For those who have been following my comments about mine and Harrison Lovell’s CAST 2014 talk (“Coyote Teaching: A new take on the art of mentorship”) this fits very nicely into the ideas we will be discussing. We’ve been looking back at interactions that we have had over the years where mentorship played an important role in skill development. During one of our late night Skype calls, we were talking about skateboard and snowboard skills, and how we were able to get from one skill level to another.
One aspect that we both agreed was a common challenge was “the fear factor” that we all face. In a broader sense, we both appreciate that snowboarding and skateboarding are inherently dangerous. Push the envelope on either and the risk of injury, and even death, is definitely possible. Human beings tend to work very hard at at unconscious level to keep ourselves alive. The amygdala is the most ancient part of our brain development. It deals with emotions, and it also deals with fear and aggression. It’s our “fight or flight” instinct. One one level, it’s perfectly rational to listen to it in many circumstances, but if we want to develop a technical skill like jumping or riding at speed, we have to overcome it.
About fifteen years ago, I first met Sean Craddick, a fellow snowboarder who was my age and was, to put it simply, amazingly talented. I used to joke whenever I saw Sean at a competition that I would say “oh well, there goes my shot at a Gold Medal!” He humored me the first couple of times, but the third time I said it, he surprised me. He answered “Dude, don’t say that. Don’t ever say that! I could try to throw some trick and land it badly, and scrub my entire run. I could miss my groove entirely, or miss a gate on a turn, or I could catch an edge and bomb the whole thing. Every event is up in the air, and every event has the potential of having an outcome we’d least expect. Don’t say you don’t have a chance, you always have a chance, but you’ll never get the chance if you don’t believe you have it.”
Because we were both the same age and had fairly similar life experiences, I’d hang out with Sean at many of these events, and sometimes run into him on off days when I was just up at the mountain practicing. One time, he noticed that I kept going by a tall rail and at the last moment, I’d veer off or turn and ride past it. After a few times of seeing this, when he saw me about to veer off again he yelled “Hey Michael! The next time you veer of, stop dead in your tracks, unbuckle your board and walk back up here. I want to talk to you about something.” Sure enough, I went down, veered off course, and slammed to a stop. I took off my board, and then I walked up the hill. Sean looked at me and said:
“Take it straight on, and line your nose with the lip and where the beginning of the rail is.”
I nodded, buckled in, and then went down to the rail transition. I veered off. I stopped. I walked back up the hill.
“Lean back on your rear heel just a bit. It will give you a more comfortable balance when you first get on the rail.”
I nodded, bucked back in, went down again, and again I veered off. I stopped, unbuckled, and walked back to the top of the hill again. By this point I was winded, my calves were aching, my heart was pounding, and I was getting rather frustrated.
“One final thing. Do an ollie at the end of the rail.”
What? I hadn’t even gotten on the rail, why is he telling me what to do when I get off of it? I shrugged, buckled in, went for the hit, and this time, I went straight, I lined the nose up, I set my weight back just a little bit, I slid down the rail, and I did a passably adequate ollie off the end of the rail, and landed the trick. When I did, Sean whooped and hollered, then came down after me and hit the same rail.
“Awesome, lets go hi the chairlift!”
As we did, Sean looked at me and said:
“You can understand all the mechanics in the world, but if your brain tells you ‘you can’t do it, it’s too dangerous, it’s too risky’, you need to get your body to shut your brain up! That’s what I had you do. I knew why you were sketching the last few feet. You were afraid. It felt beyond you. You might crash. It might hurt real bad if you do. The brain understands all that. It wants to keep you safe. Safe, however, doesn’t help you get better. Whenever I find myself giving in to the fear, I stop what I’m doing, right there, and I walk up the hill, and I try it again. If I pull back again, I walk the hill again, and again, and again. What happens is the body gets so fatigued that every fiber of your being starts screaming to your brain ‘just shut up already and let me do this!’ Exertion and exhaustion can often help you overcome any fear, and then you can put your mechanics to good use.”
Yeah, I paraphrased a lot of that, but that’s the gist of what Sean was trying to get across to me. Our biggest enemy is not that we can’t do something, but that we are afraid that we can’t do something. That fear is powerful, it’s ancient, and it can be paralyzing. That ultra primitive brain can’t be reasoned with very well, unless we give it another pain to focus on. At some point the physical pain of exertion and exhaustion will out shout the feelings of fear, and then we can do what we need to do.
In a nutshell, that’s “The Craddick Effect”. There may be a much fancier name for it, but that’s how I’ve always approached mentorship where I have to overcome fear and doubt in a person. When some one is afraid, it’s easy to retreat. As a mentor, we have to recognize when that fear is present, and somehow work with it.
You may not do something as extreme as what Sean did with me, but you may well find other, more subtle ways to accomplish the same thing. Imagine having to take on a new testing tool where there’s a lot that needs to be learned up front. We could just let them go on their own and let them poke around. We can take their word that they are getting and understanding what they need to, or we can prod and test them to see what’s really happening. If we see that they don’t understand enough, or maybe even very little, don’t assume lack of aptitude or drive, look for fear. If you can spot fear, try to coax them in a way that they can put their energy somewhere else for a time so that they can get to a point to shout down the fear. It may be having them do a variety of simpler tasks, still fruitful, but somewhat repetitive and tedious. After awhile, they will get a bit irritated, and then give them a slight push to move farther forward. Repeat as necessary. Over time, you may well see that they have slid past the pain and frustration point, and they just “get” what they are working with. It just clicks.
As a mentor, look to help foster that interaction. As a person receiving mentoring, know that this may very well be exactly what your mentor is trying to do. Allow yourself to go with it. In the end, both of you may learn a lot more about yourselves and your potential than you thought possible. It’s pretty cool when that happens ;).