How to Boost Awareness

November 12th, 2012

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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The Power of MicroPractice: Why 5 Minutes Makes a Big Difference

November 7th, 2012

If you had to make a list of the main obstacles to improving skills, the number one item on the list would be “LIFE.”

We’re busy. Really busy. Maybe busier than any generation, ever. So naturally we tend to assume that, in order to improve our skills, we need to set aside a good-size chunk of time: an hour or so. To practice for merely five minutes feels like a silly waste of time.

We’re wrong.

There’s evidence to show that daily micropractices — five minutes or so — are effective and often superior to longer weekly practices.

One reason: on days you don’t practice, skills erode. You are forced to spend significant part of the next session re-learning what you’ve forgotten.

When you practice a little each day, skills don’t erode. In fact, they consolidate. It’s like a bank account earning compound interest: a virtuous spiral where skill accrues quickly.

The larger idea here is that deep practice is a construction process where you’re connecting and honing living wires in your brain. Spending daily bursts of time works, because it’s aligned with the ways our brains actually grow — a little bit every day.

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A Must-See Movie

November 5th, 2012

“Inspirational” is a dangerously overused word. But it’s the only word to describe “Brooklyn Castle,” a new documentary that tells the story of a tiny, unlikely talent hotbed: a middle-school chess team from Brooklyn, NY.

What I love is that this film doesn’t settle for the easy, soft-focus portrait. It shows exactly how hard the the kids work, and how their work is driven by the powerful culture the coaches create. (Watching those coaches work is worth the ticket price.) What I love best, however, is how it shows lives and identities being utterly transformed through acquiring skill.

Go see it with your kids. You’ll love it.

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One Quick Way to Spot a Good Coach

November 1st, 2012

Letting the players play: UCLA’s John Wooden, during a game

Here’s a simple truth: if you want to develop your talent, nothing will help you faster than finding a great coach.

Trouble is, great coaches are tough to find. They’re rare as diamonds. Their skills are subtle. They don’t tend to stand out at first glance.

So how do you spot one?

In LBOT, I give a few pointers (page 32, if you’re curious). But here’s another answer, a quick shortcut: To find a good coach, look for someone who is comfortable not doing anything.

Not talking or yelling or waving their arms. Not making speeches or issuing praise or pacing the sidelines. Not doing anything except the most important thing: sitting back and letting the performance happen.

Somewhere along the line, our culture started believing the false idea that the coach was a hero, the center of the action, and that coaching ability was related to the sheer amount of brilliant instruction they could produce. You see this especially in soccer — you know, those coaches who spend the whole game shouting detailed instructions — Pass to Stevie! Go to the endline! Cross the ball!– as if they are joysticking a live-action videogame.

Those people catch our eye because they are showy and loud, but they are not necessarily effective. A good coach spends a lot of time — especially during games — sitting calmly with their arms folded and their eyes on the action. They are comfortable in their stillness, at peace. Because they know their job is not to direct the action like an orchestra conductor, but rather to create learners, to equip players to encounter problems and solve them. That means leaving them alone.

PS – Of course, this isn’t the only way to spot good coaches. What works for you? Feel free to share any other “tells” below.

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How to Nurture Talent (Without Being a Psycho Parent)

October 26th, 2012

Here is a post I recently wrote for Jenny Rosenstrach’s wonderful Dinner: A Love Story blog (which, if you haven’t checked it out, you should, right now, especially if you’re a parent. Also, here’s their new book, which is quickly becoming the go-to cookbook in our house). 

I am not the first to point this out, but let me say it anyway: when it comes to nurturing our kids’ talents, today’s parents today have it tough. Not because we know too little, but because we know too much. Way, way too much.

Nurturing talent used to be a fairly simple process, because it was mostly passive. Parents sat back and waited for the talent to show itself.

Now, parental talent-nurturing is an official industry, like organic food. Soccer, violin, chess, math, art — they all provide us with nicely constructed funnels down which we can pour endless amounts of money and time as we try to help our kids become their best selves. Tiger Mothers and Fathers stalk the landscape, carrying their superstar cubs in their mouths. Science has given us terrifyingly concrete concepts, like Critical Learning Periods, where if your kid doesn’t learn something by age X, the door of opportunity slams shut — forever!  Being a parent has gone from feeling like a laid-back observer to feeling like a frantic gardener, racing around, trying to find the best way to help talent grow.

