Fosbury Flop
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Hotel Fosbury Flop

Lost in the search for the perfect design

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The architect Oscar Tusquets has visited good hotels with the excuse of enjoyment and others with the obligation of having to design one. At 82 years old, he hasn’t found the perfect room in any of them. How is it possible?

A window is not just a glass box. Its reason for being is to illuminate and ventilate. In most hotels there are no windows: you can’t open them. They make it cheaper for the builders, they save work for the maintenance people, they lower the price of heating and eliminate security concerns. The owner gains peace of mind: there will be no suicides or curtain repairs. The client will not be able to be woken up by the Sun, check the outside temperature, live to the rhythm of natural light or enjoy the breeze and the smell of the sea.

The furniture doesn’t help either. Most of us mortals spend a couple of nights, at most, in hotels that have closets that hold a lifetime’s worth of clothes. The upper class of past centuries traveled with huge trunks; nowadays, luxury is traveling with as little luggage as possible. A huge closet, the small refrigerator —the carrot that they put on the donkey—, a fancy bar furniture, the bedside reading light that illuminates the entire neighborhood, the strongbox that understanding how it works takes more time than that spent in the room... so that the client ends up leaving his clothes, messy, on the couch and his suitcase on the floor or under the bed.

The bathroom is the icing on the cake. The inconsistency of showering in bathtubs and the annoying curtain that sticks to your body just by touching it. The plastic toilet lid. The small pedal bin produced by the devil with an explosive force that jumps as if it was a land mine. What about the little plastic bag that peeks out from its edge and has stored all the air possible between it and the aluminum container? It forces you to bend over and do again room service work. The antithesis of design is certified by shower products: their small print and the slippery material with which they are packaged cause you to spend more time on research and crafts than under water.

I don’t know about design, but in the face of these logical statements from Oscar Tusquets, it is inevitable not to ask myself: Why has no one, until today, put a remedy to it?

Actually, I understand you perfectly, Oscar. I must not have visited a quarter of the hotels you have seen, only —and let me doubt about it— I surpass you in padel facilities, basketball courts or other sports venues. But the same thing happens to me with learning design: I haven’t found the perfect training design in any sports facility. How is it possible? Let me explain it to you:

The coach is not a living speaker. His reason for being is teach people to improve at a sport. The intention of his actions must be directed towards that function. Sports competition is an accumulation of problems created by the rival and the environment that the team must functionally solve to win. Ordering the players, from his position of power, what they have to do to solve their trouble, instead of encouraging their skills to achieve it autonomously, goes in the opposite direction to the coach’s task. With traditional authoritarianism the coach generates obedient soldiers but the sport is written by players with initiative; at least, it looks like he is working extremely hard —which doesn’t have to be synonymous of working well. The “monkey” mind, the security and the comfort of the coach love it; parents and journalists —eminences in coaching theory— won’t make a single complaint because the coach doesn’t stop yelling and ordering —how good he must be, how much he must know...!— and the technical director will have many fewer complaints to manage. It’s a pity that the only one who doesn’t gain from all of this is the player and his future... which remains mortgaged. Most coaches, as if they were pseudo-windows in hotel rooms that you can’t open, go against their reason for being: teach people to improve at sport. The latter is what justifies the quality of the craft, not the screams he makes per hour, the amount of material he uses, the interventions he performs per exercise or his resume created in a world where meritocracy is more than questionable.

Forgive me if I go assume too much, Oscar. When you design a building, I imagine that you put all your experience at the client’s disposal: adapting to their architectural wishes must be key to realizing a good project. If you have a great idea that they don’t like, you either convince them or fail... right? I don’t know how you handled it. That’s how I see it in training. I don’t know if any sports career can be built in a one-way form; that is, with the mentality “the player has no fucking idea and will be lucky that I, the professional, teach him”. The coach assumes —wrongly— that has all the answers and believes that the process of “teaching” consists of telling the learner what to do all the time. Then, the player has no choice but to adapt to the coach’s project. I don’t think this is what teaching is about. The key to any project —sporting or architectural— doesn’t lie in adapting —convincing and innovating— to the characteristics, desires... of the client who trusts your skills? All the expert’s knowledge must be available to the client; not the other way around. That’s why I miss more humble, restless coaches, with a designer role who wonder and work for the client —the player, in the case of those we train. I am quite tired —because I see a lot of them— of those who have no doubts and adopt a dictatorial role; they work for their own project without knowing —because they have never been asked— what their client wanted. Like you, I agree that the client cannot be consulted about what has yet to be invented; let me doubt that a great project can emerge if one doesn’t adapt to him.

