Skill Acquisition/Learning [7]

Earlier this year, as a family we were watching the World Gymnastic Championships from Scotland. When Canadian athlete Elizabeth Black was performing her floor routine, the sports commentator made a series of statements that stood out:

“Wow what a move! You cannot teach that, you cannot learn that, that… you just have to have.”

It took awhile before it dawned on me, before I heard what the commentator said, before I realized that we hear this sort of commentary all the time. Whenever we watch sports we are flooded with: “they [the athlete] were born that way”, “they are natural athletes”, “they possess something that no one else does”, “what they do looks easy because it comes easy to them”, and so on.

Its not true.  Its diarrhea commentators spew when they cannot relate to the level of excellence happening before them.

I sat there thinking to myself how many kids watching these athletes compete, and instead of hearing growth mindset opportunities, instead of being inspired, instead of hearing how these athletes train, how these athletes learn skills, routines, techniques, train day in day out, how these athletes review videos of their own performances and those of competitors in order to refine; kids are marketed fixed mindset thinking. Kids are marketed that they have to be born knowing how to execute sport specific skills. Seriously? Kids who end up Olympians popped out knowing how to swim butterfly, how to do a reverse triple from the 10m platform from a handstand, how to pace a cross country race, execute complex martial art skills, bicycle kick a soccer ball for a winning goal? Bulls#!t. Its worse then bulls#!t, because its disrespectful to dismiss years and years and years of training as if nothing was ever sacrificed, nothing was ever missed, that it was all sunshine, rainbows, unicorns, and nothing was ever challenging for these athletes, like they never had doubts, disbelief, difficulty, failed attempts.

How many parents watching are unconsciously marketed that unless their kids came out successful, that unless their kids come out swimming, skateboarding, running, horseback riding right to the podium, then there is little to no chance of them ever deciding to, training for, or becoming anything.

I sat there thinking to myself, for how many years have we been watching sports only to have the slightest dreams, the smallest hopes, the tiniest glimmer of inspiration killed by the words of a sports commentator.

What kids and parents need to hear is that top athletes are no different from them. They once wondered if they could be good at something, they started from scratch, learning the basics. That everyone starts and builds their way up.  No, there isn’t one path that everyone takes to success, we each have a different path because certain skill sets come more quickly and easily to us than to others, because we each have different interests and inclinations, but that doesn’t place anything out of reach or make it impossible.

Why do we want to distance peak performance from the imagination and belief of our kids? Why do we not strive to eliminate that gap, teaching that success is a matter of acquiring a set of skills, training those skills through endless repetition until they are embedded deeply into our minds, and then testing ourselves in competition to set how much we have been able to assemble, and what still needs work.  Why not teach that success is not a place but a process, a process that once learnt in one area can serve as a template for anything else allowing success to be a lifestyle not a once in a lifetime occurrence eventually dismissed as luck.

Why not showcase that success is a decision: a decision available to anyone who has the courage, the guts, the drive, the determination, the will, the humility, the openness to show up on day one, to start at square one, to fail, to get up and take another step, and then another, at their pace, not give up when things doesn’t come quickly and just keep going.

Rory_McIlroy_01c Rory_McIlroy_02aRory McIlroy + TigerNike does a great job with the above advert showing Rory McIlroy become inspired watching the game of golf on TV as a young boy, then practicing with plastic clubs, then real clubs indoors, then outdoors. In the final shot, Rory is walking shoulder to shoulder with Tiger Woods in a PGA event, bringing his dream into reality. Awesome!

Success is a process, a process of acquiring skills one after another available to anyone who wants it. Beyond that, its a matter of desire and follow through. That’s it.

Recently while watching the X-Games, I heard a commentator state that a particular skateboarder is a new talent, has abilities that no other skater has, was simply born amazing. That commentator handed over the broadcast to an interviewer standing with that same skateboarder. Replying to the statement made regarding their natural born greatness, the skateboarder shared, “I just train, I don’t stop training. I train and train and train. Its not natural.”  Finally, truth!

We need to stop listening to the bulls#!t sports media spews, and start listening to the athletes.  They will tell you the truth… they will tell you, they weren’tborn this way“, they trained and trained and trained and that’s how they got to be the way they are. They didn’t start special, but the decisions they made daily definitely made them special.

As a family, we now turn down the audio while watching sports so that we only hear the sound of the sport: the pop of the tennis ball, the whistle of a ref, the roar of fans after a scoring effort. Its made sport so much more enjoyable to watch.