As a personal trainer/coach, much of my work deals with helping people look better, feel better and move better. Lunges, squats, deadlifts, pushups, and pull-ups all involve various muscles of the body working together to resist force. However, our muscular system is not the only system responsible for resisting force, our skeletal and nervous system also resist force. Together, the three make up the kinetic chain. Understanding this, I decided it was time for me to learn more about the nervous system so that I could help myself and others move better. My curiosity led me to enroll in Z-Health, located in Tempe Arizona and run by Dr. Eric Cobb, who specializes in brain-based training. Cobb recommended reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle as a prerequisite to his courses, and so here I am today writing about this book. Broken into three sections, Deep Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching. I was most enlightened by section one, but sections two and three had a lot to offer as well. The book discusses talent hotbeds, how failure is the key to success, neurology, what great coaches do to get the best out of their students, and the role passion plays in being consistent. I found all of these topics fascinating because they can all be applied to my profession.
“Why does it take people so long to learn complex skills?” An intriguing question indeed, and one that NY Times bestselling author, Daniel Coyle, attempts to answer in his 2009 classic, The Talent Code. Beginning with a provocative look at talent hotbeds throughout the world, Coyle explains that talent has everything to do with “deep practice” and myelin. Deep practice is a spin on “deliberate practice,” a term coined by Anders Ericsson, a psychologist, who is responsible for the 10,000-hour rule that has recently been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Coyle’s “deep practice” term takes into account myelin and neurology and therefore is “same…but different” when compared to deliberate practice. Mostly because one deals with psychology and the other deals with neurology. Also, deep practice requires that you become comfortable with making mistakes on your way to achieving mastery. You must be willing to work on your areas of weakness in a focused, determined and non-judgmental way. By doing so, you end up with lots of bandwidth, sort of like a T-3 line. The amazing discovery that this book reveals is that, due to “myelin,” we all possess the ability to grow these high speed lines.
Myelin, which, in my opinion, was never clearly defined by Coyle, is “a soft, white, fatty material in the membrane of Schwann cells and certain neuroglial cells: the substance of the myelin sheath (Dictionary.com).” The myelin sheath is clearly defined by Coyle and is the most thought provoking part of the book. Coyle spent time speaking with some of the best neurologists in the country in order to get answers, such as Dr. Douglas Fields, director of the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology at the National Institutes of Health and Dr. George Bartzokis, professor of neurology at UCLA. As a result, Coyle is able to eloquently explain how deep practice, coupled with myelin sheaths, produce greatness. First, I think it is important to understand that our muscles are really like puppets on a string. Without the strings or nerves, our muscles are useless. Coyle explains it all perfectly here:
Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electrical signal traveling through a chain of neurons — a circuit of nerve fibers. Myelin [sheaths] are the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increase signal strength, speed, and accuracy. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.
The above quote is powerful to me for two reasons. One reason is that, as a youth, I was a promising talent in the sport of basketball, but things never quite ended up the way I would have liked for them to. I did not end up on a Division I Men’s Basketball team nor did I make it to the National Basketball Association. To this day, I constantly think about what I could have done differently. The above quote has helped me gain some insight on where I went wrong. For starters, I was not firing enough circuits to become a master in my sport. I was only doing the things I enjoyed the most, and, as a result, I never acquired a well-rounded skill set. The other reason I like this quote has to do with my clients. I am constantly queried about what it takes to be able to do a pullup or become better at jump rope, and I always give the same answer: PRACTICE. If you want to get better at these exercises or anything else in life you must be willing to try, try, and try again. In the words of Daniel Coyle, “struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.”
At first glance, I thought this section of the book was just full of random coincidences that supported his argument that primal cues are motivational fuel. However, after going back and reading this section a second time, it seems as though he might be on to something.
In May of 1954, Roger Bannister ran an under four-minute mile. A few weeks later, a gentleman from Australia named John Landy did the same, and, within three years, nearly twenty people had accomplished this task.
Se Ri Pak became the first South Korean female golfer to win the LPGA championship in May of 1998. Within 10 years, 45 other South Korean female golfers had joined the LPGA and won one-third of its events.
17-year-old Russian Anna Kournikova reaches the Wimbledon semifinals in 2004, and, within three years, her fellow countrywomen occupied five of the top ten rankings.
The primal cue here is evident: if I look like my hero, come from the same place as my hero, and I am as committed as my hero, I can become my hero. This conclusion is further supported by Gary McPherson, who, in 1997 proved that commitment was directly tied to performance. He asked 157 children to identify their level of commitment to playing a musical instrument and those who said long-term versus short or medium outperformed their peers by 400% even though they practiced the same amount of time. McPherson concluded, “it’s all about their perception of self.”
I see it over and over again as a personal trainer/coach. Some people, no matter how hard I try, just can’t seem to picture themselves being successful in losing fat, gaining muscle or improving their athleticism. They trudge along for a few months hoping, wishing and praying, but do not succeed. They’ve never been athletic or physically fit so they have no point of reference. They end up abandoning the program and I lose another client who I so desperately wanted to help. Perhaps, I could have said something to ignite them. Perhaps, I have a few things to learn about being a Master Coach.
So, now that we understand how powerful our perception of self is, how can you change someone’s perception of self when they don’t look like you or come from the same area as you? How do you make them committed? The answer could be in the words we use to motivate people.
Dr. Carol Dweck, a social psychologist at Stanford University, has studied motivation for over 30 years and her findings on the subject might surprise you. She provided 400 5th grade students with fairly easy puzzles to complete and gave each child his/her score and one of two six word phrases. Either, “you must be smart at this” or “you must have worked really hard.” The kids were then given a choice of either a more difficult test or an easier test than the first one taken. Interestingly enough, those who were praised for their effort, chose the more difficult test. Why? Turns out, when “we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that’s the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” Could this be also true of those seeking to get into better shape? Should I only applaud effort and not how well my clients are actually performing a movement?
Hall of Fame coach, John Wooden, who ESPN dubbed “the greatest coach of all time in any sport” seems to think so. In 1974, educational psychologists Roland Tharp and Ron Gallimore were given the opportunity to attend a year’s worth of UCLA basketball practice sessions to learn Wooden’s secrets to coaching and what they experienced was far from what they expected to learn. They expected long, laborious sermons, instead, Wooden’s “teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues…he rarely spoke longer than twenty seconds.” In fact, “of the 2,326 discrete acts of teaching, only 6.9% were compliments.” Wow, seems like less is more. From this day forward, I will speak less and curtail my coaching style to be more efficient. By doing so, I believe I will be more successful with even the most challenging clients because, as the legendary John Wooden once said, “you haven’t taught until they have learned.”