A Chance to Excel with Kevin Riley

IMG_6193I met Kevin Riley a month ago and had the opportunity to attend one of his speaking engagements last Friday. Kevin authored “Guiding Your Child from Pee Wee to Pro.” The book is designed to help parents nurture their child’s athletic development, but I found his information to also be applicable to business, filmmaking and spiritual growth.

Kevin, after years of speaking engagements to parent groups, parks and recreational organizations, and state and national conferences, realized the repetitiveness of one comment, “I wish I had known all this information years before.” This moment of enlightenment drove him to research what turns a good performer into a great one.

“One thing that really surprised me as I was going through and doing all this research, and doing interviews, et cetera, was that 97 percent of the population has the chance to excel,” says Kevin. “To get in that one percent. 97 percent of all of us have the opportunity, have the capability, to excel. And that’s because, and I’m sorry to say, we’re all essentially the same.”

The Elite Use Long-Term Memory

Kevin went on to share the things we have to do to excel and get into the top one percent, which are not hard to do. He started with a simple question, “Where does expertise come from?” Kevin adds, “It comes from your memory. And more specific, it comes from your long-term memory.”

I was fascinated to learn how experiences move into our working memory or short-term memory. Most of those things that are important to us and memorable, then move into our long-term memory. But the key is turning long-term memory into a tool to be used as an expert.

“Now you are already a near-expert,” says Kevin. “A near-expert is very close to an expert, but not quite. Raise your hand if you can remember any detail of getting here today. How many of you drove? Okay. Do you remember accelerating? Do you remember putting on the brakes? Do you remember turning the steering wheel right or left, whichever way you had to go? Do you remember with any detail doing those things?”

“More than likely, no. You may remember, ‘Okay, this is the route that I took. And there’s a stoplight over on Indian Trail and 31.’ But do you remember actually going through it? Your driving was automated. That’s why you can hold a conversation with someone in the car and still drive.”

The Elite Automate Their Motor Skills

51EreC9uL7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“What you want to do, and what athletes do, is they automate their motor skills. They have a lot of information, a lot of experiences in their long-term memory. Another benefit of having a lot of stuff in their long-term memory, for athletes and you also, is that you can chunk information. When you’re presented with a situation, your brain will pull up past memories to assist you in accomplishing what you’re trying to do.”

Kevin used tennis as an example to explain how memory chunking works. Research has shown that human beings have an extremely hard time reacting to a tennis ball hit at 100 miles per hour. Yet pros return Roger Federer’s 130 mile per hour serve. This is done by the chunking of information.

The athlete anticipates the shot based on the server’s stance, foot position, body angle, the loft of the ball into the air, the hand position on the racket, the air temperature, and the condition of the court. The array of information based on remembered experiences allows the player to reduce the number of possibilities of where the ball will land to a small area on the court that he can respond to.

“The other thing is, if you have a lot of information in your long-term memory,” Kevin says, “is that the connections, the electrical signals within your brain actually move faster than someone who doesn’t have a lot of information in their long-term memory.”

The Elite Practice with Variation

Kevin shared that when he coached, he’d have the kids repeat things over and over again in the same way at every practice. The activities lost its importance and was no longer memorable, causing the players to plateau. Once he shifted to variable practices that kept things important and memorable, the players saw increases in their skill levels.

“A shortstop will never throw a ball to right field or centerfield or even left field. There’s no reason for that,” says Kevin. “But what it does, (in a variable practice), it disengages the brain from what he normally does, throwing to first, so then when he throws back to first base he has to rethink. It starts to become memorable to him—Again.”

The best thing to do during practice is random activities. The coach could call out an action to a player and they have to immediately do it, something different every time. It’s a slower way to practice, but its more memorable and will stay in the players long-term memory for immediate action at another time. It also builds the player’s ability to make quick decisions under pressure.

Kevin says, “Every time an athlete goes out they need to challenge themselves. They just can’t keep doing the same thing. Even if it’s just a half a percent, a quarter of a percent more in something. Either make something a little faster, reverse the order, it has to be a challenge every single time.”

When people begin to get comfortable their skills plateau. The only way to continue growing one’s expertise is to challenge the mind in new ways. Getting feedback from a coach or someone knowledgeable about the technique can help pinpoint what skill area needs work and then by using short, intensive focused segments of practice can stimulate the mind with a level of importance, while being memorable.

