Sunday, 3 January 2016

Best Books of ... 2016

Before I get started - a quick note regarding the 'Strength Series'.  It will be back on-line beginning within the next 7-10 days.  Guest authors coming up include Derek Evely, Nick Winkelman, and Dr Angus Ross - as well as much thought by myself and Matt Jordan.   Thanks for your patience, and we endeavor to get some momentum back with it very soon!

But first ...

I wrestled with whether to write another ‘best of ..’ list for 2015.  But I truthfully find the whole thing a little played out, so I’m not going to add to the noise.  Instead, I flipped it a little - and rather than arrogantly writing about something I did - I will even more arrogantly write about something I will do!

So here - in no particular order - are some of the books I will read in 2016:

The Book of Life: Daily Meditations with Krishnamurti: J Krishnamurti

I began 2016 much the same as I ended 2015: with a 10 minute morning meditation.  As many meditators will tell you, the practice of meditation frustratingly does not get easier; much like golf, the more you meditate, the deeper your practice, the more you expect of yourself - and the more challenging it becomes.  It is important though to not judge your practice; but try as I might to remember this, I - especially lately - have found myself increasingly impatient with my attempts at some serene solitude.  

In the middle of the year, I began experimenting with varying forms of guided meditation; and although I enjoyed this, I almost feel like it is cheating.  I need to challenge myself a little more.  This year, I will begin my morning ritual with a short reading from Krishnamurti.  Outlined as 365 daily mediations by the man the Dalai Lama called one of the great thinkers of our day, I look forward to a slightly varied start to my day - and hopefully more satisfaction with my meditation practice.  

It’s going to be a busy year - I need all the help I can get!

“Have you ever sat very silently, not with your attention fixed on anything, not making an effort to concentrate, but with the mid very quiet, really still?  Then you hear everything, don’t you?”

An American Jew: Steven Pressfield

Pressfield is one of my favorite writers, and I have pretty much read everything he has released to date.  Gates of Fire and The Afghan Campaign are two of my favorite pieces of fiction - while Turning Pro and The War of Art are two outstanding examples of his non-fiction.  An American Jew is his newest, and promises to outline his journey as to how another of his books -  The Lion’s Gate - was written, and in so doing, give insight to the creative process of this brilliant writer.  

In Pressfield’s words in regards to this book: “Two journeys will be happening … the first is the artist’s journey: the struggles of a writer to find his subject, engage it, master it, and bring a work forth, not just as a creative enterprise, but in the hard-knocks world of commerce, marketing, publicity, and so forth. The second will be my own personal journey. What happens when a secular American Jew who can barely find Israel on a map gets on an El Al jet and immerses himself in a land and a history that are his birthright, but that he has never known? Does he change? How? What happens to him?”

I’m sure we can all relate to the deeply human need to engage with our past - our culture.  I was born in England, and even though I lived in Scotland for only 3 years, I find myself drawn more to the Scottish culture than I do to the English one.  Perhaps this is because this is my paternal heritage - my father, and his family are all Scottish.  Regardless - I can relate to Pressfield’s quest, and look forward to the read. 

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: Gore Vidal

I remain fascinated as to how this country came to be what we now see.  A few years ago, I read the amazing Theodore Roosevelt trilogy written by Edmund Morris.  It’s incredible that the current US political system has somehow descended from the politics of Roosevelt’s times.  Even more incredible that the current crop of moronic politicians are somehow related to men such as Roosevelt.  I’m not sure what to expect from Vidal’s series of essays - but I generally enjoy reading and listening to counter-establishment thoughts, so I look forward to his thoughts on among other things why the world hates the US so much.

“Once alienated, an “unalienable right” is apt to be forever lost, in which case we are no longer even remotely the last best hope of earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated.”

The Anatomy of Melancholy: Robert Burton

This book is a monster!  It arrived between Christmas and New Year, and must weigh a couple of pounds.  It’s a paperback …

Nicholas Lezard - in his review in The Guardian - calls Burton’s opus “the best book ever written … I use the word "book" with care. It's not a novel, a tract, an epic poem, a history; it is, quite self-consciously, the book to end all books. Made out of all the books that existed in a 17th-century library, it was compiled in order to explain and account for all human emotion and thought.”

