This morning my long suffering wife made some smarty-pants comment about my memory being somewhat suspect. Dammit she’s right.
The ensuing conversation (not a heated debate) raised an interesting issue related to skiing, and how to ski in control. Why is it, we wondered, that memorising things has never been that easy even when we were young? And yet once we know how to do something, there is no need to memorise it. Once you know something, memory is not required. This can lead to difficulties – if you have practiced “doing turns” sufficiently often for example you will have trapped yourself into a very limited kind of skiing from which escape and further development will be jolly difficult, because “doing turns” is not an appropriate concept.
While developing high levels of skill at skiing, some memory is required but not for long. It is required because building a solid foundation for skilful controlled skiing needs an understanding of how the process works – how skis work, how they interact with snow, how arcs develop and the like – and for this understanding to develop a mental construct has to be built and memory assists that.
But once the understandings are in place, memory – academic learning processes if you like – are of very little efficacy. What works after that is doing things, i.e. repeated practice.
Of course it needs to be high quality practice, any old thing won’t do. The old adage that practice makes perfect is deceptive; it will certainly perfect your ability to do what you are practicing, but this means that you have to be especially careful to ensure that what you practice is exactly that which will deliver what you actually want. If it isn’t then what you will get is very good at generating heaps of stuff you don’t want. My guru and sage, John Shedden, repeatedly intones that “humans get good at what they do”.
The most common manifestation of a thoroughly well practiced but inappropriate behaviour that I come across while coaching skiers, is the deeply ingrained and hugely well practiced behaviour of running oneself down; calling oneself names; telling oneself one “should” be “better”. I won’t go on, the list is endless. The key point about any deleterious behaviour is that it is a choice. You cannot get away from that; it is a choice. It is either that we are choosing to do that behaviour, or by default that we are choosing to neglect and/or avoid a different one which would give us better results. This is a topic on its own; any behaviour we choose only stays with us if it delivers something we want – the snag is that there is a very powerful tendency for that (whatever it is) to mask all the other much better options that we could have if we employed different behaviours.
“Humans getting good at what they do” sounds at first a pretty obvious thing to say, but it has enormous depths to it, and it applies very closely to developing controlled skiing. If you have false perceptions about how skis work, or what you need to do in order to ski in control at all times, it’s very likely you will do things – make movements – which will lock you into poor performance.
In common parlance this is often referred to as “reaching the plateau”, the level at which your skiing refuses to improve any further. It’s also called “I know I’ve developed some bad skiing habits”.
Why then, if we can remember the “right” things to do, do we not automatically do them? It’s because behaviours (doing things) involves a process of “burning in” a neural pathway linking a series of neurons and their multifarious dendrites in our brains, the correct sequential firing of which brings about the physical movements desired. Once these habituated pathways have been created, there is no need for memory or indeed at a conscious level, for thinking. The behaviours become autonomic. Think for example of the behaviour of shaking hands when introduced to someone; you don’t have to think your way through it, once started it is automatic.
This autonomy is doubled-edged sword; it eliminates the need to think your way through a behaviour, but it also can set a trap if the practiced behaviour is less effective than it needs to be. ” Doing ‘turns’ ” is a classic case of this in skiing. The basic idea is faulty, perceptions stemming from the misconception then lead to physical behaviours that “sort of” work but never enable you to get really good at skiing in control in difficult terrain – or even actually, in easy terrain.
This is why a chapter in my up-coming book is headed “If you forget everything you think you know, you can remake your universe”. Everything we do in coaching “Controlled Skiing – how to ski in control” is directed at ensuring the most effective small pieces of behaviour – little movements – become established neural pathways in your brain. It takes practice, and it’s fun.
If you want to let me know what you think – just subscribe and register; we could have a “heated debate” !