Weekly musings, 6/3/18: expert, chunking, and patterns


In the book, “The Athletic Brain,” Amit Katwala explores what makes professional athletes more proficient at sport than amateur athletes. Two key ways professional athletes are able to react more quickly and more efficiently than the rest of us are their ability to chunk information and their ability to recognize patterns.

When you look at a Parkour athlete moving with ease through the urban environment, what do you see? Probably a flurry of movement, with parts that don’t look distinct. If you were asked to repeat back what you watched, you would be able to pick out one or two moves, (“he vaulted over something,” “I think he somersaulted at some point”). The Parkour athlete, on the other hand, would probably be able to repeat back the whole sequence, but not because he sees individual moves strung together- instead, he sees sequences within the sequence, chunks of skills strung together.

Chunking is frequently taught as a memorization trick. If I asked you to look at the following sequence of numbers for a few seconds, cover it up, and repeat it back, you might struggle: 741031214116

If, on the other hand, I asked you to remember the following dates, it might be easier for you: 7/4 10/31 2/14 11/6

Why? The numbers are the same, but the context is suddenly different. Chances are high those dates have some meaning to you if you live in the US (Fourth of July, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, election day). That wasn’t always the case. First, you had to learn your numbers, then you had to learn about dates, and eventually, through repeated exposure, you learned to associate those days with different things.

The experienced athlete begins by learning individual parts, really, really well. For instance, the Parkour athlete works on the pieces of the precision jump by working on landings and small short target landings. He learns the components of a forward roll, progressing to a somersault by practicing, slowly at first, and then faster, over and over again. Eventually, he learns to perform a precision jump to a somersault. The individual parts becomes a sequence of movements. He still practices the parts individually, but he no longer sees them as individual entities.

Chunking allows a practitioner of any discipline to take in information at a faster rate. Skills blur, because the individual parts simply become a way to create a bigger picture. However, even the most advanced practitioners are always refining the basics, becoming smoother, and looking at the smallest parts with curiosity. 

For a little morning Parkour inspiration: https://youtu.be/NX7QNWEGcNI