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Practicing For Perfection

-The Fundamentals of Training for Casino Craps Players and Dice Influencers

Chances are that you, like most other Americans, have competed in sports contests, either as team members or as individual competitors.  Others may not have competed athletically, but may have been on debate teams or even striven in other kinds of arenas, such as spelling bees or math or science competitions.

Lacking the equipment required to mingle in the more cerebral arenas, I gravitated to those legal activities with which I was most familiar and which most rewarded me.  I fought as an amateur middleweight for the VFW and I played football--the Texas state sport and religion--for different organizations, through my junior year in college.  As a young adult, I was trained at the expense of other various organizations in other disciplines, such as marksmanship.

Any of these mentioned disciplines, whether athletic, professional or academic required of its devotees that each should attain certain and minimum levels of competence.  As a result of such demands, all such disciplines had at least one ingredient in common: that of practice.

Team sports, such as football or baseball, require that most practice time be conducted in concert with the rest of the team; hence, organization and the coordination of practice is managed by coaches, who are supposed to be able to detect and correct flaws in player performance.  The serious player, however, profits most from the coach’s intervening by imbedding correction and advice and by individually perfecting his performance, after the group practice and away from the team.  For example, a quarterback may spend hours watching film or in his back yard or, to strengthen a weak throw, by sitting down and passing to a friend who then returns the ball.  Or he may spend hours in the weight room simulating the motions of a forward pass--with a 10-pound weight.

Individual sports, such as boxing or tennis or craps shooting, require many lonely hours of practice, away from anyone.  As a fighter, I might attempt to increase the speed of my left jab by daily jabbing 1000 times with a one pound weight in my jabbing hand, or by tossing at least 3 coins in the air and catching them with my jab hand before any fall to eye level or reach the ground.  Or I might suspend a coat button from a ceiling at home and attempt to accurately jab it repeatedly, in as rapid succession as possible.  But I would practice these things at home.  In the gym I would only practice those maneuvers dictated to me by a VFW coach.

Qualified coaches are worth their weight in gold.  Effective ones are paid gobs of money.  But oftentimes, there is no one about, really, who is available to coach us in the science of dice tossing.  Furthermore, it is often the case that no coach at all is a better circumstance than that of having a charlatan for a coach or a well-intentioned fellow who doesn’t know as much about tossing as does his student.

A good coach knows so much about the discipline he is coaching that he is both able to detect the minutest flaw in a competitor’s execution, determine the corrective intervention and also persuasively set his protégé upon the task of executing the corrective intervention.  And that, my friends, is where practice comes in and becomes more valuable than the coach.  For, if we are to believe the old axiom, it is practice that makes perfection, not the coach.

"Practice, the Key to It All" is a section of this board dedicated to the nature and discipline of practice.  It is an analysis of its relative values and limits as well as of its long-range potential for developing our individual levels of proficiency.  This first installment will review basic terms and assumptions, and lay out the premises upon which we can both test hypotheses and build life-long practice habits.

Assumptions, Terminology and Definitions:

“Teaching” is a term not synonymous with “training.”  “Training” is a mind-to-system-to-body conditioning of behavior. “Teaching” is rather a mind-to-mind exportation of ideas.  It not requires a teacher and learning goals, it also requires a willing student. 

Thus, unlike other learning mechanisms, teaching requires a willing mind, or receptacle for that which is being taught.  Although men can train any mindless flea to restrict the height of his reflexive jump into the air, the flea cannot be taught anything.  And systems can train the unwilling mind of an enemy POW to pour out correct information about secret tactical matters or even to altogether turn against former allies.  But, without exerting total control over him, it is difficult, if not impossible, to “teach” a committed, determined, enemy to adopt an ideology that contradicts the one for which he has volunteered to sacrifice his life.  For, without the willing mind of a student, there can be neither teaching nor even a teacher.  There are many contemporary and ancient adages that allude to the requirement of a willing mind.  An often-repeated one is this gem: ”When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Training, though, is a different learning mechanism.  Training is an operation consisting of stimulus-response chains of conditioned responses, but requires no willingness, no readiness, no frontal lobe.  If I may have control over an organism, if a subject breathes and has its sensors in working order, I can train it.  The subject can be a flea, a lab rat or a rocket scientist.  It can be conditioned.  With 100% confidence, I guarantee: it can be trained.

