Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 5: Zen magpies and the game as a fail state.

5…the game as a fail state…


Video games are often seen as a demon seducing our youth to disconnect from real reality and immerse themselves into unreal reality.  I’m not one to dispute this but I do advocate that athletes and coaches can benefit from learning how and why video games are so engaging.  There’s some great research and psych literature on video games and I believe this research, when applied to junior sport in particular, could promote mastery and longevity in sport.


Video games offer a fail state in which the player repeatedly fails – certainly far more than they succeed. In a shout out to the old school 1980s gamers, how many goes did it take to clock Space Invaders or Frogger?  Progression is made through successive failed attempts because the video game is designed to constantly test the player at a level just beyond their competence. Not too hard, not too easy – just beyond their current ability. In psychology this is known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD).


Great coaches, therefore, constantly appraise the competence of their athletes and are vigilant for opportunities and perspectives which extend their athletes’ reach. Ranting like a lunatic after an error (all too common in junior sport) bypasses the ZPD and tends to activate a threat state. Although ranting can have an immediately productive impact on athletes and teams, it also corrodes long-term development and enjoyment.


Mistakes and failure therefore, are best seen as beacons for where improvement lies, not as opportunities to inflict woe and misery.


To this point, I’m reminded of a zen story in which a young prince commissioned a master artist to paint a picture of his favourite animal – a magpie. He could then display it as the centrepiece of his art collection so that when he became king, he could impress all with his taste and refined sensibility. After a long and hazardous journey to meet the eccentric old master, the young prince was told that it would be completed in one year. Although initially disgruntled at such a long wait, he consented and returned home (he wasn’t set to be king for a while so he figured he still had a bit of time to play with). A year later he returned to the master with great excitement, only to be told that it was unfinished and would not be ready for another year. Flustered and upset at not getting his way, the young prince reluctantly agreed to wait but should it not be ready upon his return, there would be blood.


Twelve months later, the prince was incensed when the master again asked for another year to complete the work.  Enraged at the idea of more waiting, the young king (a lot had happened in the past year) demanded to see the current work or he would strike the master dead where he stood.  Without speaking the master nodded, gathered a blank canvas and brush, and in one swift, unerring and effortless action, drew a picture of a magpie.  The painting was sublime and the young king was delirious with joy and awe.  But upon further consideration, he became furious to have made so much effort, and to have waited so long, for something that took the master only moments to create.  Again threatening a death sentence, the king demanded to know why he was made to wait so long.  Without speaking, the master beckoned the king to an adjoining room and opened the door and as he did, thousands of practice sketches and drawings of magpies spilled onto the floor before his feet.


Great performances are like an iceberg – apparent for all to see.  The grandeur and beauty seen above the waterline however, cannot exist without an immense and unseen depth.  On Saturday we will hopefully see a great contest with exquisite skills but they can only appear because of a back catalogue rich in failure and repetition.


The game gives us plenty of opportunities to fail – that’s why it’s the best teacher.  Athletes and coaches need to accept, endure and flourish in this fail-state system if they’re to be a good student.


Go Pies


* the zen parable was originally about a cat – I substituted in the magpie when I worked at Collingwood.  Also, if you’d like to see the visuals for the story, go to:


Read the first four parts of David Stiff’s series HERE.



About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Magnificent.
    Thanks D Stiff.

  2. Words of wisdom applicable across the landscape of life. A wonderful series.

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