“The principle is competing against yourself. It’s about self-improvement, about being better than you were the day before.”
San Francisco 49er’s Super Bowl-Winning Quarterback
We all know about the zone, the rarified strata of effortless excellence when an athlete performs to their fullest potential. In the zone, the athlete’s mind is clear and calm, with no need to analyze, or recall anything from memory. They’re on autopilot, and in the now.
Is there also a zone in learning situations? The short answer is yes. There are definitely different mindsets for performing and for learning. While the performance zone calls for the conscious mind to be disengaged, allowing the unconscious and body to take over, in learning situations it’s different. The conscious mind is often front and center through discussions, analysis of technique, breakdown of skills, coaching feedback, and dissection of the learning process itself. This takes brain power, good listening skills, solid powers of observation, synthesis, logical thought and ultimately, in competition, an ability to tie all that together and submerge that scientific and experiential content so a non-thinking skill can come forth on command.
However, all this cognitive activity that assists the learning process is distracting and debilitating noise in a performance. It is paramount that athletes are able to “flip the switch” in their mind, between the learning mindset and the performance mindset. It is critical that athletes know this difference, and have ways to shift into the proper mental mode when the situation itself shifts.
To that end, I suggest you use purposely paradoxical statements so your athletes see things in new ways. These shake up their common beliefs so they can achieve a new level of understanding. Here’s one that helps them shift into their learning mindset.
Practice Does Not Make Perfect. Practice Makes Permanent. Only Perfect Practice Makes Perfect.
One of the most common learning and practice mistakes athletes make is to just go through the motions. They often merely put their time in at practice or when learning something new. They figure that simple clock time doing an activity will pay off. The problem with this is that they may be learning incorrectly, or drilling at less than top quality, and the result is less than ideal. Computer experts know the term GIGO. That’s Garbage In, Garbage Out. If they code a computer program incorrectly, it will have error bugs and perform below desired standards. The converse is true also with GIGO-Good In, Good Out. The computer program only does what a human tells it to do. The same is true for our human brain and body.
The athlete will get out of the learning or practice exactly what they are putting into it. If they fool themselves into thinking they are doing quality work, but they are in reality doing sub-standard work, reality always wins. Sub-standard work will result. Our goal as coaches is to help them to become aware of their level of quality as they learn and practice.
EXERCISE: Practice Makes Permanent.
To drive these points home, ask your athlete, “You know that expression, “Practice makes….”, and then pause like you are searching for the remainder of the phrase. They will complete it for you and say, “Practice makes perfect”. You then say, “Actually, practice makes PERMANENT. ONLY PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.”
They may be surprised to hear this phrase, and that’s good. You have their attention. You can then have a discussion around GIGO. Ask them for an example of how poor performance would look in the skill or task they are about to learn or perform, and then ask, “What does an excellent version of this skill or task look like?”.
As they go through the learning session, ask them to rate the quality of their efforts, focus, precision, timing, etc. Ask them, “What grade would you give yourself on that last task on the aspect of ‘X’?” if they answer less than A+, ask again, “What do you need to do to move that to an A+?” This is a practical way of using a gap analysis, where they immediately see what was lacking, with your feedback, and what they need to do to raise the bar to excellence.
Becoming a good learner is as much an art as a science. Cultivating the proper learning mindset is the critical starting place. Encourage your athletes to take personal charge of their learning. Engage them with intriguing questions and hold them accountable with quality feedback. The difference you see will amaze you, and them.
Bio: Bill is an internationally and nationally recognized authority on peak performance and coaching. An award-winning scholar-athlete, he has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports and big-time college athletics. A multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete, coach and school alumnus, he is an in-the-trenches coach and consultant and is the creator and developer of many leading-edge workshops, seminars and training programs.
Degrees Held: MS, MA
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