“For an athlete, and on average, it takes about 7,000 hours of practicing this way,” says Kevin. “Okay that’s two, two-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, for 50 weeks a year. We don’t have time to do that. We have other things going on. But I would challenge you… Practice using these techniques in your domain for 30 minutes a day, four to five days a week. Try it for a month. Research shows that if you can do that your performance and your knowledge, your availability to chunk information will remarkably increase over a period of a month.”

The Elite Use Kevin’s Information

“Everyone is relying on traditional, out-of-date exercises, practice methods, and there’s a new way to do things,” says Kevin. “Science is evolving on how the brain works and how people learn. To improve, you need to learn how to improve.”

Kevin’s new methods have been well proven by athletes, business executives, and many in the field of entertainment. The key is recognizing that we are all pretty much the same, not having that exceptional talent, yet able to become experts by using a process. To demonstrate our sameness and how processes can change our outcomes, Kevin had us play a game.

We played the harder version of Flippy Cup within a two-minute time constraint. The game’s conditions included only one person going at a time, the next person not being able to start until the previous person succeeded, and the cup starting upside down on its wide mouth and being flipped upright onto its narrow base. All the teams righted one or two cups.

We were then given two minutes to create a strategy or process that could change our few flipping opportunities based on ordinary skills into three to five times more opportunities. One person was to clear the table of fallen cups. Another fed the cups into an ideal starting position. And, the other person focused solely on their finger-flipping abilities. During the next round, our table of average guys became experts in our process and we won with a score of five flipped cups.

“It’s really true that the vast majority of the population is average. We all have average IQs, and as far as our physical abilities we’re all born pretty much the same. And its practice, and how we practice, that can improve.” Kevin says, “In the two minutes that we did it, people started to use their chunking ability, their long-term memory, and a method to improve. And they’re the team that won. Improvement is about process.”

Kevin’s message was easy to understand and his demonstration clearly supported his point that the most successful, the ones that reach the top, have a process. Everyone else seem to use a shotgun approach, hitting and missing arbitrarily, with no way to replicate a specific successful outcome again and again.

© 2018 by CJ Powers
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Meeting A Magic Dragon

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I got to meet Piff the Magic Dragon last weekend. You might be familiar with his older brother… Steve (were you thinking, Puff?).

No, I didn’t travel to Piffland through the mentalism of Mr. Piffles (his chihuahua). Nor did I head out to see him at his Las Vegas show. Piff came to Chicago, and I got to chat with him (and goof around) before his performance at the Chicago Improv.

Piff is a magician who has been performing for 20 years. But his Piff persona was launched nine years ago and given a big push on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. He received a golden ticket for his performance and headed into the quarter finals, semi-finals, and the finals. Unfortunately, he didn’t get enough votes for the finale.

Piff, or should I call him John Van der Put, also starred on Penn & Teller: Fool Us. While he didn’t fool Penn and Teller, his humor and performance was so appreciated that the guys rated his act their “favorite of the season” and said Piff was “a stunningly good magician.”

Magicians worldwide have recognized his talents. Van der Put won the 2008 British Ring Close-up Magician of the Year, while The Magic Circle awarded him their 2011 Close-up Magician of the Year, 2012 Stage Magician of the Year (as Piff), and the 2013 Carlton Award. In 2013, The Circle also inducted him into their Inner Ring with Gold Star.

I’ve cracked up laughing every time I’ve seen him. After meeting him last Saturday and watching him come up with humorous, off-the-cuff comments, I now consider him the funniest of all magicians that I’ve seen perform—and I’ve watched lots of magicians.

TailThe funniest laugh I got was learning about how John became Piff the Magic Dragon. He was the only one to arrive at a costume party in costume. This drove him to mope around, getting more grumpy as the night progressed. His sharp wit, self-deprecating humor, and deadpan delivery had people laughing throughout the evening. One of his friends suggested he add this persona to his act and Piff was born.

Piff’s YouTube videos have received millions of viewings. He not only has a Las Vegas show, but he has also been touring for the past four and a half years as Piff. His deadpan delivery is so effective that those posing with Piff for selfies work hard to get him to crack a smile. However, one of his crew members who always helps shoot selfies, seems to only click the button when Piff is straight faced.

While some have suggested Piff’s slight 1/32 inch crook in his lips was him holding back laughter, I wasn’t surprised by him joining in the audience’s laughter several times during his live performance. Piff brought people onto the stage to help him with tricks, but they managed to say things that were odd, awkward, or unique, of which Piff took advantage, to generate loud outbursts of laughter from across the audience.

In fact, I laughed so much that I’d have to consider asking Piff to be my best man, er, ah, dragon, should I find Ms. Right—Just kidding… or am I?

