Hitting the Wall

It’s been four months now since I started ten minutes to GO and I thought it might be useful to reflect on what I have learned.

Probably for me, first and foremost, is that fact that I love teaching Go. The game has been a permanent presence in my life for over fifty years now, and an endless source of challenge, excitement, friendship and philosophy. I have come to believe that knowing and playing Go is simply just good for people. It’s a life enhancer, and so in the way of all advocates, I am keen to spread the news.

Following on from the above, I have also come to realise and accept that Go is not for everyone. People are endlessly and fascinatingly different and what floats my boat, may well not float yours. I am more than good with this, but I still believe that everyone should have the opportunity to experience Go at as deep a level as possible. I want my students to really get a feel for the shapes and patterns that appear on the Goban and take a first step towards an understanding of why people have been fascinated and enchanted by this game for over 4000 years.

And then there is the process of playing and learning Go…

I have written elsewhere about how, along with all human endeavours, learning to play and improve at Go involves three elements that we can graphically represent as a simple triangle.

Knowledge refers to the things that we know. Information that we have learned from any source such as reading books, listening to lectures, watching videos and so on. Skills refers to the application of this knowledge, combined with repetition and practice, that lead to an improvement in performance. Personal Qualities refers to YOU and what motivates you, what inspires you, what annoys or irritates you, how you get your energy and how you deal with blocks and obstacles.

We bring these three elements to bear on any new task and Go is no different. Over time, if we maintain our practice and deepen our knowledge, then our skill will improve.

However, as with all learning, the path is rarely linear. We can expect to have periods of time when we feel we are powering ahead and really making progress, only to subsequently find that we seem to have hit a brick wall and can get no further. Psychologists have even constructed a range of models to illustrate this aspect of the learning/study process. The periods of growth are always exciting as we are buoyed along with the feeling that we are finally beginning to get to grips with the game, but all too suddenly we can become frustrated and de-motivated when we feel stuck and unable to progress further. Although these feelings occur when we tackle or try to develop any new skill or activity such as learning a language, practicing a sport, or playing a musical instrument, one of the unique aspects of Go is that each game provides the player with an unambiguous and measurable outcome. Did I win? (Y/N) and by how much?

So, what does all this mean for new players of Go? Firstly, it is important to recognise and acknowledge these two stages and be aware that a stage of rapid growth will inevitably be followed by a slower period of consolidation. We may go quickly from 30 Kyu to 20 Kyu and then find it much more difficult to get past the twenties and into the teens.

The second thing is to realise that these stable or flat periods are an opportunity for the kind of ‘out of the box’ experimentation that will lay the foundations for the next leap. As the maxim states…”do what you’ve always done, and you’ll get what you’ve always got.” When we are on a winning streak, its easy to keep repeating the same formula as it is clearly working for us. Its when we are struggling and have nothing to lose that we have the freedom to explore new ideas. For example: if we routinely play our first two moves on the star points, then move to the 3-4 and see what happens. If we always play the same moves in response to a corner approach, then get a book or look online and try to find some alternate moves or josekis and experiment with these. Pincer with a two-high stone, rather than a low knight move and note how the game develops. The game of Go represents a complex system where a small change in the initial conditions can lead to a hugely different outcome further down the line. You are a butterfly, so flap your wings.

As a Go teacher my responsibility to my students is to help each player identify where they are on their journey into Go and offer them insights, information and ideas that will keep propelling them forward. I also need to recognise when they have ‘hit the wall’ and help them make the most of this opportunity to radically, re-think, restructure and rebuild their approach to the game.

Their journey is my journey and the same path has been walked every player, student, and enthusiast for Go over the past four millennia. Always remember, you walk in exceptionally good company.

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