Written by Coach Michael Harvey
A good friend of mine and I were discussing what our skill sets see us working in, teaching. While he is a school teacher and I teach in sport we are both aware the process in of itself is essentially the same. The teachers role is to facilitate education and improvement of individuals and to assist in a student becoming more proficient in a given task.
We talked at length and one phrase he said stuck with me in particular. “People need to learn how to learn.” When someone knows how to learn it opens up so much more than one particular task or skill. The goal of any great teacher should be for the student to eventually be proficient to the point that the teacher is no longer required to give instruction as regularly, if at all, as the student is now an effective problem solver.
How does this apply to sport? It appears to me that many athletes get caught up on what they aren’t yet able to do yet. Until we have the ability to download a program into our brain matrix style, we have to suck it up and learn the old fashion way. Practice, repetition and learning through experience. But let’s be very clear on what you are actually practicing and repeating in order to learn. So what skills are required in order to become a good learner?
1. Become a problem solver. You don’t need to know how to do it. Get curious about what you need to do in order progress and realise that in time with consistent application and a want to learn you will probably get a lot further ahead than you think you could when you first started. Don’t be so impatient thinking you will learn it all in 1 year.
2. Work ethic. If you want to learn and be actively involved in figuring out how to improve you will. If you simply want to delegate all responsibility for your improvement to your teacher or coach, any progress will be lost over time without constant prompting and hand holding. Take responsibility for your work ethic.
3. Learn the fundamentals and what is important first. Understand that you do not need to be, nor will you be skilled or excel consistently in a short period of time. With that in mind listen to those that you trust and learn what is important in order for you to improve and in what order. Your new fancy wetsuit will have little to no impact on your swim time if you aren’t swimming regularly for example. Sounds simple but I can tell you that it is an oversight that many make. Once you have practiced ,learned and mastered the fundamentals, THEN progress will come.
4. Get good at asking questions. Good questions get good answers and the quality of the questions you ask determines the quality of the answers you get. If you keep getting stuck repeating a mistake you can be asking yourself “what do I keep doing that makes this happen?”. Then you go back to point one above and become a problem solver. Great athletes are hungry for their coaches to tell them how they can improve. One thing that particularly sets them apart from the rest, is that they don't wait for feedback, they seek it out. They ask questions and are deeply curious. They don't let an ego get in the way of learning.
5. Use past experience you have in other areas. You have done things at times in your life that you will be able to relate to what you need to do now. What you have learnt in other sports and even at work can help you. Join the dots and find the similarities. Lucky for you there is also a team of athletes around you that collectively have a huge amount of experience. Tap into that and you will quickly learn that you don’t have any excuses, just lessons to learn.
6. Watch the process of those doing what you want to be able to. You want to do an ironman, qualify for Kona, finish a half under 5hrs or whatever it is, watch what those who are already doing that do. Even better is to find someone with similar circumstances as you to watch. No point watching Jan Frodeno knock out 6x swim sets per week and hoping to swim the same time with your 2 and occasionally 3 swims per week. Be realistic and you will find your answers relevant to you. Find a mother that got into triathlon later in life, or a corporate person with a stressful job similar to the one you have AND has done what you are looking to do. What did they do or have to change in order for that to work? The key is not to just focus on the outcome of others. The story or process is what will help you most.
So instead of being a passenger in your learning and development remember that you get out what you put in. The great thing about that is that you have only yourself to hold to account for what you achieve.