eliminate even the smallest chance of the banned athlete stepping forward to assist in the fight retroactively.

Instead, offer lenience to those athletes that choose to admit to their mistakes. Those who choose to help the ‘Ah Dahs’ in their efforts. After Chambers was caught, instead of playing the blame-game, or the denial-game, he chose to come forward. He provided information on his entire drug protocol. He named names, gave dates, drug details, clearance times, etc. He went into classrooms to warn children about the dangers of trying to cheat the system. He truly became a role model for thousands. Yes – his mistake was big, but what 22 year-old would turn down the chance at big money, fame, and sporting success when it lay there at their feet? According to the Sports Illustrated article – not many!

It’s a complex problem in a complex society. Rather than the overly reductionist and simplistic logic that many of sport’s leaders have publicized (thereby influencing thousands more), we need to acknowledge the difficulty of the process: commit to serious study of deterrence without being clouded by emotion.

Absolute purity is a fantasy.

The ultimate answer lies in education, communication and engagement with the athletes themselves. We all want the same thing – athletes, coaches, the public, and the testers: to believe once again in clean and fair competition. 

This is not a battle.

Involve the athletes
We need to better understand the conditions that produce athletes who dope, and this begins with the athletes themselves.
“You’ve pushed the responsibility of compliance solely onto the athlete, but you’ve never engaged the athlete in real dialogue about the best ways to address this problem. Don’t see us as the problem. See us as the solution! Engage!
“You have created rules without the input from a broad group of neither athletes nor an independent athletes’ association. You have created rules that facilitate your mission statement without consideration for the population you are testing. As a result, your tests suck and those you are trying to protect don’t appreciate the service you think you provide.” 
Adam Nelson

So – in Nelson’s spirit – I asked around. I asked a number of coaches and athletes why they think athletes used performance-enhancing drugs. A common response was voiced by Todd Hays – Olympic silver medallist, and now head coach of the United States women’s bobsled team: “The number one reason why athletes dope is because they assume all their competitors are doping”. 

I tend to agree.

This has been a catalyst for impressionable young athletes – and coaches – for decades. The tipping point for me was the words of Charlie Francis, who, in 1991 at the Dubin Inquiry into PED use in track and field in Canada (most famously Ben Johnson), stated that everyone was doping. In fact, doping was just “levelling the playing field”, and not doping would be akin to setting up your starting blocks a meter behind the line.

Problem is, this isn’t even close to being true. But an entire generation of young sprinters and coaches – not only in Canada, but worldwide – took his words as gospel, and so the defeatist-insecure, cheat-to-win mentality that still exists in track and field to some extent today was perpetuated.

It was the same argument given by Victor Conte to dozens of athletes in the 90s – convincing these young men and women that “everyone else was doing it”, and “they don’t test what we give you anyway”.
Increasingly though, a new generation is rising from the ashes of Francis, Johnson, BALCO et al, with a new belief. Many athletes – increasingly frustrated with their sport – are taking a more active role in education, direction, and perception.
A story of a loudmouth on a plane, relayed by American 400m runner DeeDee Trotter, chronicles this attitude:
“This guy was reading the newspaper and he said, ‘Oh, they’re all on drugs.’ I turned around and said, ‘Hey, excuse me, I’m sorry, but that’s not true. I’m a professional athlete and Olympic gold medallist, and I’m not on drugs. I’ve never even considered it.’ It really upset me that it’s perceived that way – that if she runs fast, then she’s on drugs. I hated that and I gave him a little attitude.”
Trotter has since created the Test Me, I’m Clean Foundation giving athletes an opportunity to defend themselves. You will see many athletes (including Olympic champion and 110m hurdles world record-holder Aries Merritt) compete  with white rubber bracelets on their wrists, emblazoned with their motto. Trotter explains: “It means that I am a clean athlete. I do this with hard work, honesty and honor. I don’t take any outside substances.”

Shot-putter Adam Nelson has spoken out against drug use, as he only just recently received his long-deserved gold medal from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, stolen from him by Yuriy Bilonog. The Ukrainian tested positive for a banned steroid via retroactive IOC re-testing that uncovered four other athletes who ‘won’ their medals unfairly.  
Nelson opines: “I don’t place blind faith in any one person. I research it. I also know my limitations. If I don’t understand a supplement, then I won’t take it.”

With the recent bans of Powell and Gay, and the apparent roles of their ‘support networks’, more and more athletes are starting to get the message that education is crucial. Blind faith in therapists, nutritionists, doctors, and even coaches is too risky a proposition. For a seemingly well-intentioned athlete like Gay (who was one of the first to raise his hand for the biological passport program in 2007), the risk of trusting someone new can be costly.
Others take an even more hard-line approach, and refuse to take any supplements at all. Sprinter Lauryn Williams for example, on my blog last year, said: “I just choose not to count on anyone but me.”

In 2001, an athlete I coached – American bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic – tested positive for nandrolone. Like many, prior to Pavle’s adverse finding, I assumed all athletes that were turning out positive nandrolone tests were dopers. 

Turns out, I was wrong. Turns out I was uneducated. 

Turns out, almost 20% of all supplements on the market at the time could have led to positive tests. 

Turns out, the supplement industry was one of the most unregulated industries in the world, to the extent that the most unscrupulous among them would often lace their products with pro-hormones in the race with other companies for consumer dollars. 