All of which creates a question: what’s the best way to navigate this new world?

I’ve spent the last five years visiting and studying talent hotbeds, and also being the dad of four kids (10-17). So over the last few years my wife Jen and I have done our best to navigate this, and have come up with a simple list of rules that have helped us around your house, a few of which I’d like to share.

  • Don’t: Praise kids for their abilities.
  • Do: Praise kids for their efforts.
  • Why: When you praise kids for their abilities, you diminish their willingness to take risk — after all, we’re status-oriented creatures, and why would anyone who’s been labeled “talented” risk their status?

When you praise kids for their efforts, on the other hand, you increase their willingness to take risk, to fail, and thus to learn. One useful phrase to use in praising kids is to say well done. It conveys appreciation, without calling anybody a genius.

  • Don’t: Fall for the Prodigy Myth.
  • Do: Reframe struggle as positive.
  • Why: Yes, different kids learn at different rates. Yes, some kids take off like rockets; others linger in the belly of the bell curve. The thing to remember: this isn’t a sprint.The majority of prodigies flame out, and the majority of successful people come from the anonymous ranks of average Joes and Josephines.

What helps is to understand that the moments of intense struggle are really the moments when learning happens fastest. Those moments aren’t pretty — it’s when a kid is reaching toward something new and missing — but they’re fantastically productive because it’s when the brain is making and honing new connections. Your job is to find ways to celebrate those moments of struggle.

  • Don’t: Pay attention to what you kid says
  • Do: Pay attention to what your kid stares at.
  • Why: Let’s do this one in the form of a scene, in which a kid returns from first soccer/piano/karate practice.

PARENT: So how was it? How did it go? Did you like your teacher? What did you do?

KID: Ummmmm.

PARENT: Was it fun? Were you good at it? Do you think you’ll do it next week?

KID: Ummmmm.

The point is, most kids are reliably inept at expressing their inner feelings. So don’t put pressure on them to express them, because it tends to speedily diminish whatever interest they might’ve felt.

Instead, pay attention to what they stare at. Staring is the most profound act of communication that kids perform. Staring is like a neon sign saying I LOVE THIS. Watch for the stare, and follow where it leads. One of our daughters got interested in violin because we went to a performance of a teenage bluegrass band. She stared. We didn’t say much. We bought her a violin, and took her to a lesson, and she was into it. That was five years ago; she’s still playing.

  • Don’t: Seek a coach or teacher who’s like a courteous waiter.
  • Do: Seek coaches and teachers who scare you a little.
  • Why: It’s easy to confuse pleasure and comfort with actual learning. But truly good coaches and teachers are about challenging you to get to the edge of your abilities, time and time again.

Seek out coaches who are authoritative. Who know their stuff, and who take charge. A little scary is good.

  • Don’t: Celebrate victories.
  • Do: Celebrate repetition.
  • Why: Too many kids (and parents) judge their progress by the scoreboard, instead of by the amount they’ve learned. Victories are their own reward. They do not need any extra emphasis.

Celebrating repetition, on the other hand, is not done often enough, because repetition has a bad reputation. We frequently connote it with drudgery. In fact, repetition is awesome. It’s the single most powerful way the brain builds new skill circuits. So make it cool. Doing a hard task ten times in a row is great. Doing it a hundred times in a row is freaking heroic. So treat it that way.

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A Reader Writes: Please Help Rescue My School’s Crummy Facilities!

October 22nd, 2012

I received this letter the other day from a high-school teacher who’s facing a problem we increasingly share: How to deal with the sweet, tempting narcotic of luxury.

 

Hi Dan,

The school where I used to teach has a great facility for the young athletes. It fit the “crummy” description perfectly. They had no lodge, heat, bathrooms, they changed in their cars and kicked ass, the skiers from this time won four state competitions and went on to win multiple national championships. 

