Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Ladder to Mastery

In any field, domain, or endeavor, there are unavoidable steps in achieving a high level of success. It all begins with the learning process. At the bottom rung is blind incognizance, a state of total unawareness, i.e., not knowing what you don't know. The next rung is awareness without any clue of what needs to be done. The third rung is declaring yourself a beginner: a beginner is someone who doesn't know something but has the desire to learn...and willingness to learn depends on an open mind. As a new student, you enter the realm of barely competent, i.e., you know the basics and rudiments but nothing more. The following rung is competence, wherein the basic skills have been mastered and results are produced. The competent are self-directed but still seek guidance as needed. Next up this ladder is "highly competent"--the stage of the beginner teacher. This candidate not only performs at a high level but ably shares knowledge with others--and this is where most students get bogged down, never passing this phase of the learning hierarchy. And too often, these same people pass themselves off at a higher level than they've rightfully earned. They are typically the best in their local group and isolated and otherwise insulated from other higher level practitioners. This is often by design, since this someone at this level tends to fear--and is intimidated by--practitioners at higher levels of competence. These are the proverbial big fish in a small pond and they may remain stuck at this level for years.

My friend, Mike Mahler,
in his latest news letter, made a great point about experience: Just because a person can boast many years of experience in a domain doesn't automatically indicate equal a high level of success. The majority of experienced people in any given field are merely competent (or highly competent) and content with coasting and collecting an adequate paycheck.

Back to our ladder! Near the top end is virtuosity--and the virtuoso is an outstanding performer. These are the champions--or at least highly ranked performers--in athletics. Their skills can be extraordinary and these individuals are often mistaken as masters, but masters they are not. The virtuoso performer is typically mediocre as a teacher and coach because he is unable to break down and analyze his own prodigious skill set in order to teach others. Further, he can be impatient with beginners, capable only of teaching other virtuoso, or highly competent, students. I've seen this time after time: the teacher with amazing personal skills coupled with poor coaching skills.

The acme of the success ladder is the master. The master isn't just a virtuoso performer--he gives back to the body of knowledge. He is a co-creator in developing the art or skill in which he's involved. The master adds new twists and developments to his chosen art or profession. The true master is also a master teacher--able to explicate to--and teach--the novice. A excellent analogy for this is my chosen avocation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Someone doesn't know it even exists, then they hear about it and decide to check it out. Entering a few beginner classes as a white belt, they're typically confused about the goings on, but eventually things start sorting themselves out and our player gets the basics of the game. A year or so later, he's promoted to blue belt, indicating basic competency. A few years after that, he is highly competent at the purple and brown belt levels. Eventually, he may achieve virtuosity, winning championships and titles at the brown and black belt levels. Yet only a very few acquire true mastery--incredible skill doesn't equal genuine mastery in the game of jiu-jitsu.

This same hierarchy can be applied to any domain, including the field of personal training. For example, I, haven't seen people learn best from their successes but found they have more to learn from failures. In fact, I've seen people ruined by success while in pursuit of mastery. Sometimes--especially in the field of personal training--a trainer is successful using a certain programming and,
not realizing there's a better way (or even several ways) gets so caught up he's afraid to try anything else! This is something especially unfortunate: a trainer--because of a quick, initial success--completely stuck within a system and winding up complacent.

Here's another story: there was a guy who used to come into my former gym who LOVED the bench press. As a kid, he'd built a decent upper body using the bench press, so he stayed with the same routine for decades! He could get 10 reps with 225, which ain't bad for a guy weighing 168 lbs. Thus he used the same load, sets, and reps year in and year out, making zero progress whatsoever. He experienced
very sore shoulders as his rotator cuffs began deteriorating from the overuse. Yet, after carefully explaining to him there were better exercises for upper body development and even superior, newer, techniques in the bench press movement itself (not to mention the importance of balancing the bench press movement with other, compensatory exercises to minimize wear and tear on the shoulder girdle) our guy, convinced he'd lose his hard-earned gains, refused to give up his beloved routine. This, despite his utter lack of progress in the bench press for 20 years! This man was ruined by his initial success.