We know —it’s not my opinion, a huge line of research affirms it— that human beings don’t learn to move, we learn to solve problems. Movement is our means to satisfy motor needs. We know very well —even though we don’t want to assume it— that the saying that one has to learn the movement or technique first is a good myth. Well, we “teach” the other way around: we eliminate the goal —the game and all the implicit motivation that it entails— and we focus on the means —the player’s movement and the boredom it generates. The result is disappointing: great executors of useless movements because they don’t know how to use them to achieve competitive goals. I think you understand me, Oscar. I quote you verbatim:

“Of all the things that a sports judge can measure or assess —the height of the bar, whether a runner is ahead of the gun, the playing time, the legality of a tackle, whether a ball has crossed the line...—, the most inadequate, arbitrary and debatable is aesthetics. I point this out because, although it may seem unbelievable, this is the case in many sports, in which not only what an athlete can do counts but also whether he does it beautifully, that is, if he does it following the aesthetic canons of the jury. For me, as a designer, that is the maximum attack on the essence of sport, because in sport, aesthetics are born from effectiveness, it is inseparable from it. […] But the most ridiculous case is surely that of ski jumping, where not only the length of the jump counts, and whether you don’t fall when you land, but also how beautiful you do it. Why don’t we also score the elegance of horse and rider in their competitions, and even in high-jump? Thus, when the crazy Fosbury invented that bizarre way of jumping on his back —which later, unfortunately for the guardians of aesthetic values, has been so widely accepted among young people— we could have made him lose the competition.”

It is already difficult enough to value aesthetics so that in purely functional sports —basketball or a relay race where the regulations don’t contemplate any aesthetic slogan— we coaches become obsessed with the forms of individual or collective movements and not in its function —the real incentive. If we were like Barcelona design —interested in form but respectful of function... but not even that. Your acquaintance Jorge Wagensberg already said it: “Beauty if it is not functional is not beauty.” Why do we chase beautiful movements and not their functionality —scoring a goal, winning a point on the backhand volley, or running faster? Just as when the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at his finger; when Larry Bird never tired of scoring three-point field baskets, the mediocre coach looked at his body.

The matches are impossible to plan or predict but in training the coach knows, in detail, what will happen at each moment. The match is —apart from unpredictable— uncontrollable; but if in training he doesn’t feel in control of everything, he doesn’t like it. The uncertainty for the players; me, the coach, I don’t want to suffer it. But on Sunday, not only the field players need to make decisions; the coaching staff needs to perceive with open eyes to take advantage of each competitive moment, to improvise in front of the problems raised by the opponent. It’s more important to know how to adapt to what you’re in than to obsess over what you’re looking for. Why don’t we start with it at training? Is close-to-the-minute planning the best way to prepare for the chaos, the sea of uncertainty, the spontaneous situations... of the weekend? I don’t think synchronized swimming drills —the coach and players know what to do and what’s going to happen at every moment— are the most meaningful way of preparing the weekend football match. The perfect learning design should take into account that the discomfort of the coach is the price to pay for the benefits of the team. However, there are still many of us mediocre —and selfish— coaches who put personal comfort ahead of team benefits.

Oscar, I suppose that when you were in the process of designing a hotel, the macro —the land, the building structure— impacted everything micro —the rooms, the small spaces— and not the other way around. I imagine it was inevitable to think of the hotel in an integrated way, not in isolation of each part? Would you start designing a hotel from the toilet of the double rooms to the structure of the final building? I suppose it should be the other way around: the general structure conditions everything else. In sport we start with the micro and, often, we forget the macro. We practice techniques, movements or situations without thinking about what precedes them, what they will cause or what context they are part of. As if designing a building consisted of the architect planning in his office each space of the hotel separately, in an isolated way, and assuming for sure that on the day it’s time to start building it, the workers would complete the puzzle perfectly by magic. I don’t understand why we didn’t start the training process for the macro, for the game; we would make it much more meaningful. Because the macro —the sport— endures in time, the micro —the actions, tendencies of play— evolves constantly: they say that you can find more houses —macro— from 1700 than toilets —micro— from 1920.

Even though, science has been telling us this for decades, we coaches continue to speak a language that the motor system doesn’t understand. The feedback of the coach isn’t essential —because the learner himself sees the result of his actions— but it can even be harmful. The motor system understands abstract cues better than bodily details, but we obsess over ordering down to the anatomical detail how the body should move in micro actions. When competing, the parts of the body are coordinated unconsciously when the player is clear about what he has to achieve in the game; if you think about coordinating them, you fail: paralysis by analysis. Why do we intend to teach the movements of the game by deciphering them in anatomical detail and through conscious mechanisms? Attention must be directed to the result, not to how it is achieved.

And, one last thing and I stop bothering you, Oscar: Are the most significant architectural works the result of imitation processes? In the sports venues, coaches remain obsessed with analyzing the best athletes in their respective disciplines, obtaining parameters —quantitative rather than qualitative—, labeling them as “optimal”… and forcing players with different characteristics to imitate the “optimal” model. If instead of pursuing the consequences of excellent learning processes developed by others, we worried about the causes of these... things would be different! But luckily, all isn’t lost: there is some sheep that have the courage to separate themselves from the herd by jumping Fosbury style.

Oscar, I hope I explained myself well. Maybe, just like I do when thinking about hotel room design, you might not be able to help but wonder about sports training: Why has no one, until today, put a remedy to it? Couldn’t it be, Oscar, as you say, that no matter how much we are taught, we don’t want to learn: we are a lost cause?

Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop


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Fosbury Flop
Fosbury Flop
How complexity impacts sport, fitness... and life.