In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 8

Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”

This is the eighth installment in a nine part series.  If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 7, 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 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”:
This section looks at the three tiers of deep practice Coyle identifies in “The Talent Code”

Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”

3 layer square cake

Deep Practice – The Three Tiers
In the talent hotbeds Coyle visited he observed that deep practice was three tiered.  First, the learners looked at the task as a whole – what was the mega-circuit they were attempting to learn? Second, they chunked things down.  Third they played with time.

The First Deep Practice Tier: Find A Look That Pleases Your Eye
You have to have some sense of what you are building before you can begin.  This can be a challenge in the horse world.  So often what we see around us is not what we want.  You can watch world class competition and walk away shaking your head, saying: why would anyone want to spend so much time, effort and money to achieve that?  You see the wringing tails, the tight jaws, the unhappy horses.  If that’s the whole, why would I want to study the parts?

I was lucky in that I did find a visual image that made my heart sing, and I was even luckier that I was able to spend many hundreds of hours watching good training, absorbing the images of beautiful movement.  But I know that’s not the only way to achieve this.  A single photo pinned to a bathroom mirror where it is seen every day can inspire and help train the eye.

Whether it’s a photo, a video, someone you saw riding who inspired you, find a look that pleases your eye.  You don’t have to know why it pleases you.  It doesn’t even have to be performance oriented.  Perhaps it is a picture of someone sharing a quiet moment with their horse, sitting beside them while the horse takes a nap, or walking together down a country lane.  Collect these images.  Make them your screen saver, pin them up on your kitchen cupboards, stick them to your refrigerator, put them on your desk at work.  Let these images accumulate and inspire.  Over time they will fill in the picture of the mega circuits that you are trying to create.

We are prewired to imitate.  Filling your life with these images will allow this process to occur almost without your being aware of it.  But because we are pre-wired to imitate be care full of the images you watch.  Normally this is written careful, but I want to emphasize this point.  Be full of care.  Especially today with such easy access to all kinds of images via youtube, in your search for your own state of excellence, be care full what you watch.  If you find within a few seconds of watching a dressage ride, that you aren’t liking what you see, turn it off.  You don’t need to watch it through to the end.  When you focus on what you don’t like, you’re still absorbing those images and myelinating those circuits.

When you find images you like, that’s the time to linger, to let them permeate through you and become part of you. When you practice, you will find yourself mirroring those images even if at first you aren’t aware that you are.

Mirror Neurons
When I first began teaching, I taught private lessons.  I loved those lessons – until I started teaching clinics and then I liked them even more. There are many advantages to private training, but there is one huge disadvantage – people aren’t engaged in deep practice observation.  During the clinics people get to watch each other.  There is a huge gain in learning efficiency when you have seen several other people working through a particular lesson before you attempt it yourself.  I’ve know many horse people who tell me they can’t learn by watching.  They have to be doing to learn.  I always think what a hard belief system they are creating for their horse.

We are wired to imitate – all of us.  That’s been another interesting discovery – mirror neurons.  They fire as we watch someone else perform.  When I watch great figure skaters, I feel different afterwards.  It is as if I had been out on the ice jumping with them.  I don’t know how to skate, but I don’t just see the triple axel, I feel it.  We are wired to imitate. Part of the training process in clinics is learning to become a better visual learner.  How do you watch so that you see the small details that are important?  How do you watch so that you also feel the movement?

The Second Deep Practice Tier: Chunking Things Down
Second, they chunked this circuit down into the smallest possible units.  In clicker training I would say for every step that you find, no matter how small it may seem, there is ALWAYS a smaller step that you can break something down into.  We want to keep thin slicing and thin slicing until we find a step where we can get a consistent, clean loop of behavior.  If we find bobbles, mistakes, resistance, “no” answers, the slice we’re looking at is still too large.  Looking at training from the perspective of myelin makes clean loops all the more important.  You want to be insulating pathways that fire off patterns you want to build.  If you allow in little bobbles, little bits of almost-good-enough-but-not-quite, those errors will become insulated along with everything else.  They will become stronger, easier to access, harder to avoid.  Remember, myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap.  A habit formed is a habit kept.

The Third Deep Practice Tier: Playing With Time
The third element Coyle identified was “playing with time” – “slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn the inner architecture.”  In clinics we put the horses away and practice our handling skills, slowing down, speeding up our movements to learn the secrets of good balance.  At a Russian tennis school that has produced numerous top players there is one court only.  Players learn not by playing, or even hitting balls, but by swinging imaginary rackets.

At clinics we put the horses away and we practice our handling skills, miming the actions with only imaginary ropes in our hands.

At the Russian tennis school students practice without rackets “rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball.  All players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros. . . There are no private lessons. Students practice in a line. . . It looked like a ballet class; a choreography of slow, simple, precise motions with an emphasis on technique.”

None of the students are permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of their study.  “Technique is everything.”

At clinics technique is everything because that is what the horses have told us.  They notice everything, so details matter.  How you hold a lead matters.  How you stand, how you breathe – horses notice so we need to as well.

At a music camp that has produced such great musicians as Yo Yo Ma and Isaak Perlman the instructors cut up sheet music into strips.  The strips are then thrown into a hat and the students pull out at random the line they will be working on.  They don’t just learn to play it as we will eventually hear it.  They slow it down to glacial speed, slower than many of the students would ever have thought possible.  The music becomes unrecognizable – more like whale songs with long drawn out notes than anything you would hear in a concert hall.

Playing this slowly reveals mistakes in technique that playing faster would hide, but accumulate enough of those mistakes and even someone as non-musical as I am will begin to notice.  Eliminate them through these deep practice techniques and what myelin begins to insulate is the perfection of world class performance.

I have learned horse handling by slowing myself down and attending to details.  In the “t’ai chi walk” which we practice at clinics I am sure there are many who don’t see the point. “How can you work horses like this?”  People who are new to this process feel awkward stepping out so deliberately, so slowly.  They bobble from side to side as they try to follow my lead.  It feels awkward and unfamiliar.  “How much longer do we have to do this?”  I know, I know, but the ones who stay the course see their horses change.  Now we have a good explanation for why this happens and it is based in neuroscience. Or should I say myelin science.

When you work slowly, “you attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing. . . When it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. . .  It’s not how fast you can do something.  It’s how slow you can do it correctly.”

Going slow also helps the learner develop a “working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints — the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”  Here’s what that means.  When you work slowly you are observing, judging, adjusting your own performance.  You are becoming your own coach.

I can teach you the overall technique, but I can’t possibly tell you every little adjustment YOU need to make in order to handle a horse well.  I couldn’t write out instructions that are detailed enough and specific enough to your situation – and even if I could, you wouldn’t be able to remember and follow them.  So I give you a process.  I show you how to step away from your horse and enter the world of deliberate, deep practice.  I show you how to use the t’ai chi walk, to slow everything down so you can observe how YOU move.  I show you how to become your own best coach, and in doing so I liberate both you and your horse from a dependency on constant external coaching.  Now you can learn together, teaching each other what it means to flow together.

Deliberate deep practice takes you to excellence.

Coming Soon: Part 9: Practice Excellence

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