In Heroes, Villains and Velodromes, a book about the success of British track cycling, there is a passage where olympic multi-medallist Chris Hoy is described intently analysing one of his races with his coach on the way home, discussing each curve, what he did right, what he did wrong, and how he would change his approach next time.
He was 9 years old at the time.
Young Chris, now Sir Christopher Hoy, he was already on to something that would lead him to athletic greatness. Somehow, he was able to notice what he did in the heat of his races and recall it in detail as he drove back home with coach Dad. Amidst all the noise and hustle, his mind was focussed enough on the task at hand while he was racing to grasp the overall race and its small details. He engaged in a form of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is where meditation and mindfulness meet athleticism. Obviously, during deliberate practice one is not not engaging in traditional meditation, but the idea is the same: an intense focus on the now. During deliberate practice, one may acknowledge extraneous thoughts, but rather than dwelling on them, one simply lets go of of such thoughts in favour of present experience. It means that when one paddles, one becomes increasingly attuned to what the water, one’s body, the boat and the blade are doing. What did the stroke sound like? Is the boat accelerating? Am I leaning sideways or forward? Was there cavitation when I pulled? Did my paddle feel stuck in the back? Each stroke can be an experiment to test a little adjustment, figure out technical or muscular weaknesses, and adjust.
Does that sound like hard work?
That’s because it is. Just like meditation or learning to paddle, deliberate practice is a learned skill and frame of mind that needs to be developed over time. Initially, the focus that it requires is not sustainable for more than a few strokes at a time, but it is something that can be learned and exercised. Distractions will happen, pain will interfere, and at times all you can focus on is your next breath, but that is fine. The key point is not to dwell those thoughts and feelings, but to acknowledge them and redirect attention the paddling itself.
How does it work?
From the paddler side, effective deliberate practice takes a certain awareness that training time is only a very small slice of one’s week. Those few hours then become moments that need to be maximized and the acknowledgment of that fact helps the paddler resist the temptation to engage in chatter during or after exercises and drills. Attention will always waver as the heavy effort and the repetitive nature of the activity may cause thoughts to wander, but when that happens all that is necessary is to let the distraction pass like scenery past the boat. This is where deliberate practice is most remarkably similar to meditation. If you acknowledge that loss of focus will occur but also know that what matters most is the present moment in which you are engaged, it becomes increasingly easy to let go of those stray thoughts. They are the proverbial water off a duck’s back – they drip away and you are able to return to an attentive stance. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
From the coaching side, it requires an awareness of where the team’s focus is, and guidance back to where it should be. At times, it just requires feedback directing the paddlers’ attention to a single element of their stroke or muscle engagement. At others, a break in what the team is doing may be necessary while coach re-directs the entire team to the task at hand if they are unfocused or worked up. The coach herself or himself must also be deliberately aware of what is going on. Maybe a drill may be getting stale, maybe paddlers are beginning to just go through the motions or pent up energy and nervousness are making the team rush through the elements of their stroke. Great coaches appear to grasp that instinctively and to know when to push through or to back off. The more deliberately attentive you are as a coach to what is going on in the boat and with individual paddlers, the easier it becomes to notice issues and address them on the spot.
Nothing Soft About It
It is important to note that deliberate practice is not some kind of touchy-feely approach to training. If anything, deliberate practice and intense hard work go hand in hand. If you watch a video high performing athletes in olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, sprint kayaking, or any other sport being performed at a high level, you will see it in action. When an athlete is about to get under a heavy barbell, project herself at high speed through the air or blast through a racetrack, there is no room for loss of focus from the task at hand and the harder the feat the more important the focus.
Deliberate practice is one of the tools that can help a dragonboater push past pain in the middle of a race. In time it may even yield a moment when one feels the whole thing comes together in a single stroke. The core engages at the right moment, the catch is solid, the stroke feels different and all that one knows about technique makes sense in a very physical way.