© 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Stunt Actor Bob Beck

A group of filmmakers got together this week to share insights into the world of filmmaking. Every person that spoke shared one of their stories of struggle to climb their too familiar ladder one rung at a time. The resounding truth that all shared was of someone giving them an opportunity after having noticed their hard work, diligence, and stick-to-itiveness.

A film set is typically filled with lots of people that carry stars in their eyes and a core group who are willing to do whatever it takes to master their craft. The funny thing is that a film can easily eat up an entire year of a person’s life with only two weeks of the workload being related to glitz and glamour. The vast majority of the time is relegated to some of the most strenuous work and harsh deadlines experienced in the industry.

This natural filtering effect results in few who survive the world of filmmaking. Only those driven by an internal passion strive to create the life-changing art that splashes on the silver screens across the world—each story challenging or supporting a cultural change when aimed at the general public.

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CJ Powers with Stunt Performer Bob Beck

Bob Beck is an actor and stuntman who understands the grind of the movie set. Having never met Bob, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he and I shared a couple of scenes in The Dark Night, proving once again that the world of film is very small. Bob spoke at this event I attended and warned newcomers to make sure they always treated the production assistants, the lowliest of positions on a feature, with respect.

“Today’s PA’s are tomorrow’s directors,” said Bob. “You never know who you’ll be working for in the future, so treat everyone with respect.”

After the gathering, Bob shared with me how he was talking with a guy on set that was dressed on the unkempt side of the spectrum. He was thankful that he had treated the guy with the same respect as he tries to do daily with everyone, because within the hour he learned the man was the producer.

Bob shared additional experiences from Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, and other films he’s performed in. We were also treated to a short film he shot as a fun project with several of his stunt friends. I’m sure you can imagine that the film was nothing more than a bunch of guys creating well choreographed mayhem, which was very entertaining.

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BOSS © MMXII LIONSGATE TELEVISION INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Can you imagine being invited to a party put on by stunt guys? Years ago I attended one that broke out into an incredible fight with bottles breaking over people’s heads, men slamming through tables as they crashed to the floor, and a few women jumping from the rafters onto the backs of their alleged bullies. It didn’t take long after the adrenaline jolt for the team to move the crowd into the dance room to continue the party on a less dramatic level.

Bob shared how he got his start in film acting and later stunt coordination. His humble beginning was as an extra who happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. Since the picture had just lost a stuntman due to certain conflicts, and Bob was about the guy’s same size and build, he was asked to step in and let the stunt experts beat the living daylights out of him, using pulled punches and the like.

A few bruises showed up after Bob went through numerous takes of the beating without any pads on his body. His penchant to do whatever it took to make sure each take was excellent caused the stunt coordinator to notice him. The man decided to show him grace by rewarding him with an extended contract, changing his life from working in his dad’s business to the film industry.

BobBurnsThankful for his career, Bob continues to master his craft and learn the latest techniques to be engulfed in flames without being burnt up, while having a Chicago Fire star drag him through the burning hallway during a rescue attempt. And yes, the flames are real. Controlled, but real. Even while coated with the fireproof gel that’s layered on his head, Bob’s face can feel the extreme heat as he gets within inches of the flames for dramatic affect.

The life of a stuntman is rigorous and calculated. Safety measures are taken to ensure success to whatever degree is possible. Some stunts are repeated several times to get just the right angle of action for the camera. Bob is already attached to his next feature, but due to non-disclosure agreements wasn’t able to share the details. Suffice it to say you’ll be seeing him continue to push the envelope for your entertainment.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

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Counter Programming Coming Soon

Deadpool 2Deadpool 2’s huge box office showing is a sign that it’s time for Disney to diversify from their current superhero trajectory. The mega hit broke numerous records with its expected irreverent tone and supercharged irony introduced to audiences during its freshman release in February 2016.

The second sign was the buzz generated by those hating the Avengers 4 film’s cliffhanger ending that forces the audience to wait a year for the next installment. The on-screen Marvel Universe is starting to show wear, but it did get a temporary shot in the arm from The Black Panther.

History suggests that the Marvel film franchises might soon follow the same pattern Marvel experienced with the collapse of the comic universe after they merged all the characters into one set of stories—The Avengers.

It turned out that those reading Captain America wanted him to stay dominant against the uber bad guys, but the superhero’s enemies got so big it took numerous Avengers to stop them. Even Thanos, who seems to be the ultimate villain is nothing compared to Captain Marvel who will be introduced next year to help save the day, making Captain America look like an ordinary guy.

