When obvious turns out to be wrong

Skating and Classic loipe

Skating and Classic loipe

There are two styles of cross country skiing. ‘Freestyle’, which looks like ice skating on long narrow skis and ‘classic’ which looks more like running and the skis move in a straight line. Both share the same track or ‘loipe’ but the classic technique makes use of two parallel grooves, also known as the ‘spoor’, cut into the snow on the side of the loipe. (see photo)

When it comes to going downhill on cross country skis then it is obvious that you make full use of the spoor to guide you down. It acts like rails and helps keeps you on track. At least that is what I thought until this week.

There is tricky downhill section on my local course which includes a turn and nasty camber. I regularly take at least one tumble navigating this section using the spoor (i'm a classic skier). So just for the hell of it I decided to go down the hill on the smooth part of the loipe – no guide rails here. Strangely I got to the bottom without falling over. The next lap I repeated the trick and started doing the same on other hills with similar results.

It turns out that the safety net of the spoor was actually reducing my ability to adapt and correct for any bumps/ice/overbalancing etc. Any mistake in the groove immediately threw me onto my face. On the smooth loipe, which should have been harder, I actually more freedom to adjust.

Its got me thinking, what other obvious solutions might also be wrong?

Use it or lose it

This week I went to Yoga for the first time in a month. Summer holidays, mine and the teacher’s, had meant a break. The class was a horror show for me. My strength had declined, co-ordination was all over the place and as for my balance…

In contrast I also did running drills for the first time in month. They were smooth and with no discernible quality difference from a month ago. So what was going on?

Yoga is a newish skill for me in the last couple of years. I practice once or twice a week with gaps here and there when I’m away on business. The result is that the movement patterns aren’t yet burned into my deep memory. Any let up in practice and I quickly start to go backwards in my skill level.

Running is a different game. I’ve been doing it since I was 18 months old. I’ve practiced specific technical drills countless times. The nerve cells in the relevant pathways are coated deeply in myelin and the complex skills of those drills are now as good as unforgettable.

Sport shines a bright spotlight on this learning regression when we miss practice but what about less visible skills. The kind of stuff we ‘learn’ on training courses at work and then practice only periodically while kidding ourselves and our boss that we really have improved.

Great training may start with an inspiring experience to show us new skills and get us going but it requires sustained, focused practice over an extended period of time to really shift our skill level to the point where it becomes automatic. It is one of the big challenges of the time for businesses - how to create that learning environment for employees (and suppliers, customers and freelancers?). There is much that can be learned from elite performers in sport and the arts when it comes to designing learning programs.

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Making it look easy

Watch any master at work and they make it look easy. Lang Lang playing piano, Eliud Kipchoge racing a marathon, Sir Ian McKellen acting in the West End. You know that they have worked for years honing their craft to a level most people can’t even imagine.

Even folks who are just pretty good; like the local road running matador and those guys who make cool youtube videos that you wish you could replicate were once ordinary until they started to learn and improve.

What marks out all these people from the ordinary Joe is that they are prepared to stretch themselves. They seek out new knowledge from teachers, people who inspire them and have been there before. They work on their craft relentlessly, trying out new things, getting feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Over time their reward is increasing mastery.

Not of all of us can become a Lang Lang, Eliud or Sir Ian. But many of us aren’t even pushing to explore the limits of our potential. What could happen if we sought out a teacher and worked on improving our craft?