A Matter of Perspective

by John F Musser, SSC | October 16, 2019

close up perspective on a deadlift

The most common things look different depending on where you happen to be standing. If you view something especially complex from an unfamiliar location, it may be unrecognizable. I ask you to consider trying to understand better, by looking at things from different perspectives – the often asked question, “How are you doing?”, in relationships, training, your career, or a motorcycle trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway.  How are you getting along?  What’s your progress?

Progress is certainly not a simple thing to assess – it depends, of course, on your perspective.

The regrettable process of going from young to old provides us the opportunity to view activities, places, things, and people from many different angles. Young people view things differently than old people. What is young or old? It depends on where you're standing.

A friend and I were talking on the phone recently (talking and not texting accurately indicates that we are old). We were discussing a mutual friend’s progress, and I mentioned how quickly it had occurred.  He reminded me that “a few years” to our younger friend was a significant portion of a younger person's life. To him and me, it was simply no time at all.

I have instructed, mentored, learned from, trained, facilitated, and coached a variety of ages in a variety of subjects for a few decades now. I have learned from some truly remarkable people. And every time I think I have experienced the worst instructor presenting the worst material in the worst possible way, I am surprised by someone even worse. 

Young people, new to an activity, typically lack accurate personal expectations of progress in that activity. They lack personal knowledge of their own or others' capabilities. Sometimes they're overly optimistic, but sometimes they expect less than they are actually capable of. They simply don’t have the life experience to know what is possible. Their expectations of progress in a given activity are influenced by others – coaches, teachers, friends, family, the media, and those more senior in the activity. Progress estimates of the young are often dependent upon the quality of those supposed to be helping them.

I have seen this demonstrated in shooting, lifting, public speaking, and numerous other professional and recreational activities.  These outside influences impact the expectations of the young and can continue to impact them after they have grown older. One of the first things we should look for when coaching anyone – or perhaps simply one of the first things we should always look for – is damage and scars left behind from bad learning experiences, whether the learning experience was formal or not. Regardless of the person’s age, an appropriate training program defines the requirements, assesses the difference in the existing state and the desired end state, evaluates and develops training options, delivers the chosen training, and then evaluates the results. 

The coaching discussed here is focused on improving the athlete. The methods used to help someone learn are based on helping the person progress. If you don’t know the difference between helping someone get better and a selection process designed to deny access, I invite you to do a bit of research and think about it.

Even after engaging in an effective program with good coaching, you will still have quite a few negative influences sabotaging your efforts. Some of the most memorable events in life are the times we were told stupid shit by people we were expected to believe. Think of all the idiot adults who told you something stupid when you were young. Consider every guy that “knew a guy who did Martial Arts,” every moron coach with bad breath, every bored teacher, every family member who had some spectacularly poor advice, and you can understand the problem. For someone with a miserable teacher in school, I view not being called out and embarrassed in class to the point of tears as very good luck. 

“Normalization of Defects” is often described as failing to create efficient systems because of an organization's satisfaction with “workarounds,” and it absolutely applies every single time we step up to help someone learn. We have to constantly consider the needs of our audience, the materials we are using, and how we present. The measurer is always going to be the individual we are helping. Good enough is not good enough, and especially with youth we have to constantly ask if there is a better way.If an athlete can find the right coach, if he can suffer through the morons trying to keep him down, and if he can make it to the gym to train, he will begin to have an idea of what he's are capable of. He will begin to understand progress.

Not too long ago, I was on the range with some shooters. It was a pretty diverse group of various skill levels. Some cops, some security types, a few Ninjas with all the cool stuff, and a couple of new shooters. One of the new shooters was very young compared to the rest, a female in jeans and a t-shirt with a borrowed inexpensive holster, magazine pouches and a stock Glock. 

We reached a point in the class where we were drawing from the holster, on a buzzer, for a timed single shot into a silhouette target. She was exceptionally fast; fastest on the line. This caused some discussion among a few of the other shooters. One of the most impressively-dressed shooters with exceptionally expensive “kit,” who had spent a lot of time sharing his resume (some of which may even have been true) simply couldn’t understand why this new shooter with the cheap holster was consistently faster on this drill. “She has to be anticipating the buzzer, you see. That’s the only answer.”

“No, she is not anticipating the signal. The reason she is beating you is not very complicated,” I said. “She is faster than you, and that is how she is beating you every single time. She is faster than you…a lot faster.” 