Then some funding came up, new lodge, heat, bathrooms, outdoor electricity, timing hut, more trails, etc. Same coaches (one is an former Olympian, yes the psychology of being great was/is there too). The team has not won a state title since the new facility. 

The school district has another “crummy” facility that has produced some really impressive results for the football team. It is in the basement of the school, everyone (varsity non-varsity, established/unestablished) trains in close proximity. It’s got everything it needs to be great and nothing more. Now there’s a move to build a “better” and “bigger” facility. 

I emailed the head coach with my concern, and told him about your work and the power of crummy facilities. He wrote off what I had to say. 

Can you help me in any way to possibly save the “crummy” facility?

***

Readers: anything you’d like to share? Stories? Strategies? Wisdom from your experience with similar dilemmas? Feel free to write them below.

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How to Anticipate Better (Step 1: Stand Still)

October 18th, 2012

Anticipation is the king of talents, because it’s so mysterious and powerful. How does Sidney Crosby know just where the puck is going to end up? How does Larry Ellison know just when to close the deal? How does Clapton know just when to make that chord change?

The usual answer is that it’s some kind of instinctive magic — a sixth sense.

The real answer is that it’s high-speed pattern recognition: a learned ability to look at telltale signs and accurately guess where the action is headed. It’s not about instincts. It’s about information processing.

Check out this video for a beautiful example. It’s one of those Science of Sport shows where they analyze the abilities of world-class athletes — in this case, Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s a pretty fair soccer player.

Scroll ahead to 6:20, and you’ll see a remarkably cool experiment that reveals the source of Ronaldo’s true ability — his eyes and his brain. By watching body language, arc, and speed, he can calculate where the ball is going to be, even in pitch-black darkness.

So the question becomes, how do we improve the speed of our information processing?  A couple ideas:

  • 1) Eyes-Only Practice -  Set aside practice time where you focus just on absorbing information — sort of like an NFL player would view film. A baseball player could stand at the plate without a bat, tracking the flight of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. A musician could watch a concert, trying to sense the architecture of each solo (ears instead of eyes, but you get the idea).
  • 2) Interrogate Top Performers – Seek out the best, and ask them to describe what’s going through their heads at key moments — what telltale signs they’re looking for. They won’t always be eloquent  — as Ronaldo shows — but his words and body language are still helpful and revealing.
  • 3) Do a Little Every Day – As the video shows, the anticipation is not something Ronaldo was born with, but rather a skill that he built over thousands of reps. Treat your observations the same. You won’t be good at the start, but each time you observe intensively and with a purpose, you’ll get better at figuring out what’s going to happen next.

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Four Quick Cures for Poor Practice

October 15th, 2012

The biggest enemy of talent isn’t genes, or opportunity, or luck. It’s poor practice. Because poor practice wastes time, creates bad habits, and, worst of all, gives us the deceptive feeling we’ve accomplished something when, in fact, we haven’t.

Trouble is, poor practice is tough to identify. Perhaps in the future, some genius will invent a Practice-o-Meter that flashes bright red lights and sounds a horn when it detects ineffective, time-wasting practice.  Until then, however, we have to make do with simpler methods.

So here, based on interviews with teachers/coaches and a sampling of scientific studies, are some warning signs that your practice is shallow — along with a few suggested cures.

  • 1) Symptom: Robotic sameness of performance. If you are doing the same thing over and over with no variation, you are not practicing deeply.
  • Cure: Make it tougher. Change one or more factors to stretch yourself. For example, if you’re shooting basketball free throws, try them from a variety of distances. If you’re doing algebra, set ever-shorter time limits. Constantly switch it up so that you’re always making and fixing mistakes.

 

  • 2) Symptom: The lack of “dammit” moments. Learning something new is like walking into a darkened room and figuring out where the furniture is located — when you make a mistake, you should feel it. Effective practice contains lots of “dammit” moments. Making mistakes should carry an emotional burn that helps you do better next time.
  • Cure: Keep score. Turn it into a game, so that each mistake carries a larger consequence.

