I learned of Szymanski’s rules about 25 years ago, and while I knew they came from an Olympic class weight lifter, I can only suspect they came from Norbert Schemansky a.k.a Szymanski.
That he was an Olympic Gold Medalist is not in dispute. Nor that he was a WWII veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
For me, I just do not know, and cannot seem to find out, if he were truly the author of Schemansky’s Rules (or Szymanski’s Rules as the ‘Polish’ version might be known). Now these are truly inspirational. If quipped originally by Schemansky, in my book that puts him in the same category of home spun philosopher as Yogi Berra (“It ain’t over ’til it’s over”).
For years, I taught Szymanski’s Rules as a tribute to my wife’s, and mother-in-law’s, Polish roots, and as a tool for meaningful effort of any kind. They stuck in my head the first time I heard them. Generations of subsequent black belts, and subsequent physicians, students of mine over two and a half decades, have been exposed to these truisms. If it really was you, well, thank you Norbert. You deserve the credit.
‘The stronger you get, the harder it is to get stronger.’
In muscle physiology, this is a function of muscle training, conditioning, based on genetics. There is probably a peak strength, an asymptotic level, that nobody quite reaches, a maximum that nobody quite knows. There is only so much bulk, even in the most ridiculously muscled individual, and that will vary with family lineage, habitual training, lifestyle choices and raw determination. Knowing this rule helps to quell the frustration of progressively smaller progress.
But other physical endeavours are similar. Speed, timing, coordination are all developed in sport practice, and practice makes perfect. The more we know of our human limits as displayed by successful athletes, the more we aim for and the more we achieve. Will the marathon drop below two hours, now that Eliud Kipchoge has come so close?
So too practice effects on performance, such as music, with occasional leaps of excellence that set standards for everyone else. I have read that Chopin and Liszt competitively composed piano scores that they hoped the other would not be able to play. Certainly Glen Gould set standards of speed, where suddenly the historically melodious right hand of a Bach fugue is so fast it becomes the accompaniment to the now dominant melody in the left that nobody before him had considered.
Intellectual activities and knowledge have a parallel. While knowledge facilitates understanding for future knowledge, the experience in implementing assessments and treatments based on such knowledge clearly has a practice effect, and competence is pretty well assured with every Gladwellian 10,000 hours. Still, getting better, even maintaining that effect takes continued effort, and the world of knowledge, like everything else, is never standing still. All physicians view their profession as life-long continuous learning. Two years of retirement, and I feel I have lost more than I ever knew.
‘Winners work on their weaknesses, losers work on their strengths.’
Here, we have a useful maxim. As a high school student I automatically extended my eating preferences to my work habits. Saving the best for last (getting the broccoli down while still hungry enough to force it) and rewarding oneself with the roast beef is a moderately common practice, particularly (unknown to me at the time) of successful eaters. If you are not allowed to eschew (instead of chew) your broccoli until you are president of the USA, you’d better deal with it first.
In matters of taste, referring to work, your weaknesses are often the stuff you don’t like. English was my broccoli! I struggled to see the point of the question, “What is the mood of the witches’ scene in MacBeth?” Mood? What has bubbling and boiling got to do with mood, I would sputter, sweating with anxiety and roiling confusion, feeling like everything was getting away from me, out of control. I worked at English. I had good teachers and still I worked. Hard.
English inevitably took twice as long, twice as tediously, but I worked at it, and then scampered happily through mathematics, to finish with steady state control and low entropy in physics. How did I know I was winning? I wasn’t. English was my lowest mark, barely an A out of secondary School. Physics was damn near perfect. Mathematics was one mark off!
Back to the tough stuff, Biology was rote memory work. Boring but understandable. Chemistry was similar but at least delightfully illuminating. The order of individual success was reversed from the order of study? English, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics.
Like broccoli, I automatically worked on my weaknesses. I was, for whatever childhood reason, a long term gratifier, possibly due to my hearing troubles. I had learned to delay the good stuff by doing everything in order of that which I liked least, and then savouring that which I liked best. Why? I have no bloody idea.
When I first heard the rules, it took me a moment to get the second part of number 2. ‘Losers work on their strengths?’ It was hard to apply that term ‘loser’ to any work ethic. But as I went through university, I gradually came to recognize the need to manage time as much as master content, necessitating greater work on the areas I found harder. The extra work had to be reserved for the boring, difficult stuff. Had I spent ALL my time on creating the most elegant solution to some wave equation, the free energy of a redux reaction would have eluded me. As would the developmental stages of Piaget’s children.
But in that original rendition of Szymanski’s Rules, I think there was the further explanation related to vanity. If you do something really well, you love doing it (and if you love doing it, you eventually end up doing it really well). That trick dive you have mastered, the one and a half reverse summersault in layout position, entering the water cleanly, with nary a ripple or splash. Beautiful dive. The crowd loves it. You could do it all day. And you do, to the detriment of the two and a half front tuck.
As you do your best dive, over and over again, you are working on your strengths, FORGETTING Rule number 1! After all, how much better can you get.
I have had discussions with medical types about this phenomenon. One of my colleague leaders, a radiation oncologist. As is so typical in medical hierarchy, I helped hire him and he was my boss. Certainly circular, and possibly incestuous, medical management always comes down to something like this. Together we helped to run a cancer centre delivering excellent care while teaching new cancer specialists. But to attract funding and students, to foster top level research and to deliver tertiary level specialty care beside assiduously thorough teaching, we needed something extra to inspire the troops.
