Want to Play Worse? Teach!
On the other hand, it is a well-established bit of teaching lore that teachers learn more than their students; that teaching, done right, is a positive thing for student and teacher alike. So what's the truth of the matter?
I hadn't thought about the matter for a long time, but this morning I was doing a little pre-Super Bowl reading on ESPN.com and came across an interesting interview with Malcolm Gladwell. He's plugging a new book, entitled Blink; here's an excerpt from that interview relevant to the discussion above:
JM: Talk a little about tennis coach Vic Braden, the subject of one of your anecdotes. He says, "We haven't found a single (tennis) player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does."
MG: Braden's experience is really interesting. He would ask, say, a world-class tennis player to describe precisely how they would hit a topspin forehand, and they would invariably say that they rolled their wrist at the moment of impact with the ball. And then he'd do a digital analysis of videotape of them actually hitting a topspin forehand and find out that at the moment of impact with the ball their wrist was rock solid. They didn't roll it at all. The expertise of a world-class tennis player, in other words, is instinctive, which means that the knowledge behind their actions is buried in the corners of their brain. They hit a ball unconsciously.
JM: Is that why, quite often, great players don't make such great coaches?
MG: Yes, that's precisely why top athletes so often make bad coaches or general managers. They often don't really know why they were as good as they were. They can't describe it, which means that they can't teach it and they quickly become frustrated at their inability to lift others up to their own level. Mediocre players -- or non-athletes -- tend to make better coaches because their knowledge isn't unconscious. It's the same thing with writing. I know very little about science. But I think I write about science more clearly than many scientists, because I have to go over every step, carefully and deliberately.
Gladwell's argument would suggest that (many) strong players may have a tough time becoming teachers, but I suspect that Gladwell's claim may support and help explain Asa's thesis. My thought is this: because the way the strong player evaluates a position is intuitive, based on experience rather than any sort of reference to the kinds of general rules one might find in a treatise on positional play, he won't be of much use to his chess students. Or rather, he won't be until he starts speaking in what we might call methodese - translating his decisions into the language of textbook positional rules. As the teacher develops the habit of thinking in methodese, that may undermine the natural and automatic nature of his own style, with the inevitable result that his competitive results suffer.
I don't claim that this has to happen, or that the cognitive awkwardness, if real, needs to be permanent. Perhaps the teacher can switch from one thinking style to another without lingering effects, perhaps he will become "bilingual," and maybe he can somehow develop a thinking style that is in some way a synthesis of the two approaches.
Any thoughts from the chess teachers out there?