As ominous as that may sound, the power of good training is good news to those who wish to accomplish feats that seem to sit far beyond normal abilities.  It is welcome news, for example, to you who wish to be able to acquire the ability (all within a timeframe of less than .25 seconds) to draw and fire a sidearm, and hit an aspirin-sized target at a distance of 25 feet.  Assuming any kind of visual acuity at all, a working arm and the breath of life, even old guys, eventually, can be trained to do this.  Gee, all we want to do is toss a pair of dice about seven feet.

Not that I seek this, but even I, the Methuselah of the craps world, can be trained to ignore the pain--and all of the signs of imminent death--and to climb Tiger Mountain just one more time at full speed.  Even now, and as I reach for my canister of Albuterol, the mind reels just to think about such a final climb.  Nevertheless, there is some comfort in knowing that I can still be trained to be a suicide climber.

One well-known routine training model might follow a pattern such as this:

Analyze a major task (say, disassembling an M-14 for time) and reduce major task to identifiable sub-tasks so as to be able to train a subject in the execution of that task

Affirm for the subject the goal of the major task

Establish criteria (a time limit, error limit, or combination of standards) for the major task and for all the component sub-tasks.

Model the sub-tasks

Physically guide the subject in the completion of sub-tasks in order

Physically prime (point to, grunt, etc.) the subject in sub-tasks

Fade physical priming and reinforce (either negatively or positively)

Withdraw physical priming, substituting verbal priming and reinforcement

Repeat to criterion (repeat process until the goal is reached), measuring progress.

Chain first sub-task to the next and continue chaining until major criterion for major task is attained.

Any public school kid (who is a willing student) from the lower east side can be shown how to train a human being (opposable thumbs are needed; otherwise, just about any species would do), with IQ’s as low as the mid 70’s—or lower—to assemble, error-free, circuit boards which govern the computers which reside inside kidney dialysis machines.  In addition to a training or conditioning authority, all that is needed is (1) control, (2) a subject, (3) goals and objectives, (4) performance measurement (including task analyses), and (5) various criteria.

“Criterion,” in the context of an analyzed task, is an arbitrary and individualized target level of proficiency.

So, now that we can tell the difference between “teaching” and “training,” what are we to know about “practice?”  Well, just this: “Practice” is not synonymous with “Training.”  Practice can be a component of training and training can be an essential side feature of some practice.  But they too differ from each other.

It is almost enough to know that practice can be an integrated training component and that training, with the given caveats, never fails.  Such knowledge is encouraging because, given our assumptions about training, it means that proper practice, within a proper training model, can deliver to us the previously impossible reward.  That much is logically necessary.

Readers who have made it this far into the article see where I am headed.  And those who are aspiring dice influencers ought by now to have their hands around the throats of their respective computers and might be throttling them in an effort to hurry them up—they impatiently wait for this article to yield the secrets of dice-tossing perfection.

Why?  Not because of any wisdom of this author or the cleverness of his speech. But rather, because--if they believe in logic--they now know that what once seemed highly implausible, if not impossible, is within their grasp.  This is so because it is logically necessary to think so.  Such can be compared to being told that the key to wealth is beneath one of three walnut shells, and that they may have the key if they choose the correct walnut shell.  And then, one by one, two of the shells are laid upside down, revealing that the key MUST be in the third shell.  Now they are to pick a shell! That would fire me up.  Would it not fire you up to know that the key to dice tossing perfection is possibly so near?

I would not mislead you, nor hold out false hope.  I believe that we all know that the secret is in, simply put, “practice.”  But not just any practice.  The practice must be “proper,” or conformed to our target goal.

The essential components that define “practice” as “proper” are arguable.  Some practitioners might impose, for example, a time limit.  Others might dictate that there be a lighting standard, expressed in, say, lumens.  This author would characterize such dogma as “contingently” applicable, and not universal.  For the purposes of this article, “practice” will be a generic model and distilled to the minimum number of essential components.

And although the essentials of proper practice will be detailed later, and future reviews will repeat the need for analysis, the analytic component of practice is so essential to proper practice, that I will end this installment by mentioning it.  Practice is best when it is an analytic exercise as well as a training component.  Ideally, it would intentionally employ measurement standards, performance criteria, and goals.