 

  • 3) Symptom: Failing too much. The “sweet spot” of practice is when you make mistakes 20-40 percent of the time — not so seldom that you’re comfortable, not so often that you’re thrashing. Randomness does not make for good practice.
  • Cure: Make it easier. Eliminate some variables; simplify the task so that you are chunking one thing at a time, until you get back to the sweet spot.

 

  • 4) Symptom: Total boredom
  • Cure: Quit and do something else. Come back when you’re fresh.

 

Overall, aim for quality over quantity. It’s far better to achieve 10 minutes of deep practice — which is really tough to do — than practice shallowly for an hour.

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TSR in the News

October 12th, 2012

It’s been a busy week around here for my book that came out last month, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France – Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored with former Postal rider Tyler Hamilton.

It’s basically the inside story of what some are now calling the biggest fraud in the history of American sports. The world they lived in was half James Bond, half Sopranos, and half All the President’s Men. Okay, that’s three halves. But you get the idea.

The big news is that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency just released its 1,000-page report detailing its case against Armstrong. Twenty-six people gave testimony, including eleven former Armstrong teammates (including Tyler, of course.)

You might think the USADA report would by dry-dust reading, but it’s precisely the opposite. It’s kind of amazing. It’s filled with telling details, stranger-than-fiction anecdotes (like when Armstrong wanted an illegal cortisone pill and two teammates, rather than disappoint their demanding boss, shaved down an asprin and gave it to him as a placebo), and an irrefutable stack of hard scientific and financial evidence. Reading the report, you can’t help but feel a mix of horror and deep empathy for the riders — and you can’t help but wonder what you would have done in their place.

If you’re interested in a taste, here’s a Cliff’s Notes version from Outside magazine.  And, for the more ambitious among you, here’s the whole report: including a 200-page summary and the supporting materials (the affadavits are a good place to start).

I know it’s a sad story. But it’s also an important one — for the riders who are standing up and speaking out, for their families, and for their sport, which now has the chance to move forward. Like Tyler says, the truth will set you free. It sounds corny, I know. But man oh man, is it ever true.

PS – Tyler is going to be on Anderson Cooper 360 tonight (Friday) at 8:00 Eastern — tune in, or check TSR’s facebook page for more information.

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Better Parenting Through Silence

October 8th, 2012

These two videos happen to speak to the same massive question at the heart of parenting: how do you help your kid succeed at something new and difficult and scary?

In the first video, Natalie is trying to learn to ride a bike. Her dad wants to help. Things <cough> don’t go particularly well.

Why? From the first moment of the exchange, the dad is trying to take command of the situation. He keeps saying her name (“Natalie! Look at you! You’re doing it!  We’re gonna keep going around the block! Keep going!”). Even when it’s abundantly clear Natalie is having none of it, the dad keeps up.

He’s doing what we’ve all done: trying to nudge, persuade, cajole a kid past the difficulty using language and emotion. He’s trying to create success by narrating success. Meltdown ensues.

Contrast that approach with this video of a father and a four-year-old kid taking on another biking challenge. Here, the interaction is completely different. The kid is in the position of control, not the parent. You can see it from the first moment, where the father doesn’t tell the kid what’s going to happen — instead, he asks a question.

DAD: Oh, I’m first?

KID: You’re first.

DAD:  Okay.

Instead of narrating the process, this dad is almost entirely silent, except for the occasional praise for the effort (“Good work, pal!”). The messages are implied, not spoken — follow me… this is fun… I’m right here.

This silence creates something vital, because it allows the kid to narrate the process, which he does beautifully: “I can do it just the same as the other guys now… Yeah, oh yeah, buddy.” We see it most vividly at 4:10, in the moment just after the kid wipes out. The dad doesn’t come to the rescue; he’s present, but he doesn’t say a word, except to ask if the kid is ready to go.

To sum up:

  • 1) Seek to put the kid in the position of control.
  • 2) Speak minimally and avoid commands; instead, ask questions that lead to action.
  • 3) When they encounter a problem, avoid rushing to the rescue. Create opportunities for resilience.

The larger point is, kids are smart. You can’t con them. To take on challenges they need to be in control. They need to be given the room and motivation to encounter the challenge honestly, and a parent’s role is to help create the conditions where that can happen — then to step back.

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