I think I heard Alain de Botton recommend The Anatomy of Melancholy on a podcast (I can’t remember which one), and on first glance, I’m not sure about it.  It’s big.  It has many passages in latin.  It’s not going to be an easy read.  But by many accounts, it’s worth the struggle.  So I will struggle on - I think it is important to step out of our reading comfort zones from time to time.  Like in all things - we tend to get trapped into sticking with what we are comfortable with.  If we remain that way, learning is retarded.  We must push ourselves constantly.  This book is my literary push for 2016. 

“What cannot be cured must be endured”

Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrated Approach: Frans Bosch

OK - I have already read this book (buy it on the HMMRmedia site).  But it is one of those books that requires multiple readings - so I will soldier on through 2016 with it. 

I first heard about Bosch while I was living in London: he was working with the Welsh rugby team, and his ideas were exploding all over the UK at the time.  Like many in the track & field world - I thought his drills pretty nonsensical, and more or less turned up my nose at what I assumed were his ‘methods’.  

In early 2014, I attended a weekend seminar he gave here in Arizona, and enjoyed digging a little deeper into the practical application of his work.  It was organized by my friend Nick Winkelman - who I have a ton of respect for, so I went into it with an open mind.  That being said, when people ask me about Bosch, I’m still not able to give a great answer.  

What I can say though is this - the truth never lies at the extremes.  I find Bosch a little dogmatic.  A little too set in his his ways.  But to totally deny his methods, and dismiss them all out of hand, is equally dogmatic.  

I don’t think the manner in which he applies many of his concepts - whether they be biomechanical, motor control, or the integration of the two - is completely correct.  In fact, much of the stuff I see him espousing on Youtube videos is quite silly, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, however.

Understanding dynamical systems, how to apply it to our coaching practice, and how it aligns with biomechanics and motor learning is key to becoming a better coach - and is a massively overlooked area.  I began pretty deep study into DST back in 2011, and although it is now being discussed more often, very few are offering their practical application of it - so kudos to Bosch for at least sticking his neck out. 

I had a great conversation with my friend Derek Evely the other night.  One thing Derek said really sticks with me - he said he would feel like a bit of a hypocrite educating coaches if he is not actually coaching at a high level himself.  And this is one big beef many have with Bosch.  He has really not had any coaching success himself.  Periodic consultation with various National rugby programs (Wales, Japan), and occasional work with athletes in other sports does not mean track & field coaches (or S&C coaches, for that matter) should buy lock, stock, and barrel into his ‘methods'.  Pick your poison at your peril; when Bosch first became popular in the UK, there was almost universal 100% buy in from the S&C world as well as a few T&F coaches, and many wasted crucial development time with the athletes they were coaching.  

As discussed in the strength series - coaches should not be swayed by the latest ‘new and improved’.  Principles before pleasures: our job is not to entertain - but to coach; and to be guided not by the glitziest and sparkliest, but by what works.  And what has worked.  And to build upon this by current research.

So - while I would recommend Bosch’ book to coaches - as there is much to learn from it - I would encourage even more to dig deeper into the work of Keith Davids, Paul Glazier, Mark Latash, Karl Newell, and perhaps most of all, Nikolai Bernstein.  Use Bosch as a starting point for further study, and make your own minds up on if-how-when to apply these methods.  There is a lot of great info out there - made all the more accessible by researchers such as Dr Glazier.

Biomechanics and Motor Control: Latash and Zatsiorsky

Recently, the  study into the integration of various sub-disciplines of sport science has accelerated.  The integration of biomechanics and motor control, especially, has developed rapidly.  Latash and Zatsiorlky’s book talks to this integration, and attempts to provide consistent definitions of some key concepts. all the while exploring them at some depth. 

I have a feeling this will become a classic that I return to over and over again.  I’m already about half way through - and it’s only January 3rd as I sit here writing this.  I’m sure this will be a big part of my library for many years to come.  Like Dyson’s Mechanics of Athletics - I believe this is a must-have text for all coaches.  Next up after this is Latash’ Progress in Motor Control. 

