In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 7

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice

This is the seventh installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 6, you should begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on Nov. 16, 2014.

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.

Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.

Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?

Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.  It’s also good myelin building.  You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice:
In clicker training we break lessons down into thin slices.  It turns out in talent hotspots, they do the same thing.

Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice

Harrison magic hands top of hill

Chunking Things Down – Pattern Recognition
I have always used the term chunking down.  “You want to chunk down that lesson into many small steps.”  I know some prefer to think of thin slicing.  For them a chunk is a big unit.  You have a big chunk of cement.  But a chunk, even when it is made of cement is still only a part of the whole.  You are holding a block of cement in your arms – not the whole wall.  I’m not alone in using the term “chunking”.  Coyle used it when referring to the process of breaking training down that he saw in all the talent hotspots.  To understand how important it is to break skill acquisition down into smaller units he used as his example learning how to read.

“We rode our horses out on a trail.”

If I asked you to remember this sentence, it would be easy.  It has three main conceptual chunks: “We rode”, “our horses”, “out on a trail” are each chunks.

But if you are just learning how to read, these chunks are too big to be processed.  These chunks are made up of smaller chunks: the letters are smaller chunks that you combine to create phonetic combinations that form words.

The pattern of four opposing diagonal lines forms a smaller chunk yet that you learn to recognize as the letter W.

Coyle had a great image for this: “each chunk nests neatly inside another group like so many sets of Russian dolls.  Your skill at reading is the skill of packing and unpacking the chunks – or to put it in myelin terms of firing patterns of circuits  – at lightening speed. . . Skills are the nested accumulation of small discrete circuits.”

A gymnast learns a floor routine by assembling it “via a series of chunks, which in turn are made up of other chunks.  He’s grouped a series of muscle movements together in exactly the same way that you grouped a series of letters together to form words. Fluency happens when the gymnast repeats the movements often enough that he knows how to process those chunks as one big chunk. . . When he fires his circuits to do a backflip, the gymnast doesn’t have to think, Okay, I’m going to push off with my legs, arch my back, tuck my head into my shoulders, and bring my hips around. . . He simply fires the backflip circuit that he’s built and honed through deep practice. . . . When chunking has been done effectively, it creates a mirage. . . Top performers look incomprehensibly superior, yet they aren’t so different from ordinary performers as they seem.  What separates these two levels is not innate superpower but a slowly accrued act of construction and organization: the building of a scaffolding, bolt by bolt, circuit by circuit, or to put it in terms of myelin – wrap by wrap.”

I learned a long time ago at clinics never to predict who was going to become a clicker superstar.  I might have four complete newbies to the clicker process, each one struggling over the simplest of skills.  I might want to say that the person with the well put together sport horse who was starting out with some decent horse handling skills would   go further that the complete beginner who was tripping over her own feet, terrified of her own shadow never mind her horse. But you never know.  That first person could be at a huge disadvantage.  She might have just enough skills and enough of a comfort level with horses that she skips over the deep practice part of learning new skills.  She becomes competent, but not great and her interest in clicker training wanes.  The payback isn’t enough to hold her interest.

The novice handler has to work for everything.  She has to engage in deep practice just to learn to put on a halter or to hold a lead.  As a result she finds herself leap frogging past her more skilled counterpart.  She not only stays with clicker training, the next time she attends a clinic, it’s to show off her superstar clicker horse.


Mauritz on haflinger Franzi's son

Most of us have forgotten what it was like to be a beginner rider struggling to find our balance on the back of a moving horse.  We’ve forgotten how awkward it felt to use the reins, to try to turn or stop the horse.  We may still be taking lessons, we may still be learning new skills, but that initial total beginner stage of awkwardness is well behind us and thankfully forgotten.  But you can easily bring it back.  If you only get on and off from the left side of your horse, next time you ride try getting off on the right.  You’ll suddenly feel a blank canvas of nerve connections.  It isn’t automatic at all.  How do you even begin? How do you tell your left leg to swing over the saddle?  Try to perform any skill other than the way you have programmed it in, and you will feel that blank-slate effect.  That’s what it’s like to be a beginner with unformed, unmyelinated neural pathways.

For years I boarded my horses at a lesson barn for beginners.  I had around me constant reminders of what it was like to learn how to ride. I saw the uncertainty, the awkwardness, the accumulating errors and regrettable habits.  There was no deep-practice training in this program.  The riders gained a level of competence but no one ever rose to the level of expert rider.  You might say that’s because no one wanted to achieve that level of performance excellence – but how do we know?  Why shouldn’t everyone have the same opportunity to gain excellence in whatever area their passion takes them?  Those young riders were putting in the time.  They came week after week for their lessons.  But they never really got to feel what it is like to flow in total harmony with their horses. They never discovered the joy of feeling as though you are moving as one fluid being.  Feeling the strength, the power, the athleticism, the spirit of horses was beyond the experience of their weekly lessons.  If asked, they might say this isn’t why they came every week, but that is only because they didn’t know that this deeper level of experience was possible.

The gift of the gifted few is not their genes.  It is the chance encounters that lead them to deep practice and the opportunity for excellence that grows out of it.

Coming Soon: Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”

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