The Importance of Being Unpredictable

iditarodThis time of year our family happily geeks out on the Iditarod, that legendary 1,049-mile sled dog race from Willow to Nome. We tape a map on the fridge and follow our favorites — Lance Mackey, Ally Zirkle, our old neighbor Jim Lanier, and, this year, Jamaica’s own cool-runner Newton Marshall.

This year’s race has been completely great, with what looks to be a familiar ending. As of today, Mackey looks like he’s set to win for a record fourth-straight time.

The interesting question is, how does Mackey do it? More specifically, what makes him different? Because the truth is, everybody’s tough as nails. Everybody’s got super-fit dogs — and several top mushers have more resources than Mackey (who prefers living in a broken-down trailer to a house). And this is where the story gets interesting — because it’s where you can draw a line between Mackey, LeBron James, and the world’s top young violinists.

The difference with Mackey — his killer app — is his supreme flexibility. While others are grinding out the miles, Mackey changes strategies all the time. Sometimes he blows right past checkpoints, preferring to camp on the trail. Sometimes he pretends to fall asleep, and then, when his unsuspecting rivals doze off, slips out of the checkpoint. Mackey was one of the first mushers to run the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race a bare two weeks before the Iditarod, a strategy which most race observers thought insane at the time, but which is now being emulated because it works so well. In short, Mackey wins because he is the best innovator, both strong and flexible.

So how can Mackey do this? The answer is, he trains that way.

From musher Joe Runyan’s blog at Alaska Dispatch:

“[Mackey] begins in August by training his dogs to expect uncertainty by harnessing them innumerable times. Day or night, he will harness his dogs to his four-wheeler, train with them on dry-land trails, rest, and then go again. The distances and the rests can be long or short and are completely random. The result, Mackey likes to report, is that his dogs develop a calm confidence in his unpredictability. Mackey’s move Saturday out of Kaltag may have been the moment he trained for so deliberately for in the fall.”

Training for unpredictability is an interesting idea. Because when we start to look at other talented performers, we see a similar pattern.

Like basketball, for instance. Trainer-to-the-stars Idan Ravin — whose students include LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and others — is famous for the tennis-ball drill, where he has his clients dribble with one hand while they catch tennis balls with the other. He takes a skill they’ve got (dribbling) and then uses distraction and randomness (in the form of tennis balls thrown at their heads) to let them practice overcoming distraction.

And golf. While training his son, Tiger, Earl Woods loved to tip over a golf bag or shout unexpectedly during his son’s backswing.

And music. Violinists learning the Suzuki Method are routinely asked to play a song while lying on their back, or turning the bow upside down, or walking in a circle.

The desired quality here is focus, which we can define as the ability to maintain concentration and control emotions in the face of unpredictability. We usually think of focus as something that’s innate, part of your character.

But the lesson here, I think, is that our instincts might be wrong. For Mackey, James, and the violinists, focus is a kind of skill, one that requires a training regimen all its own.

In fact, we can go further and divide all training into two basic types: 1) the training that builds the fundamental skill (a.k.a. the fast, fluent neural circuit); and 2) the training that field-tests that circuit, whacking it with all kinds of real-world randomness and distraction, in order that it become stronger, more reliable, and capable of handling surprises. Sort of like a good dog team.