Turns out, that hundreds of athletes got burned this way – including Pavle – despite the best intentions of athlete and coach.

NGBs, IFs, and anti-doping authorities have clearly not done enough to educate the athletes. It has gotten better since 2001 – no doubt. But when Tyson Gay can go down for taking supplements given to him by an anti-aging ‘doctor’, clearly the educational initiatives are not working. How many more could have made the same mistake?

It’s one of the reasons why a group of athletes – led by Nelson – has begun a pseudo-union for athletes. Called the Track and Field Athletes Association, its primary roles involve educating the athletes, and helping to professionalize the sport.

Hopefully other athletes will get the message that success does not lie in the bottom of a syringe, or in a tube of cream. And hopefully, athletes, managers, and shoe companies can come together more proactively and make decisions together driven solely by what is best for the athlete. We need to stop rewarding coaches, managers, agents, and even countries that have repeatedly been involved with doping athletes and programs.

“As a federation, we were either ignorant, stupid or were avoiding the issue. Even today, coaches who had drug cases when they were athletes are earning a living. Athletes employ these coaches despite — or maybe because of — their drug- riddled past.” Doug Logan

What it really all comes down to is ethics and integrity.
The longer we are involved in sports, the more opportunities there will be to challenge our belief systems. We must hold strong to these beliefs, because chances are – if you’re good enough – someone may just make you an offer...

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Sunday, 11 May 2014

doped...or duped?

This past week, I was quoted both in the Guardian and in Sports Illustrated by journalists Sean Ingle and David Epstein, respectively.  

The topic: doping.  And specifically the latest controversy surrounding our sport: the seemingly overly lenient ban of just 12 months for sprinter Tyson Gay.  

“ sane person can find justification in Asafa Powell receiving an 18 month ban for inadvertent stimulant use while Gay receives a 12 month ban for purposeful steroid use - cooperation or no cooperation”.
- me

But this doesn’t tell the complete story.  At all.  As ludicrous as a 12 month ban seems, is it possible that there is method to USADA and WADA’s madness?  As you can imagine, I have been asked quite a few times this past week to expand on these thoughts.  

So briefly...

For 4 decades, the fight against doping has been in lockstep: doping authorities catch the same percentage of doping athletes almost every single year - regardless of the massive improvements in testing procedures.  Clearly, this tells us that the strategies have failed.  

Rather than relying solely on drug testing, the last few years have seen doping organizations change tactics somewhat: an increased reliance on investigation and intelligence.  The case with Gay may in the future be viewed as the tipping point in this tactical transition.  While halving a 2 year ban is clearly a strong incentive to cooperate, we are yet to hear the specifics of the information that Gay has provided USADA.  I’m completely certain that this will involve far more than just the naming of a few unsavory coaches, athletes, and medical personnel.  

Also - forgotten by many in this is the fact that Gay voluntarily admitted to taking the offending substance prior to the Olympic Games in 2012 - thereby relinquishing his - and his relay teammates' - Olympic medal.  So clearly, Gay has been a more than willing participant in the fight (it must be said that he is also in the process of voluntarily returning in excess of $500,000 in prize money and appearance fees accrued during his drug use - expected by many perhaps, but Gay is in the vast minority in this gesture).

My personal opinion is that - even with his cooperation with USADA - the ban is too lenient.  I personally believe the bans would be more suitable if they were reversed - and still send out a strong enough deterrent to athletes considering working with ‘anti-aging’ professionals or placing blind trust in their support group.

In the future, if the Gay case is seen as the vanguard in the fight against doping in sport - and his testimony leads to significant gains in keeping our sport clean, then this reduction in his ban may be well-worth it.  If the fight remains in lockstep for the next 4 decades, then questions of the doping authorities will continue to be asked… 

In a recent email exchange, Sean Ingle brought up a serious issue with the new strategy:

Drug testing agencies’ ultimate responsibility is not only to catch cheating athletes - but to protect clean ones.  

How is providing amnesty to cheaters protecting those that choose to keep it clean?   

Say you’re James Dasaolu.  Say you make the final in Rio in 2016.  And say you are lined up against Tyson Gay. Justin Gatlin. Asafa Powell. Yohan Blake. Say you lose out on a medal by one placing - being beaten by one or more of these athletes.  

Is it fair on Dasaolu that we play the long-game?  

Doc Patton summed it up very elegantly on his blog this past week:

“...understanding athlete intent – and the premise that getting tough on doping means tackling those who aide and abet cheaters – means that at the most basic level, you could theoretically, knowingly do what is wrong, get caught, cooperate and walk away with a slap on the wrist. That’s the watered down version, but are we now at the place where we laud and applaud those who tap dance around rules and procedures because they cooperate? Is it really necessary to sacrifice true consequence for the sake of cooperation? Shouldn’t it be expected? Or is the old adage that says rules are meant to be broken is really true? Have we diminished the value, significance and validity of those rules, so much so, that they’re merely a guide for interpretation? If the rule is the rule and code is code, why not make it all stick and stay? Sure – take down the helpers and their network of friends…just take the cheaters with them. Otherwise, where’s the sting for the cheater? It all feels like a big awkward web of contradictions”.
- Doc Patton

At the end of the day, it is an extremely complicated issue.  It is not black and white.  Remember this when making overly simplistic blanket statements.

more to come...

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