On Instruction, Part 5

Earlier this week I was chatting with Terry, the woman who gets such a kick out of seeing me practice in the park. She asked how my writing connects with what she's seen me practicing, and I gave her my standard answer, that we're writing about energy flow in the body and how it contributes to learning sports and athletics. This was my standard on-the-chairlift answer all winter long when someone asked about my writing, but it always felt vague and kinda lame, and even all these months later, I'd never figured out a way to say it better. But then just after Terry and I finished our conversation and she rode away on her bicycle, I finally thought of a better description: we're seeking to revolutionize the way sports and athletics are taught and learned.

Perhaps I needed to see the results of this first not-quite-year of experimenting and practice before I was comfortable making so bold a claim. As I see my golf short game get more imaginative, consistent, and with a deeper repertoire of shots; as I see more and more of my full swings fly straight and long; as my tennis serves more and more frequently pock off the strings with easy power, I'm seeing, in areas in which I stagnated for, literally, decades, consistent and often substantial improvement.

The energy techniques that Jerry teaches work. They work better than anything else I've ever tried. Do I dare claim they're the missing piece in sports instruction? It makes me nervous to make such a statement, but...well:

  • Over all those summers of tennis lessons as a kid, no one ever adequately explained to me that the power of the shot isn't in the arm, it's in the legs and core, and certainly no one ever got me to feel that truth.

  • The golf lessons I took as a kid left me with a hideous push-slice and no power.

  • I took years of yoga classes with many different teachers, including a couple of famous teachers whose names you'd recognize from the magazines, but for all the talk of "connecting to the breath," no one ever explained that the free flow of the breath determined the depth of the pose. I figured it out by myself after applying centering to the yogic breath one summer morning. Without exaggeration, centering taught me more about properly finding the pose than any teacher I ever practiced with. From that perspective, it wouldn't be entirely untrue to say that Jerry is the best yoga teacher I've ever had, and he doesn't even do yoga.

That Jerry and I have both seen such improvement working together to teach ourselves, with neither of us having any deeper familiarity with "proper" golf technique than the mediocre lessons we've taken in the past and the occasional bit we've read in a book or online, leads pretty inexorably to the conclusion that most instruction is poor.

It's not fully the instructors' fault. Few people have the personality and constitution to look at the conventionally held wisdom and say, "Wait. This doesn't actually seem to be working." That conclusion makes most people feel desperately out on a limb. If people think to wonder just why it is that more students don't see better results, the answer given back all too frequently is one of the most pernicious, disheartening and false answers one could imagine: that the students in question just lack talent.

It appears that something separates the top, top performers from the rest of us. Maybe no amount of the best instruction and concentrated, dedicated practice would have ever made me into a Tiger Woods or a Roger Federer. And that's fine. But I know now that my level of accomplishment never even came close to the limits of my potential, and in my observed experience this is true for almost everyone. The rare kid who really thrives in the current system is declared talented and moved into the sports track; the rest are shunted to the wayside. Consider this: several times this winter, I'd have a student explain to me that she isn't athletic, that she is actually a klutz--and then, by connecting the centered breath to what she was trying to do, turn out to be the student who picked up skiing more quickly than anyone else in the class. Where did this story about herself come from? It was taught to her. But it isn't true and almost certainly never was.

This is why we make such a big deal about centering and the feeling of flow that it engenders: because once you learn to feel flow in the body, you can follow that feeling to the truth of any athletic pursuit. Most of our limitations are untrue stories we carry with us. Centering begins to move us beyond those stories. Which isn't to say that it's a simple process. Letting go of stories we've carried with us for much or most of our lives can threaten our sense of identity. But after two years on this path, I feel confident in saying that we're better served letting go of our limitations than we are staying constricted, no matter how comfortable we've become there.

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