How to Boost Awareness

I was chatting recently with Nate Sanderson, a top Iowa high school girls’ basketball coach. The subject turned to favorite pieces of advice. I expected to hear him start talking about lay-up drills and passing technique. But I didn’t. Instead, he said this:

Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be.

That’s it.

Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be. 

Over the next day or so, I started to appreciate why this was his favorite. Basketball, soccer, algebra, comedy, skateboarding, spelling — it doesn’t matter. The advice applies in all cases:

Know where you are.

What move are you making, exactly, right now? Are you tuned into the precise knowledge of your performance as it unfolds? 

Know where you’re supposed to be.

Where are you in relation to the ideal move? If you could superimpose yourself over the ideal performance, where would you match, and where would you fall short? 

This advice fits with our scientific picture of skill acquisition. Psychologists say that learning new skills is like entering a dark room, feeling around for the furniture, and memorizing its location, so you can move through it  — perform the action — ever more swiftly. In a word, it’s about cultivating awareness — awareness of ourselves, and of the path to our target performance.

The really interesting thing, though, is that we mostly take awareness for granted. We don’t instinctively train it, or devise ways to develop it. Maybe we should. Here are a few ideas:

  • 1) Freeze. Develop the habit of stopping the action at unexpected times, to get a precise snapshot of where you’re at, and where you should be. An equally good technique is to drastically slow down the motion. Many musicians do this; so do athletes like Ben Hogan.
  • 2) Embrace video. It’s used all the time in sports, but for some reason it’s used less in disciplines like music or business or art. If video can help develop tennis technique, why not use it with a boardroom presentation? A piano recital?
  • 3) Build in a pause before each rep. Adding a momentary stop just before the action helps increase awareness by letting you take time to focus on the two things that matter: your knowledge of where you are, and where you want to go.
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