The situation I've described above also occurs in other domains, perhaps you can think of a few yourself. I've been a teacher, trainer, and instructor of physical fitness for over 36 years but when I first started out, my models were hard-core, get-in-yer-face drill sergeant-type coaches and teachers. You know what I mean, the ones who get up in your face, belittle your manhood and make you out like a wuss if you're not putting out the kind of energy and output they think you should be putting out. In those early days, I experienced a great deal of success in replicating this style of instruction. It seemed to work well and got me results. Those clients for whom it didn't work, I turned a blind eye and convinced myself they didn't have what it takes and that I didn't want to work with that type of client. You might say I'd been ruined by my initial success. Later, I had a client who worked as a sports-performance psychologist and he pointed out to me the harm negative feedback can do. Interestingly, even people who think they respond well to yelling and screaming actually perform better when encouraged with positive reinforcement. I began experimenting along these lines and consequently revamped my thinking with what I'd observed. Suddenly I my client list grew, with more clients staying on longer, and I experienced a concomitant increased joy in my work. This is an example of learning from failure and using it to transform a personality-driven teaching style.

In my upcoming Master Trainer Certifications, I go into great detail about the personal transformation along the steps leading to mastery. These workshops are designed for the highly competent and borderline virtuoso seeking to take their personal practice in the domain of kettlebells and body weight training to the highest level.

I've been called a master trainer, but I consider myself primarily a student, since I'm continually learning and adding new skills, failing at times, and--ideally--transcending my mistakes. There are still those times the ol' Coach doesn't think his cunning plan through! (Shocking, I know.)

If you desire to explore the path reaching the highest level in teaching, training and honing your own personal skills, I invite you to join me for my Master Trainer Certification at Maxercise in Philadelphia, the weekend of 17-18-19 April, which includes a Level 1 KB certification. I greatly appreciate that most of of my wrkshop attendees hold certificates from various other instructors and organizations yet describe a general lack of preparedness in leading group and individual kettlebell classes. For years, I've applied my considerable experience wisely, continually refining my original ideas into the penultimate formula for leading group kettlebell and body weight exercise classes. It's a gift I've always had, since honed through dedication, hard work, and learning from my success as well as failures.

So, thanks for reading and I look forward to seeing you in Philly! Enjoy the slideshow of the Wichita KB Workshop and Body Weight Certification on the right.

In Strength & Health,


Danny Evans said...

Hi Steve,

I enjoyed reading your 'Ladder' post. I hope to train with you in the near future. I sent some info to John about purchasing a bulk order of your bells, along with the possibility of also getting certified.


New Orleans, LA

jleeger said...

Awesome post, Steve! You're right no the money!

Josh said...

Hey coach. Just wanted to say I've been a huge fan of yours ever since I saw your picture in the Naked Warrior. I live in Salt Lake city and am hoping to catch you at one of the Gym Jones workshops. Thanks for all the help. glad you're having a great year.


M. A. Green said...

You make insightful points about mastery that transcend fitness and extend to any field of endeavor, Steve, though we can’t achieve the highest levels of mastery in everything we do. Still, the various levels of learning and achievement you’ve mapped out should be required learning in the public school system and I never learned this there.

We need to remember what level we’re at and then act on that knowledge when someone asks us a question in the gym and we need to decide whether to answer it ourselves or defer them to someone with greater mastery at teaching someone at their level.

Just because I’ve achieved greater muscle development than the local instructor and have been lifting longer than he has, does not mean I’ve achieved greater mastery in coaching and guiding beginners and providing help that is well-suited to their level of development. Just because I’ve been training and practicing a long time doesn’t mean a younger, more inexperienced person can’t teach me something I never knew before, or help me improve something I’ve been doing poorly for far too long...