Embrace the suck!

  |   Coaching, Planning, Psychology, Training

As humans and athletes we’re all on a continuous path of education, re-education and development both cognitively and physically. Just when you think you know how to do something, some new technology comes along to make it better, faster or more efficient (supposedly!) and just when you think you’re mastering a new skill, your coach comes along and tells you there’s another level. When that happens, what do you do? Your attitude to this scenario will have a massive impact on your ability to learn, develop and master those next level skills. Do you embrace the opportunity and accept that you’re a beginner again, recalling previous learning processes or stay content in ignorance and stick with what you know because hey, it got me this far and it works?

There’s a well known model for how we acquire new skills which starts us all off in the same place – Unconscious Incompetence. This basically means you don’t even know that you don’t know how to do it yet. It’s laughable to look back on but everyone has to start somewhere, right?

With a bit of specific practice though we can move ourselves upwards and onwards to Conscious Incompetence, that awkward place where you know you’re doing it wrong but still can’t quite get it right. You suck and you know it, how depressing is that?! With many athletes I encounter who have come from different disciplines, or are tackling a new sport as an adult, this stage is easily the most difficult to progress beyond. It takes a lot of persistent and deliberate practice to progress, which for those who already have abilities in other areas can be endlessly frustrating. I see it all the time and have similar conversations with many athletes who can’t see beyond where they are, are in a rush to be expert and try to skip the fundamentals that are the foundation of advanced performance and all too quickly hit the ceiling of their abilities. When this happens the frustration really kicks in and out come the excuses. How many times have you heard someone say “Oh, I just can’t do that…”, when what they really meant was “I’m frustrated trying to learn that skill and have given up”. If you’re new to a sport, or still learning, be honest with yourself, was it you who said it?

Conscious Incompetence is generally so frustrating for adults because things were learnt much easier as a child, in general because you often weren’t focussed specifically on learning them in the way you now are, what with all that wisdom, opinion and intelligence you’ve acquired. For many people it’s just embarrassing to not be good at something and the ego can’t take it. For others, the patience runs out first and the motivation and drive diminishes. For those who understand what a bit of time spent embracing the suck and building the fundamentals provides however, the potential for future development is significantly expanded, those basic skills will both provide the springboard to the next step and support everything you’ll go on to do as your competency increases.

For those who do continue the journey and arrive at Conscious Competence, it’s a great reward, but there’s still work to be done. You know how to do it at this point, but it still takes some concentration to execute those new skills and make them second nature. Like everything in life, nothing good comes easy and the deliberate practice must continue. Between this stage and the last stage, as an adult learner you’ll typically spend a very large portion of your time in these areas as you work to improve and progress. It can be a grind at times, which is why your attitude to learning is such a huge part of your development. If you understand the learning curve it’s much easier to stay the course. The key thing for motivation is to recognise the steps in progress and development as you go. Your sights may be on mastering some complex skills but the acquisition of smaller techniques along the way are what leads to that final ability. As a coach, so much of what I do is helping people plot out their route to that end goal and helping keep them on the path along the way.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, embrace the suck, it’s what’s going to make you.

And with that, and a lot more dedicated practice, we arrive at Unconscious Competence. Those silky new skills are now second nature, you don’t even have to think about them as you perform, leaving you to concentrate on bigger, better, even more complicated things. You didn’t really think you’d mastered it all already did you?…

Stay Positive.

Coach K.