Steve Rogers, who became Captain America, attracted a lot of people to the Marvel universe because he was a conservative that believed in doing what was right regardless of the odds. He was also fully human, just like everyone in the audience, but thanks to a unique science that greatly increased his strength, became an icon for individuals standing up to all that detracted from a wholesome lifestyle.

But Rogers has since become insignificant to the extraordinary powers soon to be displayed by Captain Marvel who can easily wipe out Thanos, once she shows up. No longer does the universe relate to the typical man and woman on the street, as the stories now take place in space, rather than in our own backyards.

CaptainM_ThanosDeadpool 2 makes fun of these superhero counterparts as the story breaks the fourth wall numerous times to give a wink to the audience. Tongue-in-cheek humor allows Deadpool to even make fun of Ryan Reynolds, the actor who portrays him. The film systematically lets go of all superhero conventions. An example includes blowing up the main character in the beginning of the film, tossing his bloody body parts out into the audience in the 3D version.

For Deadpool 1 & 2 to work at the box office, audiences had to be getting tired of the superhero formula, which is a sign to Disney and the lagging Warner Brothers DC Universe to start diversifying the types of films being released.

bookclub-1Book Club was one counter-programming film that wasn’t given enough screens to satisfy the audience’s demand. The film was allocated to smaller screens, stopping many fans from finding seats due to sold out theaters. While the $12.5MM box office take might normally seem small to a studio executive, he or she must look past the dollars and realize that the falsely constrained opening was caused by the film being relegated to smaller theaters—another sign that audiences want to watch a lot more than superhero films.

Counter programming is a must to balance the coming superhero releases this summer. There are so many weaker franchise films releasing that this tiring trend will become more obvious with sliding turnouts. Diversifying before the coming slump is key to keeping audiences happy, but studios tend to milk every dollar from their shining stars and CGI worlds.

Studios have never been able to turn on a dime, opening the doors for independent filmmakers ready to release alternative programming. The best part of the process for independents is that the audience votes with their ticket purchases. The market is ready for a new trend to develop, and it is likely to be the type of films that will swing the pendulum back to the conservative side of telling wholesome and moral stories.

In other words, it’s time for the maverick, disruptive films to be conservative, wholesome and moral. Keep your eyes open over the next three years and see how the coming trend plays out.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

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Exploring Morality in Feature Films

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A film story is an argument that is expressed within its 2-hour time constraint. The stronger the argument, the more compelling the film becomes in changing culture. This power is seeded within a moral argument and is demonstrated by the main character, thereby impacting the audience’s perspective on the topic.

Understanding the morality at the root of the story helps the filmmaker develop threedimensional characters, define core conflicts that drive the story, empower a unified theme, and assert a subtext that thrusts the audience to the filmmaker’s conclusion. These elements seed the audience’s decision to not only consider change, breaking up their ill-patterned behaviors, but also inspire the viewer to take action toward implementing their version of the main character’s solution in their own life.

But how does the filmmaker define his morality?

Morality is that set of behaviors that the average person would label good or bad. The good being socially acceptable or positive in nature, and the bad being harmful to a person or immoral. This definition causes filmmakers to pit a good person against a bad person throughout the story, allowing the exploration of both sides of a given argument. The filmmaker’s view on what is considered good and bad is endeared to the audience for consideration within their own life.

Obvious protagonistic battles against the antagonist might show up in the form of spy/crime stories like James Bond or Batman. Within these overt stories is a character who decides to be selfless on behalf of another, revealing the power of grace bestowed upon those in need. In subtle stories, a fine line might separate the good guy from the bad guy, especially if the good guy has to cross a moral line to do what is “good” for others.

An example of a subtle line between good and bad showed up in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The story was about the fine line between blindly trusting the local police and holding them accountable for their biased treatment of others. Within the story the audience witnessed a demonstration on how those who suffered a crime should behave when treated poorly. It further explored how others should treat those who have been injured by anger, vengeance, and abuse.

The mixing of the various emotional responses to the moral dilemma gives plenty of fuel to the writer. By having a character facing each angle of the issue, the filmmaker is able to bring full consideration to bear for the audience’s enlightenment. The screenplay can also reveal how the good guy can all too easily cross the moral line in the name of seeking unfulfilled justice, making him just like the bad guy.

In Batman, the caped crusader breaks the law by becoming a vigilante in order to capture the infamous bad guy. In Back to the Future, Marty convinces his dad to punch Biff and right history. The Equalizer commits crimes to save others from injustice and death.

