Sweetspot

My audience shifts somewhat uncomfortably and laughs nervously looking around them. We are in a ski resort and they are learning to telemark ski. “You want us to clap a rhythm?” This is a make or break moment in my style of teaching, rather like dealing with Cai, it is not a moment for words, it is a time for action, a time to picture myself as the Pied Piper of Hamlin and lead convincingly in a way that looks fun and engaging.

Before I have time to turn around I am at the head of a line of happy clapping shufflers, alternating between their left and right feet leading, bending their knees and genuflecting to the snow gods. Smiles light up their faces.

In 1972 Timothy Gallwey wrote a book called the Inner Game of Tennis, among the many tips for coaching sport that he shared, one stands out to me. Rather than focusing on what should be, observe what is; both with accuracy and non-judgement. More often than not we focus on the wrong thing. Gallwey asks students to say “bounce” when the ball touches the ground and “hit” when the ball meets the racquet. His reasoning being that if a person’s observations are accurate their body will adjust and correct automatically to achieve the best performance.

In 1999 John Jerome wrote a book called the Sweet Spot in Time where he delves into the art and physiology of excellence. As the title suggests rhythm plays a large part in this process. A majority of grace and power lies in timing; whether that timing is synchronous or not depends on the activity. For instance running is a very synchronous activity, if you spend more time on your left leg than your right then not only will it look and feel ugly, it will cause any number of issues in other areas. A tennis serve on the other hand is asynchronous and involves a number of sequenced actions. When the timing is right, the ball flies of the racquet, if you swing at the same speed and the timing is out then the result is nowhere near as good.

As I walk into work I cannot help myself. I feel the need to watch people run past me and wonder how much more efficient they might be if they contemplated the two concepts I have just shared. I also wonder whether if they had a coach who did what we did when teaching skiing how they might find their performance improve without even contemplating it. By being aware of what is happening without questioning why, the improvements occur naturally. By clapping with the lead change, participants were able to hear if their changes were rhythmical and synchronous or not. Before my eyes the stuttered, lurching shuffle of a beginner inevitably transformed quickly into the fluid dance of someone far more experienced. More importantly it did not appear to be laborious, just a natural change and the participants were not even particularly aware. The more I think about that class, when the skiers thought less about what they should be doing, they became better and it happened more quickly.

So my questions today are, what is the rhythm in your life,and how do you observe what is truly happening without judging yourself?

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Life & Learning to Ski

I think Cai is lucky, he has one on one ski lessons with an experienced outdoors person and children’s ski instructor – his dad.

More to the point his progression has been wonderful. First of all we spent a little time with him between my legs, feeling the way they went from side to side, experiencing his edges biting the snow and constantly being reminded of the mantra, “across the hill s-l-o-w, down the hill FAST>>>!” 

Next step was the hula-hoop, Cai inside it with me behind. This gave us a little distance, I helped him learn about rotational turns and his speed was checked. When comfortable with that we moved onto the magic wand, a 3 1/2 foot piece of dowel wrapped in duck tape to create 2 opposing cones and then covered in hockey tape to give it grip. This is a great tool as it is multi purpose, sometimes we ski side by side and I am able to accelerate him round the turns so he feels the forces of carving. It is also also a great safety rail when the chairs are lacking them and a lurk for him to pole on the flats. Along with this are the myriad of games we can play.

Armed with the wand we are able to drop into half pipes and he knows what it feels like to jump – he loves flying. Last year he hit a period when he was a little reticent, so we spent some time on magic carpet, to begin with he wanted the wand, however, after a while I was able to engage him in chase play. By being a crocodile I was able to come up on his outside shoulder and he instinctively turned away from me. By going from side to side we forced his turns and after a while of this he asked to go back on the “flying chairs”. On the way down he stated we were going into the terrain park, I reminded him that I was not willing to use the pole on the big jumps and he told me that was ok. It required commitment to gain the park as they had done a nice job of fencing and berming it off; he skied right in, turned and contoured the hill for a while while looking at the jumps, he then just turned down hill and “pointed them”. I watched him hit the first jump and pump his legs clearing some great air before he landed it and disappeared from sight. I had to skate frantically, wondering what Kimberly was going to say if he got hurt. By the time he hit the second jump his speed was outrageous and there was some hesitation, this time the landing was not so elegant. I came in below worried as only a parent can be to see a smiling face, “its ok dad, I don’t need the rescue rangers”.

That afternoon he overturned and started skiing backwards, he looked at me for a minute to see if I was going to give him the ok before deciding he did not care what I thought because he was enjoying it. He proceeded to do lovely turns all the way into the lift line.

So why is this so great? Well normally we teach a snow plough early in the progression. The call of “pizza, pizza, french fries” is a familiar one to any skiing parent. I struggle with this because we are teaching that control has to be forced. Rather than harnessing natural power, we demonstrate fighting it and all of this has to be unlearned later. If instead we choose our environment wisely, and learn patterns and laws of nature playfully we come away both far wiser and far happier. If having gained suitable understanding we intentionally surrender ourselves to these laws that is when we have optimal experiences.

How much of what you are doing at the moment feels like fighting? Is there a way to feel like you are going with the flow?

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Thoughts on Physical Education

“We’re on a mission to make self-reflection hip for just a moment, just long enough to save us.” Jamie Catto

I have a thought that if the word diversity refers to looking for difference then university can be about seeking unity. For me education works best when it moves to bring people together through learning. Two men who have taken this concept of seeking similarities a great deal further are Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Cato of 1 Giant Leap http://www.myspace.com/1giantleap; a concept band and media project that travels the globe collecting music and video images on a laptop. What makes this wonderful project so distinctive is that they layer music from around the world onto a track having provided an initial beat. Through this we hear both the similarities and the unique nature of each artist performing within a whole while knowing that they are separated by continents and cultures. This surely is a wonderful metaphor for education.

When thinking about what Physical Education can be I am also drawn to 1 Giant Leap, watching their videos something becomes apparent. Humans were made to move. Naturally we are movement literate, we are made to walk, run, jump and dance. Somehow through a sedentary and mechanized western lifestyle we educate ourselves out of this natural state.

When I look at it from this perspective physical education becomes a different paradigm. I no longer wish to focus on teaching “how to” sports classes or even an interest in lifetime activity. Suddenly I find myself passionate about encouraging reconnection with movement and experimenting with its subtlety; I want students to play with timing and balance, and to examine their range of motion. It fills me with excitement when I can suggest a holistic outlook and examine philosophy through movement. Take an activity like Le Parkour; a contemporary, viral and frequently urban discipline, which is based on the idea that obstacles are ramps into a new world of opportunity. As part of the activity a traceur (practitioner of Parkour) replaces the concept of obstacle as barrier and substitutes it instead with the obstacle being something to be played with, explored and ultimately as providing a chance to develop a new skill. A traceur will experience this reality many times in their average “jam” and suddenly it becomes their truth when transferred into life in general.

As a physical educator I want my students to feel rhythm through their core and be so moved by it they spontaneously erupt in movement that fills them with joy and a sense of satisfaction. I want them to remove rules from this movement and just let themselves go and be happy in their expression. I want them to create community through their sharing of this expression.

It is important to me that students see movement for what it is an integral part of life, one that has ramifications on their whole. Fitness is about far more than looking good. Thinking of it purely in terms of cardiovascular disease is limiting. Movement allows all parts of your body to function better; it promotes happiness, learning and a healthy mental state. It is the lubricant for a life that is balanced and fulfilling.

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