Friday, July 4, 2014

Self-Concept, Pick-Up Basketball, and Clash of Clans

There are a few reasons why I’m skeptical of using everyday learning as the model for all learning. One of them is the issue of self-concept.

After college, I attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, and two of my closest college friends settled in the Silicon Valley area. My two friends loved to play basketball, and we spent one summer working out and going to local courts to play pick-up basketball games. Now, the courts we were playing on didn’t look anything like the courts in the movie, White Men Can’t Jump. Guys were most definitely not dunking all over the place. But games were super competitive and the people playing in them could play.

I’m not really sure why I allowed myself to get dragged to these games. My friends were good; I was not. Growing up, I had shot around with my sisters and younger brother, but I had never played in any games, so my ball-handling skills were next to nonexistent. When I stepped onto the court, my mindset was to avoid making visible mistakes. I didn’t want the ball passed to me, and I dreaded having to take an open shot. I focused on defense and rebounding. During the hours of practice we did between games, I did next to nothing to work on my ball-handling skills. In games, I dribbled exclusively with my right hand. With a little practice, I could have learned to dribble with both hands (drastically improving my game), but I never did.

One day, we were invited to play a full-court game. Courts were usually so crowded that most games were half-court, and only the best players were able to play full-court. They had four, but we only had three. So the four guys we were playing against scanned the sidelines and picked this young, chubby kid to be our fourth. It was obvious that no one wanted this kid on their team. He had probably been waiting all day to get into a game, but no one ever picked him.

He was a chucker. As soon as he touched the ball, if he was open and in range of the basket, he was going to shoot. It didn’t matter if I was wide-open beneath the basket for a lay up, there was no way in hell he was going to pass the ball. He was probably thinking that he never gets to play in any games and everyone already thinks he sucks, so he may as well make the most of his opportunity and shoot as often as he can. Besides which, if he did pass the ball to one of us, he figured we’d never pass it back.

The situation looked dire. We were shorter and slower than the four guys we were playing against (at 5' 8", I was playing center in our 1-3 zone), and we were saddled with a chucker and me, a half player. It should have been a romp for the other team. But my two friends and I had something that the other team didn’t: great teamwork. We clamped down on the other team on defense and managed to build a small lead.

I’m not sure what the kid, the chucker, was thinking during all of this. He was hurting us on both offense and defense, but we kept passing him the ball and trying to integrate him into our system. We treated him as though he was a fully functioning member of our team, as though we expected him to play smart and play hard, and we didn’t get down on him when he didn’t. At some point, he must of recognized that something different was going on because he stopped chucking the ball and started working with us. He hustled, looked for the open man, passed the ball, and covered his zone. When we signaled him to cut across the court or switch on defense, he did.

We ended up losing that day, but the game went down to the wire. It was exhilarating and I remember being in the flow. I stopped being self-conscious and started looking to push the ball up court and get open for baskets. Anything to help the team. Among the spectators, I’d like to think that some of them could appreciate what we were doing (that some of them were rooting for us), but the vast majority were simply incredulous that the other team was playing this poorly and thought that we had nothing to do with it. For most players at this level, individual skill is more highly regarded than teamwork.

The transformation in the kid that day was amazing. He went from a classic chucker to a team player in the course of one game. Along the way, he picked up some skills for playing in a zone and communicating on the court that he could build on with the right teammates. He felt this. If we had decided to hop in our cars and drive to another court, he would have gone with us. If we had shown up at this court again the next day, he would have joined us. He had decent skills as a player (better than me), but his lack of status on these courts had caused him to pick up bad habits and become a chucker. Once he became a chucker, even the more generous players on the court didn’t want to play with him. His own perception of himself, drawn from how everyone around him perceived him, became self-fulfilling. But it could all be reversed given the right opportunities, the right mentoring and coaching.

