Friday, May 12, 2017

Could be a stress fracture

Every time I find myself in Dublin airport on my way to a poker tournament with Mrs Doke, my mind flashes back a decade to when we would find ourselves on the way to an ultramarathon. As crazy as I am now, she had to contend with even more crazy during my days as an international runner. As my unpaid helper handler guru masseuse nutritionist psychologist, she was basically charged with everything from booking the flights, getting us to the airport on time, packing my bags, to dealing with my various neuroses and psychosis that always came to the fore as the stress of a very long run approached. 

She also had to deal with me whining and embellishing every little twinge I felt.
"I think my foot is broken"
"It can't be. You're walking fine on it"
"But it's sore"
"You always feel this way during your taper"
"It could be a stress fracture"

As a runner I was trained to nip injury in the bud by actively seeking out every twinge and RICEing the bejesus out of it before it became a proper injury. At least during training. On race day, I switched to completely ignoring all the pain and discomfort before it tried to nag me into stopping.

Looking back now, I feel that weirdly neurotic state I found myself in the days before a race was a vital part of the mental preparation. Running a 24 hour race is tough, no matter what anyone tells you. There's no point trying to kid yourself: your inner bullshit detector just won't let you. My coach used to say you needed to feel real and present dread when you stood at the starting line. That dread that swamped over you stopped you from charging off like a muppet because you have lots of nervous energy, at a pace you can't sustain for an hour much less 24. That dread sucks the pep from your step, pep that might cause you to pound the road a little too hard in hour one of the race causing you to pull up in hour eleven injured. That dread stops you getting into dumb "I'm in front for now" games when there are still 23 hours and 58 minutes to go.

My coach also used to say that best approach was to start as slow as you possibly could, and then try not to slow down too much during the race. Because no matter how slow you go at the start, you will slow down. I sometimes wonder if a similar approach to poker tournaments might be GTO. After all, more than 99% of the time it will end, if not in tears, then at least in mini death and disappointment. So maybe going in thinking positive thoughts is just setting yourself up for a fall.

James Stockdale ended his life as the seemingly senile vice presidential candidate to the positively nuts Ross Perot, starting his VP debate with words which did little to dispel his image as a bewildered old man ("Who am I? Why am I here?") But several decades earlier, he was a US war hero, whose experiences as a POW in Vietnam gave birth to what is known as the Stockdale paradox. 

Stockdale was one of eleven U.S. military prisoners known as the "Alcatraz Gang". Because they had been resistance leaders they were separated from other captives and placed in solitary confinement in a special facility in a courtyard behind the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, located about one mile away from Hoa Lo Prison. Each of the prisoners was kept in an individual windowless and concrete cell measuring 3 by 9 feet with a light bulb kept on around the clock, and locked in leg irons each night.

When author James Collins asked who didn't make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

This is a sobering message as we live in a time when a lot of nonsense is written and talked about the "power of positive thinking", with little concrete evidence offered as to its benefits other than giving us an unrealistic sense of well being. Yes, if you go into a poker tournament thinking positively that you're going to win, you might feel great. If nothing goes wrong and you do end up winning you'll go on feeling great. But in terms of preparing mentally for the battle ahead, how useful really is getting into a mindset that only works if nothing goes wrong?

Many poker mind game gurus recognise the power of pessimism. Jared Tendler has written about it. Dr Tricia Cardner talks about the power of the pre mortem. A pre mortem is like a post mortem (where you think about everything that went wrong after the event to try to learn from it), except you do it before, visualising everything that could possibly go wrong. By visualising problems and setbacks in advance, you can mentally rehearse your response to them, rather than fall to pieces in game because you expected nothing to go wrong.

I used to just turn up to a poker tournament (or turn my computer on) and play. That was fine when poker was new and fresh and less of a routine. These days I feel the need to do some mental warm ups. These generally take the form of meditation after I wake up, then a run to get the blood flowing while I listen to a poker podcast to start my brain thinking about poker, then some study, and I go on thinking about poker until I sit down to play. I try to imagine all sorts of horrible things. What if I take a bunch of bad beats right out of the gate? What if my internet or PC dies? What if there's a power cut and every alarm in the estate screeches to distracting life? What if I misclick early in my session? What if....

If you're going to have a lot of What ifs in your life, I feel it's best to have them before rather than after. Pessimism is a bit like Clonsilla, on the periphery of Dublin, where I live now. I hated it when we moved here first, but once I got used to it, it's not a bad place to live. The same is true of Clonsilla.


I would be a big believer in the power of negative thinking.

I would strongly have suspected as much, Gary Clarke

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