Month: February 2012

The Talent Builders

Two related news items from last week: Tom Martinez died, and Jeremy Lin kept succeeding.

1) Most people haven’t heard of Tom Martinez. The obituaries mention that he coached at a small school in California; he worked with a succession of quarterbacks who became great, most prominently Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Martinez is described as Brady’s “guru” because Brady visited Martinez most years for a tuneup.  They also mention the amazing fact that Martinez also coached  three sports (football, softball, basketball), and achieved more than 1,700 wins, 32 championships, with never a losing season.

I spent a few days with Martinez reporting The Talent Code. Of all the master teachers I met, he might have been the most masterful. I remember him telling me how he taught himself to be a good teacher — “I trained my eyes to be a camera,” was how he put it. I remember how curious he was about the Little League baseball team I was coaching; how he grabbed my notebook out of my hand so he could diagram a drill for me to use. (I did use it; it worked fantastically well.) I remember how much deep pleasure he got in watching Tom Brady perform; I also remember the even deeper pleasure he got from helping a mediocre player improve to become average, or even excellent.

2) Last week, as the entire planet is aware, Jeremy Lin kept succeeding. His miracle story — from overlooked nobody to multitalented all-star — captivates us. But if you scratch the glossy surface, you can see that it’s anything but a miracle. In fact, (as this terrific story shows) Lin’s talents have been constructed with the help of a group of teachers and coaches — Doc Scheppler, Stephen Silas, Kenny Atkinson, Eric Musselman, and Phil Wagner — his own crew of anonymous, invisible Tom Martinezes. Lin’s success hasn’t been fueled by some gift, but rather by a sustained act of cooperation and construction: intensive, targeted workouts over the past two years to build the exact skills he’s now showing the world.

Great teachers and coaches are mostly invisible. But the truth is, nobody builds their talent alone. We’re all standing on the shoulders of the people who taught us, who designed the spaces where we learned. Finding ways to find, define, and celebrate those underappreciated people might be one of the most powerful things we can do.

Should Coaches and Teachers Have a PreFlight Checklist?

Pilots have checklists. Doctors and nurses have patient-care checklists. Not because they’re dummies but because they are smart enough to know that they’re in a performance business. They know that a good checklist is not a crutch — it’s a tool.

The real question is, if checklists are good for pilots and doctors, why not teachers and coaches? With that in mind, here’s what it might look like, based on the master coaches with whom I’ve spent time.


Before all else, establish the emotional connection. Show you are there, and that you care; take a moment to acknowledge your shared connection, to build togetherness and trust. Practice requires energy; this is where you turn the key and start the engine.

  • Do: Make a joke, get personal, tell a story, ask a question.
  • Don’t: Launch straight into activity.
  • Dashboard Gauge: Have you made good eye contact with everyone?


Practice is about reaching, and to do it well, everybody needs to know exactly what they’re reaching for. Not vague goals, like “working hard” and “getting better,” but concrete, tangible, measurable targets like “playing that song all the way through,” or “converting more headers off corner kicks” or “nailing the sales pitch in 20 seconds.” You cannot be too clear.

  • Do: Use models and mimickry to show the target.
  • Don’t: Set unreasonably high goals. Aim for something just beyond current ability.
  • Dashboard Gauge: Could a complete stranger walk up to practice, watch for a few minutes, and figure out the goal?


Have you planned a practice that places people on the edge of their ability, making and fixing mistakes? Is practice designed to maximize struggle for the maximum number of people? (In other words, no groups of kids standing in line, waiting around to kick a ball.)

  • Do: Celebrate struggle.
  • Don’t: Celebrate success (it speaks for itself).
  • Dashboard Gauge: Does your peoples’ success percentage in the 50-70 percent range — neither dispiritingly difficult nor too easy, but in the sweet spot on the edge of current ability?

What’s interesting in part about this checklist is what’s not there — inspiring speeches, pep talks, all the Hollywood stuff. This is not because they never occur, but because inspiring speeches are a terribly inefficient way to learn. Learning happens when you create a space where people work together, reach toward a goal; when you make the kind of human connection that keeps people coming back again and again, wanting to reach a little farther.

How to Spot High-Quality Learning? The Nose Knows.

So here’s a question: does high-quality learning — by which I mean deep, deliberate practice — create a telltale facial expression, sort of like what a poker player would call a “tell”?

And if it does, can we use that tell as a guide?

In the book I talk about the “Clint Eastwood faces” I encountered in my reporting at the hotbeds. But lately I’ve been looking more deeply at those faces — the long, intense gaze, the tight mouth, the furrowed brow. One feature that seems to show up every time, whether in violin students or martial artists or algebra students: flared nostrils.

I know it sounds kind of strange. But maybe there’s a deeper biological mechanism going on here. Daniel Kahneman, in his great book Thinking, Fast and Slow, points out that our eyes dilate noticeably and uncontrollably when we concentrate on solving difficult problems. There’s also evidence that other automatic expressions — for instance, the tongue protruding slightly from the lips — have the benefit of immobilizing speech and thus improving concentration. Flared nostrils might be part of a larger set of advantageous reflexes, part of our evolution-built “focus face” we use when we employ all our mental energy to work through tough problems.

So if the nose knows, the real question is, can this knowledge be applied?

One idea: treat the flare like a flashing neon sign that says “Good Practice Happening Here.” That is, if you spot the flare, leave the practicer alone — they’re already in the zone on the edge of their ability where learning happens fastest. And if you don’t see it, alter the environment to create more reaching, more stretching, more failing and fixing. (Of course, this applies more in music and school than in sports, where noses tend to be moving around too fast to watch.)