I know what a left hook is.  Properly used, the left hook is the heavy cruiser of fisticuffs.  The professional boxing aficionado rarely sees a classic left hook anymore though.  These days, professional fighters are more adept at head butting than they are at optimizing the power of their legal punches by means of science, physiology and impact dynamics.  These are the dynamics that enabled a 202-pound “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis, to be able to break two-foot long 2X4’s in half with a left jab—from four inches away.  Want to break bricks with your forehead?  Go ahead.  Knock yourself out.  I argue that I would be better served by being coached in how to do what Joe Louis could do.  Yet, contemporary fighters are not taught these ‘outdated’ methodologies anymore.  Today’s fighters develop incredible power in their punches by means of Feng Fooey, super nutrients, strength-and-power gym exercises and, often, by sheer physical bearing.  The great boxing coaches of the last four decades have evaporated into history, fighters are often no more artful than bar room brawlers, and the “Sweet Science” has degenerated to “Ali Antics” and “Tysonism.”

But I remember how to deliver a left hook because I was coached in the art by a chapter in a book entitled, “How do deliver a Left Hook.”  The process is somewhat more complex than one might at first think.  It always involves a dance step in which the right foot taps to the rear and the left foot slides to the left and hooks inward.  The blow itself is a short-ranged strike and ending close to the body.  Not a great deal of extra muscle power is required—and, in fact, putting too much muscle into the maneuver spoils the broth.  The result is that the combination of coordinated body movement and arm punch delivers PSI out the kazoo.

In the final years of amateur boxing, I only weighed 168 pounds as a fighter.  But I had been training and sparring with 230-pound semi-pro heavyweights (none of whom had ever read that in 1901, smallish Stanley Ketchel had knocked down the much larger, then-Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson in an exhibition match).  I think that these behemoths had probably overstayed their welcome in the sport; because they seemed to always forget that just yesterday the little cherub with the black Converse All Stars, had hammered their brains out with a left hook. Well, now that I think about it, maybe that would explain their forgetfulness, eh what?

But it had not always been the case that my left hook was any more potent than a punch like, say, an overhand left or a crossing left.  I had to practice its delivery and improve upon it.  In fact, when I first began to try it out on a heavy bag, its impact was similar to that of a beanbag dropping to the floor.  An observing gunnery sergeant paused once and just said, “You’re tryin’ too hard, chum.  Too hard.  Just let it happen.  Let it happen.”  Maybe I too had been hit once too many times; I don’t know how long it took for me to realize the value of what this coach had said. In retrospect, it seems to have taken a lifetime.

When I did begin to put his words together with the fact that, as I tired, I could hook the bag harder—it was to me like the Miracle at Fatima.  Eureka.  I began to let nature take its course and the physics of inertia and geometry to play its role.  The heavy bag now began to move like it had a purpose, to strain and groan under the links of its huge chain and swivel…even more so than when struck by what had once been my most powerful blow, the overhand right.  What had happened?

A trusted party had observed a flaw in my execution and had instructed me.  After that, I, the student, “received” the instruction and began to practice the major task of delivering the left hook by systematically reducing the amount of muscle force used to execute the blow and by increasing the “force” with which I executed the steps, hip and upper body movements.  My standards of measurement were the movement of the bag, the related sounds and other force indicators.  My goal was to be able to hammer someone’s brains out, but the performance criteria, subjective as they may have been, revolved around my “moving” the bag to some indeterminate, but generally greater, degree.  Throughout all of the process of developing the punch, and as inexpertly as one might expect it to be within the limited cerebral abilities of a seventeen-year old nitwit from the ghettoes of a stone-aged community in Darkest Texas, there was, amazingly, analysis.

All worthwhile practice has these components.

What I propose to do in this series of articles is not to hold up to public view the miraculous secret of “dice control.”  I only propose to diagram the structure of proper practice and to eliminate activity that does not contribute to the advancement of one’s proficiency.  I will, however, place all of my earthly confidence in the notion that practice is the vehicle that can carry us from a proficiency that is no better than random, to a point at which we can rest our money on a real edge over the house.

Next time: The Requirements of Proper Practice
By: "Toss Boss"

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 19, 2007 1:54 PM.

The previous post in this blog was This Is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile.

The next post in this blog is The Toss Flight.

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