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A Three-Step Framework for Mastery

November 29, 2018


Three-Step Progression to Mastery


Earlier this week, my friend Mike shared a blog post from a strength coach named Ross Enamait illustrating how it doesn't take much in the form of equipment to get strong. Ross demonstrates how you can progressively stress your entire body to the level of an elite athlete with nothing more than a handful of furniture sliders. Freaking elegant. 

This got me thinking: elegance is a common marker of mastery in just about every field of practice—from coaching, to writing, to medicine. Mastery generally means moving from simplicity to complexity to elegance. 

1. Simplicity
This is when you are first getting started with something. You've got to keep things very basic or else you'll get overwhelmed. So you tackle one thing at a time, and often in a siloed manner. You are gradually building a toolkit but don't yet understand the purpose of the tools, how they interact, or their potential to work together. 

2. Complexity
Now that you've got an understanding of all the tools, you're excited about using them. So you use everything and come up with a narrative for how everything is necessary and fits together. You get swept up in the details because you can finally understand them. Plus, you tell yourself, the details matter! 

3. Elegance
You apply only what is needed to a certain situation and nothing more. Every action, sentence, or maneuver has a purpose. Constraints don't bother you, they excite you. Your program is tight and efficient. You do more with less. 

Lots of people drop out in the simple zone. Entire industries prey upon those who get stuck in the complex zone. But it's also true that you can only reach elegance if you move through simplicity and complexity first. So the point isn't to avoid these zones. If you strive for elegance right off the bat you'll end up with a mess. The point is to progress onward from each zone, to not quit or get stuck at a given phase for too long. It's helpful to give each zone a name so you can take stock of where you are and define (ideally, with a coach or mentor) what it takes to move forward.


Coaching Corner: Accepting and Using Criticism 


After any performance, good or bad, we need to make sense of what occurred. If we have a coach, they might pull us aside and break down our performance. If we don't, we might spend some time talking with teammates or friends, processing whether the performance went well or what might need to be improved upon. Whether formal or informal, this is what I like to call the debrief. When I look at a debrief, I am attempting to accomplish a few goals:


  1. Learn from the experience for future purposes.

  2. Ensure the athlete has the correct framing of what just took place.

  3. Set the athlete up for their next race/game.


We often consider #1, the learning from the race as the most important factor. It’s why most of us try to jam pack as much information as possible into the debrief. Whether that’s a football coach immediately breaking down what went right/wrong on that last drive, or a coach telling an athlete you “should have kicked sooner, held the athlete off on the curve, got out faster," and so on. As coaches, conveying information is on the forefront of our mind. Deep down, we are teachers, so when we see a problem or an incorrect “answer” our inclination is to correct it.

Loaded with information, having observed the race from afar, we approach the athlete with guns blazing, firing out information to our athletes or team. It feels good for us to convey our knowledge. We’re teachers after all. What we often fail to consider is whether that information reaches its target, our athletes. Yes, they might hear it, but does it result in a positive change?


The answer is often that it doesn’t. And the reason is the guns blazing approach can result in the athlete entering what I like to call defensive mode. We’ve all experienced defensive mode, both in ourselves and in observing others. It’s what happens when someone starts critiquing us. Whether it’s our significant other, a colleague, or a friend, we’ve all been in that place where our shoulders tense up, we cross our arms, and regardless of the validity of what the person sitting across from us is saying, we don’t let it in. We create stories and justifications for why this person must be wrong. We ask why they are attacking us. We’re in full defensive mode and nothing is getting through.


After bad races, athletes are often automatically in this mood. They are upset, angry, and emotional. But even after good races, some athletes can be in defensive mode. Their internal dialogue might be, “I just ran a massive PR, why are they trying to drag me down! Can’t I just be happy!”


As a coach, before any information is conveyed, we need to make sure that our athlete is receptive to receive that information. Or, in other words, that they are out of defensive mode. If we find that they are not, we need to focus on allowing them to have space to process and calm down, or find a way to disarm them and bring their emotional reactivity back down to neutral.


In The World Beyond Our Head, academic and deep thinker Matthew Crawford posits that critique plays an instrumental part in helping us understand our world. To Crawford, experiencing a skill is only the partial story. It’s not until we process it, letting it sink and become a part of our entire self, that it moves beyond a simple partial experience. As Crawford states: “For experiences to become part of the secure, sedimented foundation of a skill, they must be criticized.”


To Crawford, criticism is a way of making sense of the world, a necessary ingredient of moving beyond a partial experience. But unlike the harsh treatment of the word, criticism isn’t a coach berating an athlete, or even mildly suggesting what an athlete did wrong. Instead, it’s getting the person to be critical. To take what they experienced, use the lost art of reflection, and process their experience at a deep level. To cement and internalize experiences, rather than having them become a fleeting moment.


One of the easiest and best ways to do this may be a simple conversation. Conversation can be a powerful tool for this realization phase:


“The fruit of this conversation enters into your ongoing rehearsal of the experience. If this rehearsed version bears up and jibes with further experience, it becomes internalized, available to the subconscious mind in coping with future situations…Other people (and the resources of language) are indispensable. Without them, your experiences are partial and may sediment as idiosyncratic bad habits.”


This might explain why social interaction with teammates post-game leads to an increase in Testosterone. Interaction with teammates allows for a natural debrief. It takes us out of a "defensive" mode and puts us in a processing mode. We stop judging.


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