In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice

In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice
By Alexandra Kurland
written October 2014

I wrote this article originally for my on-line clicker training course.  It’s a thirty page article so for this blog I have broken it up into 9 parts.  

Part 1: “The Talent Code”

This is the first installment in a nine part article
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Clinic Fun: Let the Equines Watch While the Humans Learn

Discovering Why Things Work
I love finding books that agree with me!  Who doesn’t.  It’s good to get outside confirmation that you are very much on the right track, especially when the track you are on is one you are pioneering. The horses tell us when we’ve chosen well, but they can’t always explain why something is working.  That’s been the case with many elements in my work.  I often know something works before I have figured out why.  For example: we know the click in clicker training is powerful.  Jaak Panksepp helped us to understand why.  The puzzle solving nature of clicker training sparks the SEEKER system, one of seven core emotional systems he has identified.

Another example are the bone rotations.  The horses told me that they worked, but I needed a t’ai chi specialist to help me understand why and to spot the universality of bone rotations in so much of horse handling.  Even something as basic as how you deliver treats has a bone rotation embedded in it.  When you discover the rotation and include it in your food delivery techniques, your horse has a much better shot at developing good treat taking manners.

The horses could tell me that letting them take a nap while the humans practiced their rope handling skills was a good thing.  That seems obvious enough.  Working out what you are going to do before you apply it to the horses makes sense.  After reading Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code”, I now have a much deeper understanding of why.  I also have an even greater appreciation for the teaching process that I have been developing over the last twenty odd years.

The Talent Code
One of the long held beliefs of our society is that some people are simply born more talented than others.  Pick a great sports star.  We believe that person was born with the talent that let him run faster, jump higher.  Or pick a world class musician or dancer.  Those individuals have some innate talent that lets them play a violin better than anyone else, or dance more beautifully.  Yes, they had to learn their art. They had to practice – but there was some special, innate gift that set them apart from all the others who were learning and practicing. Or was there?

Certainly genes are a factor.  If your genes are coded for five feet not seven, it will be hard to become the next world class basketball star, but there are plenty of seven foot players who never make it to greatness.  What is the difference between them and the people whose names we know?

Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”, provides answers to this question.  Coyle would say it comes down to three elements which he calls: deep practice, ignition and master coaching.  All three come together to build skills.  In his book Coyle described what he referred to as talent hotspots: training centers that have produced an exceptionally large number of superstars.  He described a tennis camp in Russia that has produced many of the world’s top players.  Students don’t spend their training time out on a court hitting balls.   Instead they are lined up in rows, like so many ballet dancers, practicing their swing – without rackets, without balls.  He described a music camp not far from where I live that ranks among its alumni Yo Yo Ma and Isaak Perlman.  Students there practice music so slowly that it becomes unrecognizable.  Familiar pieces sound more like the drawn out notes of a whale song than anything you would hear in a concert hall.

These practices grabbed my attention.  They were so familiar.  This is how I teach.  Like the tennis players who learn their technique first without a racket in hand, I have people learn their handling skills while their horses take a nap in their stalls.  And like the music students who slow down their music to reveal every note, we slow movement down to reveal every weight shift. I have been developing these teaching techniques over thirty years of teaching.  I know they work.  I see it in the elegant dance that emerges between horse and handler as their skills are perfected.  Now Coyle’s book has helped me to understand better why this approach works so well

It turns out that talent isn’t something you are born with.  It’s something you build.

Coming Soon: Part 2: The Myelin Factor

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