He delivered an impassioned speech at a meeting, to take some service, some disease we treat particularly well, and somehow make it better…put some bells and whistles on it. He too had attended some work related self-help seminar that flogged, ‘Building on Success.’
But this is health care, not competition diving. I quoted Szymanski. I argued for finding the stuff we did badly, the worst in fact, and bring it up to the quality of all the rest, and continuously do that with every service, all the time. As each treatment, each disease fell behind, put our resources into that. ‘Winners work on the weaknesses,’ I said, leaving sub voce‘losers work on their strengths.’ But somebody else, some echo quipped the second part, having heard me quote Szymanski before, and my friend and colleague and mutual leader looked a little black. Was he being called a loser? Alas, the echo continued in agreement with me but mostly himself, ‘Best not cure them of lung cancer to have them die of chemotherapy toxicity.’ At least he hadn’t said radiation toxicity.
So losers, go work on your strengths. And I’ll work on the broccoli. And maybe the English.
‘If you want to lift heavy weights, you have to lift heavy weights.’
This has to be the most profound of Szymanski’s rules. It’s really the Nike, ‘Just Do It.’ You can hear him, can’t you. ‘Hey, Szymanski, what is the secret of your success? How can I become a great weight lifter?’ Well, the answer is simple and yet so commonly missed. How do you become great at anything?
There are things I have done in my life which I have become very good at. Small, seemingly simple things, but where being good at them is terribly important. The very first bone marrow biopsy I did took a long time. In the treatment of patients with leukemia and lymphoma, one often needs to dig a biopsy needle into the superior posterior iliac crest (if you lie flat on your back, curl up your head and shoulders, as well as your legs, knees to your chest…curling up in a little ball… the iliac crests are the boney part that is touching the floor at the level of your waist. If you rock back and forth, it hurts a bit as the most prominent bone against the floor.)
This biopsy is often repeated monthly. The biopsy needle is thick, about the size of a knitting needle. You have to force it into the bone, make sure it is well seated’ into the hard boney crest, and then drill deeply, about an inch, further in. You can’t let it poke out either side of that boney plate…there is nasty stuff out there, like arteries. Local anaesthetics really only freeze the outside of the bone. When we tell patients there are no nerves on the inside of bone, we lie. It appears not to be that bad when they don’t believe it will be that bad, as long as it’s quick. I try to skip quickly over that. Needless to say, speed is of the essence. Practice makes perfect, and I used to do about 150 a year.
There is no magic. You need to be attentive. You need to be prepared for each step in the process. You probably only need to be lead through the procedure once or twice by a good teacher if you are a physician who has done other surgical stuff. But to get good, to reduce pain to a minimum, you need practice. It is not magic. It is practice. You teach the muscles by repeated practice.
Karate was very similar. It is not magic. By the time you become a black belt, about four years of regular, focused, repeated practice, you have maybe punched the air with a middle level punch, right hand, about 200,000 times. In between all the kicks, and blocks, and steps, and kata, and a host of other hand and foot techniques, all repeated low, middle and high. But the one middle level zuki…like all the other techniques, well, in four years maybe 200,000, more or less.
Now, if you ask your sensei how to get the most power into that punch, he will glibly say to contract all the muscles which propel the punch and relax all the muscles that inhibit the punch, because our strikes are always combinations of opposing muscles. Just relax all those which oppose the motion while contracting all those that don’t. Easy. Sure.
Which is why, when stroboscopic photography was originally done, the speed of a white belt’s punch was found to be about 4 times slower than the black belt’s. No surprise. It’s just practice. And since kinetic energy is mass times velocity squared, the energy delivery is 16 times greater for the black belt. Not magic, just practice. ‘But which muscles oppose the punch?’ the white belt cries.
The sensei bows, saying softly, ‘Just practice, grasshopper.’ Just do it. ‘If you want to punch punches fast, you need to punch punches fast.’ The odd thing is, I really think that is exactly what happens. When all the muscles, in perfect unison, contract at exactly the right sequence, the right ripple down the arm, with all opposing muscles loosely snapping like the tip of a whip, suddenly the lower belt gets it for the first time. The feeling is something you know when you know it, and the gi, the karate uniform tells you because suddenly the cloth of the arm of the karate-gi speaks. You feel it, and you hear it. The gi speaks to you, and you know for the first time which muscles need to contract, and which need to relax. And then, if you have half a brain, you immediately do it again and again until the gi speaks again.
And sometimes, you stop and look around you, because everybody has heard your gi too, and have stopped to look, to try to see what you did. You do it again and again, and then gradually translate that gi feeling and sound into the left arm, the legs, with different techniques one by one, always going back to that feeling you first got with your midi chudan gyaku szuki. You add hip twist, chest and shoulder re-twist later, only to find the gi speaks ever more frequently. You add kiai. You relax, lower your shoulders, and do it again, and again, until you know that feeling so well you never lose it. You get it all together in one punch, feet, legs, hip twist, waist to chest, shoulders, arm, fist, calm face…and the two inch board held by three colleagues…yes, three…one holding either side of the board and one behind those two…the board held by three of your colleagues breaks.
How did you do it? ‘If you want to punch fast punches, you have to punch fast punches.’ ‘If you want to do painless biopsies, you have to do painless biopsies.’
‘Just do it.’ That’s all.
‘If you want to lift heavy weights,’ Szymanski answers, with a shrug, turning the palms of his hands up, with an expression that says this is all quite simple, ‘you gotta lift heavy weights.’