I am not going to claim that I could teach her better, because she didn’t have any bad habits to unlearn, or some other pathetic, inaccurate assumption. Sure, we had coached her, helped her learn firearms safety, handgun basics, created a positive environment where she could learn, and provided a well-defined performance measure. We created a learning environment that defined, encouraged, and measured progress. However, my answer is still the same: she was faster because she was faster

Some wanted to minimize her progress and take away from her performance. Their lame comments about the “real world” and the “street” were like water wings under their precision combat apparel-clad arms, keeping them afloat in their personal pool of confident tactical superiority.

Fortunately, most of the shooters and coaches were different. They reinforced this new shooter and went out of their way to discuss what a superb performance it was. For this young shooter, this new measure was her performance standard. Any progress would be measured against this moment. She expected to do well, and she did.

It is not uncommon to see some people attempt to minimize a young person’s progress, in both athletics and the workplace. It has been my experience that the person minimizing the accomplishment is threatened by it. Don’t allow this behavior around those you are helping learn.

We should encourage progress. We will have fair and honest corrections to make along the way; nonetheless, we focus on the good. For every corrective action we reinforce three or four things done well. 

I am currently enjoying watching the career progress of someone young I have had the opportunity to help over the years. She is progressing quickly in a tough work environment and doing very well. Of course there are the anticipated jealous shots and jabs from less accomplished people. I take great delight in pointing out my friend’s success at every opportunity. 

Once young athletes begin to understand what they are capable of, be very careful to keep their progress incremental. Move forward one step at a time. It won’t be long before they want to take bigger jumps in weight, or try to shoot faster than their current skill allows. This desire for faster progress has to be managed in a respectful manner. 

Keep in mind how many changes someone young is going through. For the young, time goes by slowly even though their growth potential means that change is coming rapidly. By the time they have gotten used to what normal is, normal has changed. People get uneasy in times of change, and youth can sometimes be a constant state of unease.

As coaches, we must learn to over-communicate, to repeat ourselves over and over. Then listen intently to the questions, really listen, no matter how many times you think you answered them.  Don’t assume your athlete knows why you are doing what you are doing. Consider that if somebody “just ain’t getting it,” you may be the problem. Always look for a better way. Because younger people have less experience to draw upon, their new experiences are more impactful, and more memorable. Words of encouragement and words of pain will be remembered, perhaps forever. 

In Starting Strength, we want to make a little bit of progress for as long as we can. We want to avoid failing. Sure, it’s going to happen, and there are things to be learned from it. But we want our young trainees to learn to view failure from the vantage point of progress, as a part of the process of improving.

“They have to learn to get back up!” Yeah, thanks for sharing that, never heard that before, so very insightful. How about we spend some time helping them learn to stay on their feet, then learn how to fall without busting themselves up, then work on the whole getting-back-up thing? Of course, we are going to explain this training plan in detail to the person we are helping. We want them to know and understand the why of what we are doing. They will learn how to get back up if we put it in the appropriate performance progression.

Pretty quickly, you may notice a degree of fearlessness in youth. This is certainly admirable, however something just being hard is not the goal – progress is the goal.  Discuss the reasons for the programming in terms of goals and progress. Explain your decisions about why you are both doing things the way you are doing them.  If you tell young people they are going to hurt themselves, you are generally ignored, because as you may remember, you thought you were indestructible at that age too.

If a young athlete takes a layoff for whatever reason, he will often expect the same performance out of himself when he returns. These expectations can lead to frustration, slow progress, and even injury. “I know I can do this, I've done it before, so why can’t I do it now?” This can be tougher to manage than you think. Like all of what we do, it requires a lot of communication. Ask questions of your athlete, provide honest answers, and provide honest and safe feedback.

Ask them what they want, how they view progress. Then, with them, define a plan to get them back to where they were and beyond. Remind them gently, they have been there before, they know the way. Keep training sessions well organized and moving forward. Limit the time they are waiting for you.  No matter a persons age, they are the customers, you are the vendor – respect that. Keep individual sessions short, and work hard to keep them engaged. There are lots of distractions for both young and old. Often I hear that young people are less patient and lack discipline. I think older people have simply gotten better at tolerating idiot instructors and don’t show it as readily as younger customers.

Remember: no matter the age of those you are training, look for evidence of the idiots who have been there before.

Youth provides a different perspective on most things, including progress. To understand how to help, we should understand their perspective the best we can, and see things from their point of view. In the beginning, they often don’t have any idea about what progress to expect, after they've been training a few months they may become impatient with the slow steady progress, and if there is a layoff, they will expect the same numbers the first day back. Age and experience will moderate this perspective.

It has been my privilege to help young people, old people, the learning disabled, professionals, novices, people with special needs, people who have fond memories of training, and people who shut down completely at a thoughtless word or gesture because of past horrible learning experiences. I try hard to help others learn, but I still make mistakes, and I have a long way to go.

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