Month: February 2010

Are You In the Zone? Take This Test.

Recently I’ve been talking with a few master coaches about learning velocity — specifically, asking them for tools that will help people locate the “sweet spot” where learning velocity increases. And that spot is pretty sweet. Research shows that changes in practice strategy and attention can improve learning velocity by as much as tenfold.

So here’s the result: five questions to determine whether you are in the zone or not.

1. Can you describe the move you’re trying to learn in five seconds or less?

2. Do you have a precise, HD-quality mental image of yourself performing the desired skill ?

3. Are you making — and fixing — mistakes?

4. Are you varying the speed of the action — slow, super-slow, and fast?

5. Are you zooming in and out, isolating your attention on a small part, then seeing how it fits in the larger picture?

If you can answer “yes” to all five of these questions — as Apolo Ohno does so vividly in this video — then the coaching consensus is that your speedometer is pegged. Congratulations: you are learning at peak velocity.

In essence, the questions revolve around three simple acts: 1) isolating an action; 2) pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, firing and fixing your circuitry; 3) combining individual actions into a fluent performance.  And it’s important to note that while athletics is the most obvious application here, these methods apply to music, math, business, social skills — even writing. After all, when it comes to learning skills, neurons are neurons (well, pretty much).

It’s also interesting to note what questions are not on the test. There’s nothing about long-term goals, for instance. Perhaps that’s because when it comes to motivation, long-term goals are essential — but in training they tend to distract from the matter at hand: putting your entire attention toward the act of building fast, fluent circuitry. Also absent from this quiz: any talk of your present level of ability — which is equally immaterial to the process.

With his zone-friendly practice habits, is it any wonder that Ohno performed so well in Dancing With the Stars? And judging by his performance in Vancouver, he’s still firmly in the sweet spot.

And speaking of the sweet spot, I’d like to remind you of the story of Michael Reddick, a regular guy who is attempting to become a professional billiards player. Check out Reddick’s remarkable progress here.

Tiger’s Baby Steps

DSCN6338Check out these rare snapshots from Tiger Woods’s early childhood. (Located in the lobby of the Tiger Woods Center on Nike’s campus in Beaverton, Oregon, where they reside like holy artifacts at the Vatican.)

These photos are good symbols for the skills that Woods is going to spend the next few months trying to learn – the ones he missed out on while he was growing up – the skills of managing emotions and controlling impulses.

Managing emotions and controlling impulses are skills. That’s a strange and surprising thought, but it’s true – they’re neural circuits like any other, and in order to work fluently, they need to be fired over and over again, with intensity. (In a profound sense, that’s what cognitive-behavioral therapy is.)

The Tiger Woods story isn’t just moral — it’s neural. Therapy is Woods’s new driving range: where he will have a chance to build up these puny, underdeveloped skill circuits he should have grown a long time ago: how to treat people, how to build and sustain relationships.

Will it work? Well, Woods is at a disadvantage because he’s working against time (like a golf swing, these skills are developed far more efficiently when you’re younger). He’ll also be working against the reality-warping power of his fame, which colors every interaction with other people. Not to mention the presence of an entire world eager to magnify his every move into a Big Definitive Story.

I think it’s safe to say that Woods will never be as good at navigating emotions as he is at navigating a golf course. But can he put in a few thousand hours of hard work and get good enough?

For now, we can only say one thing: Tiger’s work ethic is going to come in very, very handy.

How to Design a Useful Yardstick

45254.JPGInstant proverb of the day:

You are what you count.

Many of the talent hotbeds I visited for the book don’t rely on conventional performance yardsticks. Instead, they design their own.

The other day I met Graham Walker and Steve Robinson, who coach many of England’s fast-rising crop of junior golfers. Their most important teaching tool? A long piece of rope, which they use to mark off distances for accuracy-improving games they’ve designed. For instance, players make a series of wedge shots from 10, 20, and 30 yards, marking each result on specially designed scorecards.

Or there’s the technique of Pinchas Zuckerman, the great Israeli violinist, whose practice method consisted of a two jars and a bunch of marbles. Each time he played a piece perfectly, Zuckerman transferred a single marble from one jar to the other. When the second jar was full, he was ready.

In both cases, the strategy is the same: to realize that conventional measures (scoreboards, for instance, or hours of practice time) are far too loose and vague, while homemade yardsticks connect to real practice goals — improving accuracy or perfect repetition. All well-designed yardsticks share a few common features:

  • Clarity. There are no gray areas; just cool, inarguable, trackable numbers.
  • Stretchiness. A well-designed yardstick can accomodate a variety of abilities, and there’s an improvement ladder implicitly built in.
  • Ownability. Feedback is direct, not filtered through a higher authority.

It’s not just what you keep track of — it’s also what you don’t keep track of. Unlike virtually every other company in the world,  dot-com shoe company Zappos doesn’t keep track of how long its employees talk to each customer. Instead, it actively encourages its employees to spend as much phone time as they need to make their customers happy — even to the point of helping arrange a pizza delivery to a hungry customer. The longest call so far? Four hours.

3 Rules of High-Velocity Learning

A couple weeks from now, when Shaun White wins his medals at the Vancouver Olympics, you’ll want to remember this video. Because here we get a vivid picture of what’s really beneath his unworldly skills — and it’s not merely gallons of Red Bull. Rather, it’s White’s highly organized method of high-velocity learning — a deep-practice technique that lets him accomplish, as he calculates here, “a couple years of riding in one day.”

So courtesy of Professor White, here are a few lessons that might apply to the art of learning and teaching fast, fluent, complex actions — like playing a new song, trading stocks, making a sales pitch, or (a bit closer to home for me) coaching Little Leaguers.

  • Lesson 1: Start out with the complete move in your head. As White says, it should play like a movie in your mind. Song, sales pitch, soccer trick, whatever — it should be vivid and in HD.
  • Lesson 2: Isolate and compress the key elements. The foam pit is vital, because it allows White to isolate on the moves of the trick itself and not worry about the danger. It allows him the ultimate advantage: to operate in the sweet spot on the edge of his ability; fire circuits, make mistakes, fix them, and fire again (and again, and again) in perfect safety. Danger — whether it’s an icy half-pipe or a live audience — is added last.
  • Lesson 3: Work in a stepwise manner, a little bit farther each time, zooming in and out between the whole trick and its elements. Watch how White does part of the trick on the wall, then the whole thing into the pit, then goes back to the wall, then puts it all together. This back-and-forth isn’t random. White is systematically isolating the move’s key elements, then linking them like so many Legos into one fluent circuit. All fluidity is made of Legos in disguise.

(Special thanks to Jeff Albert.)