The other question is, what other tells have you noticed? How do you know when a learner is “in the zone”?

The Senator Experiment

The other day I got a call out of the blue from a U.S. Senator (who’ll remain anonymous here), with an interesting problem: he wanted to get better at his job. Quick background: he’s in his mid-fifties, and not a career politician; he’s not in danger of being defeated in an election, so he figures he’s going to be in D.C. for a while. The Senator was essentially asking a strange and fascinating question: was there a way he could practice being a better senator?Here’s how he described his goal:

“I want to become one of those people who “gets” big issues — who can frame them quickly and talk about them in clear, compelling ways. I want to be one of those senators who might only say a few words, but to whom people listen because their words cut through the clutter and capture the essence of an issue.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. The question seemed kinda crazy. Then we talked some more. It gradually became clear that the people who do well in this area essentially possess 3 distinct skills: 1) recognize a pattern in the landscape; 2) choose a strategy; 3) communicate that strategy to others.

We’re talking, of course, about soft skills. This is not like learning to play an E-major chord or shoot a free throw (see previous post) — it’s not about repeating with precision. It’s more like learning to be a jazz singer, or salesperson, or an improv comic — building a fast, fluent brain capable of choosing exactly the right sequence, at speed, out of thousands of possibilities. The question the Senator is asking is the same one most of us face: what’s the best way to practice soft skills? We kicked around some ideas and here’s what we came up with:

  • 1) To improve pattern recognition and choice, practice like a soccer player: consider creating “game films.” Pick a recent Big Issue — for example, the financial crisis — and do an analysis of how each of the key figures behaved. Walk through the events in slo-mo; recreate their decision patterns, and learn from them. Figure out how you would want to behave in that kind of situation.
  • 2) To improve the ability to distill issues to their essence, practice like a comedy writer: start generating material, test it out, keep what works. Political communication is like any other communication; it’s about distilling and framing — figuring out just the right combination of images and words to tell your story. One good tool is Twitter: the discipline of the 140-character limit enforces the principle: it’s easy to be complex — the true challenge is to get good at taking immensely complex issues and making them simple, compelling and accessible.
  • 3) Set aside some daily time and space for practice, and start keeping a journal to record ideas, results, and to make plans.

I’ve no idea how this is going to go, but it feels like a potentially interesting experiment. The Senator said he’ll keep me posted as to how things are going. So feel free to offer any other suggestions, and post them below. Who knows? If this takes off, he might have to call you “coach”!

The 50-Yr-Old Basketball Hacker-Genius

I love this story (click to watch the above video). It’s about Bob Fisher of Centralia, KS (pop: several), who decided at age 50 to become the best free-throw shooter on the planet. And then he went out and simply did it. It’s worth a look, especially to see the homemade contraptions he uses to build his remarkable skill (I also like that he mentions a certain book at the 2:45 mark).
There are lots of useful takeaways here, but what I like best is Fisher’s mindset. He’s active. He doesn’t rely on any one source of wisdom; instead, he reads everything he can get his hands on, tests it ruthlessly, keeps what works. His mindset is not one you typically find in an athlete or musician (who often have passive, obedient, “whatever you say, coach” attitudes).
Fisher’s mindset is like one you’d find in a hacker: searching, resourceful, always willing to invent and re-invent. He’s living proof that talent isn’t about obedience to authority — it’s about being entrepreneurial, about taking charge, seeking out good information, and hacking until you get where you want to go. As Fisher so beautifully puts it, “Anybody could do what I do, if they know what I know.”
PS – Just got a nice note from Bob. Guess what he calls the basement contraption? “The Myelin Accelerator.”

Everybody’s Doing the Flip

So there’s a Big Exciting Idea that’s been whizzing around the educational oxygen recently. It’s called “flipping the classroom.” Bill Gates is a fan; so is Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman, an advisor to President Obama.

Here’s how it works: In regular classrooms the teacher stands at the front of the room and explains, the kids listen and absorb. Then they go home and do homework — the problem sets, the paper-writing, etc.

In a flipped classroom, the situation is reversed. First, the learners absorb the lecture at home, often via a video. Classroom time is devoted to doing the homework — grappling with the material, solving problems. Instead of being a sage on the stage, the teacher is a guide on the side, roving like a personal coach, spotting problems, giving individualized attention and guidance. Class time is about active construction, productive struggle and exploration.

Proponents of flipping make the point that video is a more efficient way to deliver lectures, because, unlike teachers, they can be rewound and watched until they’re understood. Doing homework in class works better because teachers can help students struggle through problems they might otherwise abandon, if alone at home.

The interesting thing about flipped classrooms isn’t just that they seem to work, especially for hard skills like math and science. It’s that the concept is flexible enough to be applied to other situations. Such as:

  • In sports — why not flip the locker room? Coaches could deliver theories, strategies, game plans, and fundamentals via video, and spend practice time actually working on the skills.
  • In music — why not flip the music stand? Teachers could deliver music theory over video, and spend the practice time putting it to use.
  • In the workplace — why not flip training session? Instead of listening to lectures, time could be spent practicing real-life on-the-job skills.

I like flipping because it’s a nice way to highlight a home truth: sitting still and listening to someone talk is a demanding and inefficient way to learn. Learning is ultimately about doing — about struggling and reaching, often with the guidance of a good coach — and the highest goal of a teacher is to design a space that makes that happen.

In other words, teachers aren’t really teachers — they are designers. As Einstein put it, “I never teach my students; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they learn.”

So the next question is, what can you flip in your world?