Skill Acquisition/Learning [2]

TEDxCSU talk by Josh Kaufman titled “The first 20 hrs — how to learn anything.”

I believe Josh’s concept of becoming “reasonably good” at a skill within 20 hours is directly applicable to that of athletic performance, especially for athletes – age group or masters – who are just getting started.

Let’s start by picking a sport… say swimming.  What skills do top swimmers need in order to excel?  In general, to compete there are the skills of: dive starts, open and closed turns, finishing into the wall, underwater dolphin kick (UDK) both off the dive start and off each wall, the streamline position, plus knowing how to warm up appropriately, and cool down after a prelim (i.e. between events) versus cooling down at the end of a day of competition within a multi day meet, race strategy, relay strategy, and so on.  These are skills for competing, but before we can compete we need to be able to execute the skills of the actual sport of swimming.

What skills are required to execute each of the 4 strokes?  We can deconstruct the end product in a similar manner as we did with competition to obtain the distinct skills of each stroke: the entry, catch, pull, acceleration, finish and recovery phases are actions performed by the arms.  Add to those skills, timing and placement of breathing, the action of the hips depending on whether its a long axis or short axis stroke, and the action of the legs generating the kick which itself requires coordination, symmetry, awareness of size (both width and height), as well as cadence.  This rudimentary breakdown results in no less than 10 components to a stroke, multiply that times 4 strokes, and you have a minimum of 40 skills. Add the 10 skills required for competition and you have 50 different skills to develop in training.  If you allocate the 20 hrs Josh suggests to each skill, and to be reasonably good at all strokes at a entry level of competition requires approximately 1,000 hrs of training.

An age group athlete or a masters athlete starting out with a goal to be “reasonably good” at all 4 strokes, and able to compete can anticipate – based on how much they train – how long it will take to achieve this goal.  A novice age grouper who trains 10 hrs a week will need 100 weeks to accumulate 1,000hrs, or the equivalent of two and three seasons of training.  A masters athletes training to learn only the basics of the freestyle stroke, (1 stroke x 10 skills) will require approximately 200hrs of training to become “reasonably good”. If they train consistently 3hrs per week then they will need about 70 weeks of training or close to two seasons of training.

The value of this exercise is that it sets appropriate expectations and allows for appropriate goals to be set.  If you have a desired performance level then the commitment in training can be calculated.  This mapping process is useful with parents who are overly ambitious, too eager to have their children compete as it lays out the learning curve of the young athlete. This mapping is equally valuable with enthusiastic athletes disappointed with what appears to be a lack of progress in training, and/or disappointing results from a competition.  By laying out their learning curve, they will know when to expect a specific level of mastery. The value of this exercise is immense as it significantly reduce pressure (applied internally by the individual or externally by parents) allowing the athlete to actually enjoy the sport, and focus on skill acquisition, instead of comparing, judging, and inappropriately evaluating their abilities relative to others.

How do you eat an elephant?    One bite at a time.

Mastering any ability can be overwhelming, but deconstructing the ability into distinct skills, and establishing a clear progression from basic to advanced training of the skills provides the basis for learning and eventually mastery.  If our ‘elephant’ (i.e. goal) is to compete at a national level of the sport, then we can work backwards from the desired outcome reverse engineering the timeline from end, back to start (i.e. today).  By doing so, at any point in time athlete and coach can be confident knowing in the midst of training that although the end product may not be visible, the direction is clear, and progress is undeniable.  It’s easier to arrive at your final destination when you have a map.

The mapping process may seem like its a start pointing, but the process and the tool of mapping doesn’t ever end. It’s the process athletes at the highest level of competition continue to use to remain competitive.

Coach Glen Mills – Usain Bolt’s coach – commented to Usain immediately after his Olympic gold medal and WR 100m race in Beijing that he moved his head around too much, and if it didn’t he would have run faster. It is this appetite for skill development, excellence in technique, for learning, plus the humility to realize that there is no end point which results in legendary athletes and legendary careers.

Formula 1 and Indy car racing are an ideal example of an appetite for technique: F1 and Indy cars are stripped down on a regular basis so that ever detail of the car can be analyzed, modified, with the goal of improving it in some manner, and most of the time minutely.  If athletes stripped down their performances in the same manner, identifying gaps in skill, in technique, in the consistency of execution, and gaps in strategy, imagine the information that they could gain to redesign their training? Imagine if coaches and athletes applied this strip down process to training and competition reviews to map out the focus of future training? What level of peak performance would athletes achieve with this attention to detail, this obsession with excellence?

IndyRyanHunterReayDisassembledWhy don’t we do this more often?  Why do we instead go back and beat on ourselves, convinced that if we only trained harder – not smarter – then we would achieve our goals?  The answer… Josh addresses it in the final moments of his Ted talk.

BTW… here is Axis of Awesome with their ‘original‘ piece called the 4 chord song which Josh references in his Tedx talk: