Five years ago, I went to paradise in search of the secret of youth sports champions.
A team of work-class families from an old Hawaii plantation town of Ewa Beach—most of the dads drove trucks for a living—had just won the Little League World Series. They beat the favorite American team, an affluent band of year-round players from suburban San Diego, and then the defending champions from Curacao.
And they did it without breaking a sweat. Whole other teams broke down over the course of an endless summer of games and travel. As many as half the pitchers were injured; some even pitched with cracked bones. But the bunch from Hawaii won easily. Even when they were losing in the final game, they were loose.
So what was the secret to their success?
The coach of the team was an ink-haired forty-something grandfather named Layton Aliviado. We met in the living room of Layton’s house in a development of Ewa Beach, a booming section of Oahu. Like other fathers on the team, Layton drove a truck for a living. Like the other parents, he was devoted to helping his kids go places he could never go—starting with private school and college. In his living room, he sat amidst baseball and football gear, trophies and balls, boxes of commemorative tee shirts, and pictures of his kids.
Layton described the team’s drills for hitting, running, and fielding. In all the baseball drills, Layton taught his young athletes to generate power from the lower parts of the body (the legs and butt), transfer that power with the core (the abdomen), and then to perform specific actions, like throwing and hitting, with the upper body (arms, shoulders, wrists).
As we spoke, Layton leaned in toward me to make sure I got the concept.
“Everyone can count,” he said. “Just count out what to do, and explain by showing. Then they have it stuck in their heads: ‘one, two, three.’ Every kid can count, right?”
Groups of three work because they make sense of the world. We think in threes for logic (syllogisms), religion (father, son, holy ghost), dynamic relationships (two people and a disruptive third), architecture (foundation, walls, roof), politics (executive, legislative, judicial), economics (producers, products, markets), the learning process (demonstration, trial, correction), the psyche (id, ego, superego), and families (mother, father, children). Threes give us simple but dynamic models for understanding the world.
The codes for writing—storytelling, construction, and analysis—begin with that one-two-three structure. Linguists have found, in fact, that children learn words and language in three parts. To understand a simple word like cat, for example, a child first learns the beginning (the letter “c”), then the ending (the letter “t”), and finally the middle (the letter “a”). One, two, three.
The one-two-three code overlaps for all three writing skills. When you learn the 1-2-3 Code, you learn all you need to know about writing.
|The reading and writing process||The literary process always involves three elements—author, subject, and reader.|
|Story structure/narrative arc||In The Poetics, Aristotle explains that stories move from a beginning (1) a settled and stable world, upset by a basic challenge to that world to a middle (2) a series of challenges for the hero to an end (3) a resolution and dénouement, and a new world emerges.|
|Triangulation||Francis Ford Coppola summarizes the formula for a great scene like this: “Put three people in a room.” Most action involves the interaction of three characters—or the interaction of two characters and something else (a desired object or goal).|
|The content of stories||Most stories concern the gossipy question, “Who’s doing whom?” Readers want to know about relationships. Relationships reveal all in stories.|
|Word structure||Readers first process the beginning, then the end, and finally the middle.|
|Sentence structure||Most good sentences begin with a core of subject, verb, and object/predicate. If you build that three-part core into every sentence, the reader will always follow what you say.|
|Sentences, paragraphs, sections, and whole pieces||The 2-3-1 principle—put the second most important idea first, put the least important information second, and put the most important stuff last. I also call this “start strong, finish strong.”|
|Analysis||The basic structure of every question and analysis can be stated simply: what causes what? The first “what” refers to the variables that cause change. “Causes” refers to the process of change. The second “what” refers to the outcome.|
Why do so many systems and structures work so well in threes? I’m not sure, but the dynamic relations of a lover’s triangle offers some hints.
Think of Oedipus, Laius, and Jacosta (Oedipus Rex)…Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar (Wuthering Heights)…or even Carrie, Big, and Aiden (TV’s “Sex and the City”). A couple can achieve some stability, apart from the world. But when you introduce some outside force—say, a former lover of one of the partners—that stability totters.
How does the arrival of the third party affect the couple? Does it bring them closer together? Create temptation? Jealousy? Anger? Fear? Whatever the case, the couple is challenged—singly and together—when they have to deal with outside forces. The third element, then, reveals all.
Likewise, cognitive scientists say the 1-2-3 Code gets its power from a process called “pattern recognition.”
Suppose I give you one number—two, for example. Is there a pattern yet? No, of course not. Suppose I say two and four. Do you see a pattern? Yes. I could be using even numbers, doubling the numbers, or counting by twos. When will we really know the pattern? With the third term. And when might we see the pattern broken? Also with the third term. We humans need to see patterns to make sense of the world. Threes give us our first chance to do so.
Mathematicians say that a triangle is at once the sturdiest and most dynamic of all shapes. Moving one corner alters the other two, but does not necessarily upset everything. Triangles create a process of constant adjustment. No wonder, then, that we see triangles in all structures—of art, literature, scientific inquiry, you name it.