Fast-forward twenty years and this scenario is playing out again. I’m playing Clash of Clans in a clan with fifteen other guys. About half of the clan are in middle school. There is a clear and fairly rigid hierarchy in the game. At the top are the innovators. These are the players who design new bases and attack strategies. Then there are the players who copy the innovators, but can internalize those designs and strategies well enough to adapt them for different circumstances. Then there are the players who can copy the innovators, but can’t counter when a design or strategy is countered; they run the script the same way every time. Finally, there are the players who can’t even manage to run the script for a given design or strategy properly. These last guys “suck.”

A few months ago, Clash of Clans introduced clan wars. Before clan wars, you attacked for loot in order to upgrade your base and your troops. When attacking for loot, you can look for easy bases to attack. It is common to attack fewer than one in twenty bases you look at. And your attacks are private. You can share the replays of your attacks, but that is optional. A lot of players who are poor attackers end up gemming (using real money to buy upgrades instead of using in-game currency).

Once clan wars started, you started attacking bases at your own level for the clan, and those attacks are public. A lot of clan members were embarrassed by how much they “sucked” and would go onto YouTube to search for better base designs and attack strategies. As one of the innovators in the clan, I’m not a fan of copying ideas from YouTube or other sources. At a minimum, I feel like you should understand those base designs and attack strategies well enough to modify them. Over time, I offered tips and suggestions, and encouraged the guys to analyze each others’ attacks. Most ignored me, but a couple took up my advice and became incredibly strong attackers. Once that happened, more joined in. At this point, we have over a dozen very strong attackers, which is rare. Most clans that we go up against have 2-3 strong attackers and bunch of other guys that “suck.”

Yesterday, Supercell updated Clash of Clans with some significant changes to how troops behave, breaking most existing base designs and attack strategies. Across the internet, players are waiting for the innovators to absorb the changes and post new YouTube videos. In my clan, there was a great deal of unease. I suggested that we use the next clan war to focus on experimenting with new strategies, and to forget about winning for a while. This unleashed an immediate torrent of new attack strategies on online chat. Up and down the clan, guys are analyzing the impact of the changes and discussing how to deal with them. The level of analysis is impressive. There’s something else that I’ve noticed. If a new guy joins the clan and he “sucks,” there used to be a chorus to kick him out of the clan. Now, a new guy receives a steady stream of high quality advice from multiple members of the clan. It is gratifying to see the guys I once mentored mentoring others, and doing a better job at it than I did.

The pick-up basketball game and my clan in Clash of Clans are both examples of everyday learning. But they aren’t typical examples of everyday learning. In everyday learning, that chubby kid typically becomes a chucker, internalizes that he is a chucker, and remains a chucker for the rest of his life… with his basketball skills plateauing or atrophying. In Clash of Clans, only the elite players are innovators and everyone else settles for copying the elite players. In the world that I envision, everyone receives the opportunities to overcome and exceed those self-concepts if they choose to do so. As far as I can tell, that requires a large number of strong on-court and in-game mentors and coaches. How do we develop them? That’s what I’m working on.

One final note. Overcoming your self-concept and shifting what you believe you are capable of doing (the standard you establish as “good enough” performance for yourself), is only the first step. If that kid worked hard at becoming a good team player and developed a solid team around him, he wouldn’t necessarily win many games. And without that positive feedback from winning, it’s really tough to keep going and maintain the belief that you can do it. When we started that pick-up game, we started in a zone because it complemented our skills as team players and we didn’t think we could match the other team’s athleticism. We started in a 1-2-1 zone, but we couldn’t stop them from scoring against us. After huddling and analyzing the situation, we thought that a 1-3 zone might work better, and it did. We were able to perform that analysis because we had played and experimented with zones many times, and we had an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. We also had strong analytical skills. Those things all take time to develop, which is why I think coaching is so important. It doesn’t have to be formal coaching. It could just be random guys making suggestions and observations here and there. But I think that pervasive high-quality coaching is necessary to achieve what I envision.

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