The Score Takes Care of Itself: Bill Walsh

The book’s sub-title is My Philosophy on Leadership.  It’s good practice for all to read books written by coaching legends - as much of the insight can be applied through all roles that require leadership - coaching or not.  There is much to be gained from the best of them - examples are the many written by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.  Bill Walsh was a hugely respected NFL coach, best known for devising the now-famous ‘west-coast offense’, and in so doing, transforming the worst team in the NFL into one of the best.  This book talks about the changes he brought into this failing franchise as well as his philosophy of leadership - which is no doubt generic enough to apply not only to coaches in other sports, but outside of sport as well. 

“Someone will declare, “I am the leader!” and expect everyone to get in line and follow him or her to the gates of heaven or hell. My experience is that it doesn’t happen that way. Unless you’re a guard on a chain gang, others follow you based on the quality of your actions rather than the magnitude of your declarations.”

Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention: Benn Parr

What is coaching if it is not capturing people's attention? 

I think this book was recommended to me by my friend Brett Bartholomew - an awesome coach, who digs deeply into the research in communication. Apparently, Parr explains why our mind pays attention to some events, ideas, or people - and not to others.  Highly relatable for a coach, I feel.

You might think a chronic multitasker would be more adept at switching between tasks, but you would be wrong. A recent study by Stanford professor Eyal Ophir found that “heavy media multitaskers”—those who consumed a large amount of media content—were not only more susceptible to irrelevant stimuli, but they were also significantly slower when it came to switching between tasks

The Art of Scientific Investigation: William Ian Beardmore Beveridge

This book was recommended to me by my good friend Matt Jordan.  And even if it wasn’t, how can you not like a book written by someone named Beardmore?!  Published in 1950, this book explores the scientists’ intuitive side (written about recently within the ‘strength series’ on the blog).  Beveridge’s book is respected as one that details how scientific investigation is supposed to work.  It’s a big book, and I look forward to digging into it later on this spring. 

“The Imagination merely enables us to wander into the darkness of the unknown where, by the dim light of the knowledge we carry, we may glimpse something that seems of interest. But when we bring it out and examine it more closely it usually proves to be only trash whose glitter had caught our attention. Imagination is at once the source of all hope and inspiration but also of frustration. To forget this is to court despair.”

The Beginning of Infinity: David Deutsch

I listened to David Deutsch on Sam Harris’ podcast.  I could listen to these two guys speak all day - I throughly enjoyed it, and have heard good things about this book.  Maria Popova - the curator-founder of Brain Pickings, described Deutsch’s latest on her blog recently: “Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.”

It’s almost certainly way over my head - but I look forward to pushing my boundaries a little.  

“Some people become depressed at the scale of the universe, because it makes them feel insignificant. Other people are relieved to feel insignificant, which is even worse. But, in any case, those are mistakes. Feeling insignificant because the universe is large has exactly the same logic as feeling inadequate for not being a cow. Or a herd of cows. The universe is not there to overwhelm us; it is our home, and our resource. The bigger the better.”

Killing Floor: Lee Child

My mother is a big Lee Child fan, and has read all 18 of the Jack Reacher novels.  She gave me Persuader for Christmas, and I read it in two days.  I normally try to stay away from easy to read fiction - not because of any high-mindedness - but because well-written novels are often very hard to put down, and they get in the way of more ‘educational’ reads (and more often these days ‘listens’).  Having said that, a mix of fiction - whether it be superbly-written Russian classics - or more simply written page-turners like this - are important to add to your reading list.  

Novels are more than simply entertainment.  Good novels do much more than that; and fiction - generally - has been show to have multiple beneficial effects, such as:  beneficial influence on empathy; it breeds curiosity; expands your vocabulary, it improves your own writing and story-telling abilities; and it expands  your creativity. 

“That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.”
Annie Murphy Paul

“Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time. Don’t figure out how or why it happened. Don’t recriminate. Don’t figure out whose fault it is. Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you do later. If you survive.”