On the other side of the coin, especially in more subtle stories, the bad guy appears just like the hero with one slight difference—his morality. The Joker in The Dark Knight made it clear to Batman that they were cut from the same cloth, giving the filmmaker a range of emotional challenges to share how different moral and immoral choices might play out, revealing that self-sacrifice is the ultimate demonstration of love-based morals.

Subtle films can also reveal truth by choosing the opposite. When we watch immorality on screen appear to win, the moment typically illuminates the good that lost. We can look to religion for an example of immorality winning in the death of Jesus. His death gave all appearance that he lost, but his real goal was to die for the mistakes of others, covering our behavioral errors with his moral goodness.

Our movie theaters are loaded with sacrilegious humor these days, but most of it points clearly to the opposite being the right choice in life. When we laugh at the political incorrectness or immoral behaviors, it is due to our recognition of what we know to be right that causes the laughter. In other words, laughing at the immoral during the exploration of morals is a sign that we know what a moral life looks like, forcing us to consider if we need to tweak our own life to the good.

I’m amazed at how every true exploration of morals points the audience to what is right, regardless of their background or original beliefs. I’m convinced this is possible because the moral will always win over the immoral.

So, why is it that faith-based films avoid showing both sides of an argument that morality will win?

The answer is easier than you think. Faith-based films aren’t created to reveal truth through all sides of an argument, but are designed to avoid arguments and conflicts in order to demonstrate what utopia looks like through the eyes of the filmmaker. Unfortunately, I know few people who can relate to such unrealistic stories because their lives are far from ideal. This results in them avoiding that genre of film.

It’s a shame because filmmakers who have lived both immoral (before their spiritual awakening) and moral (after their awakening) lives would be able to better reveal the truth and consequences of all sides of an issue for our community at large. Every member of the audience would be able to watch the pros and cons demonstrated by characters and be able to make a wise decision concerning changes in their own life for the good.

I believe filmmakers do a disservice to the general public when they don’t show all sides of the good and bad within the form of a film’s argument. After all, morality wins over immorality whenever placed side-by-side for an equal comparison. Since morality always wins, you’d think filmmakers would embrace all controversial subjects knowing that the film would guide the audience to make healthy decisions for their future.

Let me summarize things in this way… Film story is an argument that directly impacts the viewer, but a movie made without anything argued ads nothing to our culture.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

WGN Around Town’s Ana Belaval

CJ_AnaIn the spirit of this morning, I cooked a tasty omelette and then headed downtown to Marcel’s Culinary Experience where WGN Morning News’ “Around Town” was shooting seven live segments with reporter Ana Belaval. I had the opportunity to meet Ana, her producer, and camera person. The team does live segments everyday plus Facebook video posts.

Ana came to WGN from Univision where she started as an assignment reporter for the Chicago affiliate and climbed the ladder to become a network correspondent and substitute anchor in New York. Her long-term goal was to work in the general market, which happened when WGN picked her up—one of the few Spanish reporters to cross over to the English broadcast market.

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Watching her mad skills was an absolute joy. Not only did she capture everyone’s attention in the room, but she came across naturally and approachable. Watching a couple of the live segments allowed me to see why she was able to win three Emmy Awards. But reporting wasn’t her only ability.

She bantered with the producer several times and constantly salted in off-the-cuff jokes from her quick wit. It was clear that the producer loved working with her and that the team had a true entertainer in their midst for those slow moments waiting for the clock to signal the next live segment. I couldn’t help but notice that Ana’s ability to keep her team fresh guaranteed high production values.

Ana’s humor flowed naturally in the moment with great precision, as if she had stand up comedy experience, which I later learned she does. Several years back, she was asked to participate in a celebrity stand up comedy event and received more laughter and applause than she expected. Inspired by the audience that night, Ana started writing jokes and testing them out in comedy clubs and during television appearances.

ana_coffee.pngHosting WTTW-TV’s “The Chicago Stand Up Project” was a great side gig for Ana to perform her routines, while introducing the latest comedians joining her on stage. She also spent time on local shows for the Latino community, giving back to her Puerto Rican heritage. Blogging was even a part of her life for a time, having developed the popular “Ay Mama” blog that eventually ended due to time demands required by her and her writers’ families and professional schedules.

I have no doubt that Ana’s natural talents will continue to shine for years to come and are likely to show up in additional venues. She can be followed on Facebook at http://facebook.com/wgnanabelaval/ and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anabelaval or @anabelaval.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers