In a small gym in Merced, California, I watched my friend and teacher Dr. Chris square off with a kettlebell the size of a small watermelon. He grabbed it, easily swung it up to shoulder-height, and set it back on the rubber mat floor.
“Okay, now you go,” he said.
We were sneaking in a workout at our friend’s gym before her wedding. I was a wedding guest, my wife was a bridesmaid, and the giant dude named Dr. Chris was officiating.
I looked down at my considerably daintier kettlebell, which he had selected for my training. I’d only handled these hunks of iron a couple of times in my life, and this was my first time learning how to swing one.
Kettlebell training is little-known in the United States but it’s growing more popular. It’s similar to weight training except kettlebells are usually lighter, and you do more than merely lift them — you launch them into powerful swings. During our swinging workout, the only time we moved the kettlebells slowly was when we put them down.
I grabbed the bell, did ten swings, and set it on the ground.
“Okay, let’s go,” Dr. Chris said and we walked in a counterclockwise circle around the gym, which was the size of a home’s large living room.
Then he began teaching me. This was a rare privilege. He’s got 30+ years of experience as a coach, training everyone from high school kids to NFL players. He’s also bench pressed 485 pounds for reps — a heavier weight than I’ve ever lifted off of the ground — and he’s not afraid to write about the less politically correct side of sports.
Plus, he helped create what I believe to be one of the more significant scientific studies of the 21st century.
“You’re used to doing Daoist meditation so you’re standing with your feet pretty wide apart. I want you to narrow them,” he said.
We returned to our bells and he did ten reps as I watched.
When my turn came, I put my feet closer together.
“Good,” he said.
Then I did ten swings.
Again, we walked our circle.
“You’re squatting,” he said. “I want you to hinge yourself more. Watch what I’m doing. Bend your knees less.”
When we returned, I watched him swing and noted how, even though it looked like he was simply squatting down, he wasn’t. His body rotated like a hub of a wheel, his arms were twin spokes, and the kettlebell arced like the edge of the wheel. The movement was powered by his hips.
I grabbed my bell, raised it to the starting position, and resisted the urge to bend my knees. Instead, I jammed my butt back and then straightened. The bell flew upward.
We repeated that pattern for ten sets. I watched Dr. Chris swing, and then I swung as he watched me. Then, as we walked, he gave me another tweak to make. During our next set, I watched him swing to see what he described. Then, I focused on embodying that tweak as I swung.
After our swings, we did our morning Daoist meditation practice, locked up the gym, and drove to Paul’s Place Restaurant & Bakery.
Our server piled coffee, an omelet, chicken fried steak & eggs, pancakes, and pie in front of us. We made quick work of it.
As I plowed through delicious piles of pancakes and eggs, I asked him about the learning process we’d just gone through.
“Coaches want to teach you nine things. I cover the most glaring thing first and we don’t move on until you’ve nailed it — until it’s resolved.”
As I thought about every coaching experience I’d ever had, I simultaneously wanted to smile…and beat my head against the syrup-drenched blueberry short stack resting on the counter. But that would be a waste of good pancakes.
How many coaches, either because they don’t pay attention, don’t give it a second thought, or want to prove how smart they are, push their students through eighty-five zillion directions and lessons?
If the students are lucky and paying close attention, they’ll manage to half-memorize a couple of those zillion lessons, half-screw them up, and keep practicing the screw-ups until they’re wired so deep it’d require a baptism to cleanse their bad habits and re-learn them correctly.
That’s if the students are lucky. Usually, they get overwhelmed and remember exactly zero of the zillion lessons.
Some marketers, under the guise of coaching, take advantage of that.
I attended a marketing seminar in New York City where the facilitators piled so much information onto the students that they gave up even before they went home. At first, when a speaker went through his slides too quickly, someone would shout, “Go back!” Eventually, the room grew silent when he lost everyone.
When the event finished, the company offered ongoing mentorship to help everyone implement the “overwhelming amount of information” they’d just learned. The people practically sprained their ankles running to sign up.
My public education was almost fifteen years of getting herded from classroom to classroom for the learning equivalent of information crop-dusting.
I rarely made it to any sort of skill-learning, let alone skill-demonstration — except when it was a byproduct, like writing an essay or giving a speech, which was graded solely on the volume of information delivered and the accuracy thereof.
What a waste.
As I munched on my vegetable omelet, Dr. Chris said, “I was making sure you actually got what I said before we moved on. But you picked things up quickly. You were able to translate what I said into moving your body differently.”
“I think it’s funny you say that. I sucked at sports.”
As soon as the words came out, I questioned how true they were.
Dr. Chris was on the same track as me. “Did you? Let me ask you something. Did your dad play catch with you?”
“No.” And, throughout my not-so-glamorous career of soccer, junior high gym class, and high school football, my coaches never actually taught the skills. They just ordered us to grab whatever sticks and balls were part of the sport and let ‘er rip.
Instead of information crop-dusting, it was closer to Lord of the Flies — we were just supposed to figure it out.
Most kids assigned themselves the role of silent props while the “natural athletes” enhanced their skills even more.
After we finished our breakfast, I ordered an ice cream sundae. The server smeared and splattered the chocolate sauce and whipped cream. “It tastes better when it’s messy,” she said as she plopped it before me.
“Yes, it does,” I said, and dove in. It was magnificent.
As a child, I could be forgiven my lack of skills — I had no coaches who bothered to teach them. In high school, when I was beginning to sprout a brain cell or two, I asked the football coach for some pointers of how I could improve. He brushed me off — although he had the title of coach, he didn’t bother to teach.
Later, I got into weight training but never sought out a coach. My lingering shoulder, knee, and lower back pain was probably a result.
When I developed healthy relationships with coaches, their training followed the pattern demonstrated so clearly with my kettlebell swinging with Dr. Chris.
1. The coach demonstrates.
2. I attempt.
3. I get a lesson.
4. I attempt again.
5. Repeat until success.
Our conversation made me think more about learning. Here’s more of what I’ve learned about learning:
1. It’s normal to require a single, basic lesson at a time.
This is how humans operate. Don’t feel bad if you need to learn this way. And, if you think you can learn faster than this, you’re probably wrong. It’s like those who mistakenly claim they can multitask, yet fail to meet their potential when they do.
2. Question whether you’re a “natural” or whether you suck at something.
Everyone comes into this world with talents and weak spots. I’ve always loved writing, even when teachers scolded me for what I wrote — so even discouragement didn’t stop me.
Many gurus hate the idea of talent because it ruins their “you can do anything you want!” schtick. They react to the idea that talent exists like a cat responds to getting spritzed with water. After that reaction, then I’d invite said guru to sing a song. Any potential argument would get squelched with just a few seconds of auditory torture. You either have talent for singing or you don’t. True, someone could take singing lessons, even if they have no talent, which would mean that, after hours and hours of practice, they’d suck slightly less.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone — I just want to throw a cold water bucket of reality before I apply the feel-good towel of hope. Now that I have, let the toweling begin…
Before you stick to any story of “not being a natural” think about whether you received proper coaching or not. I bet you didn’t. You might have the potential to be a world class singer or a formidable 40+ athlete or an adept mathematician — you just need proper coaching.
Plus, if you do think you’re a natural, think about how many hours you put into your practice. I love writing and I also do it a lot.
3. When you’re learning, resist the urge to speed through information.
Imagine you’re at a buffet and you pile food onto your plate yet you barely bite through half of the food. Someone might lean over and whisper, “Your eyes were bigger than your stomach.” Same with books. Books kick ass but they’ve also screwed up our learning. Your eyes, which can scan hundreds of pages, are bigger than your capacity to usefully absorb information. Heck, you can mentally hear and comprehend every word you read. You can understand the information. Then you’ll forget almost all of it and use exactly none of it.
Instead of plowing through books, use them as a tool. Extract value and use that value. When you do, you’ll find your reading pace will slow to one thing at a time.
This is doubly important if you don’t understand the material in a book. As soon as you come across one thing you’re not sure about, stay where you’re at until you comprehend it. It’s all too easy to move on, which would be like me merrily swinging my kettlebell without properly hinging…and missing out on the exercise’s benefits.
Use this article as a tool. Forget trying to compile five takeaways or even three. Pick one. What’s one valuable thing you can take from reading this? I won’t even suggest one — I’ll leave it to you.
4. When you’re teaching, resist the urge to pile on information.
It’s easy to turn into the dollar-scoop-buffet of information when you’re excited or nervous or just love geeking out on whatever you’re teaching. Or, heck, maybe you simply don’t care. Whatever the reason, your default might be to give and give and give.
Instead, check to make sure your students get it. Give and verify, give and verify. Don’t be surprised when verifying reveals you need to re-teach what you just taught. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher or you’ve got a bumbling student. Actually, your student will end up feeling smart as hell and think you’re a badass coach.
5. Make sure your coach watches you perform
When you’re the student, make sure your coach doesn’t turn into a lecturer. You can get free lectures from YouTube. Make sure your coach watches you work out to correct your form. Make sure they read your writing if you’re a writer, listen to you speak if you’re a speaker, or show up for company meetings if they’re helping your business grow.
Your coach should be holding your feet to the fire for improving your performance. If not, you need to light a match, hand it to your coach, and present your own tootsies. Or get a new coach.
6. Make sure your coach isn’t a slimeball
This, unfortunately, is a crucial part of learning. A slimeball coach can abuse the idea of learning one thing at a time and keeping the lessons basic to hide their incompetence and/or all-around slimeballery.
I’ve had a former mentor who charged people thousands of dollars to listen to him read from a book he’d written. Then, he made sure to film the students lining up to get his autograph.
This mentor also, after drinking a few beers, pontificated on how his female students fantasized about having sex with him.
If you asked him about charging students to listen to him read a book, he might say they got a valuable lesson on how to create an audio product. If you asked him about the sex fantasies, I’m guessing his answer would depend on the amount of beer in his belly.
The point is, you need to trust your coach is doing the right thing when they teach you slowly, or even hold back your lessons, until you’ve demonstrated you’ve nailed it. If they’re slimy in one area, that slime probably oozes to other areas, including onto you.
Great note to end on, eh? Let’s see if a summary can lighten the mood. If you think you’re not a “natural” at something, it might be because you weren’t properly trained, one step at a time. When you learn a new skill, practice a single aspect until you nail it. When you teach a new skill, make sure your students practice single aspects until they nail them. Your slowness will result in rapid learning.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to my garage to swing a bell.