Mistakes? What Mistakes?

Phil Smith, Director of Snoworks talks about the art of learning from mistakes.

As young kids we just ‘had a go’. We did not pre-judge the outcome of what we were about to do. We made mistake after mistake after mistake and we learnt fast. This cycle of making so-called mistakes went on and on and the process was called learning. But on our way to adulthood something often happens. We begin to get critiqued, told to do things in a certain way, told what we are doing is ‘wrong’ and how to do it ‘correctly’. Gradually over time our ability to experiment, discover and try can be eradicated from the learning process until we become adults and believe that if we listen to an instruction, try to imitate the instruction and then get corrected we will learn. We can become afraid of making mistakes, self-conscious of our performance and rather than experimenting, we try to conform. Our learning can often slow down to almost a point where we plateau unable to progress. We become addicted to ‘critique’ believing this is the best way to learn. We want to know what we are doing ‘wrong’ so we can do it so called ‘correctly’.

As young children, the learning is firmly in our hands. We have no preconceptions, no barriers, no inhibitions. We are free and in charge of how we learn. We play, mess around and try different things, learning is fun. Gradually as we grow up the power of learning often shifts from the learner to the coach. The coach becomes the font of all knowledge. Telling us what to do, how to do it, when to do it. Then when we do it, coach tells us if it’s right or wrong and how to correct it. We buy into this, believing this is the best way to learn. We become addicted to critique thinking if we are not critiqued how could we possibly learn. The joy of experimenting, discovering, making mistakes and learning from mistakes disappears.

Being told what to do and when to do it is crucial in a situation where immediate responses are needed and safety is paramount. But for learning to take place effectively we need to develop other skills. Skills such as the ability to discover, to experiment, to create, to try and most important the ability to make mistakes.

I often look at instruction in conventional ski coaching and compare it to skiers and snowboarders in the snow park. If a skier under instruction does something different to the norm it is often seen as incorrect, they are quickly critiqued and offered advice on how to do it correctly. If a freestyle skier does something different to the norm in the snowpark a cheer rings out from onlookers followed by a round of high fives. They are given praise for their inventiveness and every other kid rushes off to try what they’ve just seen.

In freestyle skiing, individuality and creativeness are actively encouraged and embraced. In ski teaching it’s often the opposite, conformity is encouraged and creativeness and individuality critiqued.

To become great learners we have to take back the responsibility of learning from the coach, teacher, instructor and place it firmly in our own hands. We have to remember how we learnt as children. A sponge, soaking up everything, loving every experience. We did not categorise experiences as ‘right’ and wrong, ‘better’ or ‘worse, they were just experiences, and the greater and more varied those experiences the greater the learning.

To become great learners we need to open our whole mind to learning and fully immerse ourselves in the process, enjoying every minute of it and that includes making mistakes. We need to experiment, discover, try. We have to enjoy everything that happens to us, as long as it does not endanger us. We must eradicate learning barriers like being ‘self-conscious’ and eradicate the fear of doing things ‘wrong’. We must be free to make mistake after mistake after mistake. These are all learning opportunities.

Taking back control of the learning process doesn’t make the coach redundant. On the contrary, the coach becomes even more involved in the learning process. They can guide us, be a sounding board for ideas, keep us safe, encourage us, raise the bar when needed, lower it when needed, help us to refocus when distracted, motivate us, help us set goals, praise us and give us a kick up the backside when we get lazy.

To emphasise the power of mistakes in the learning process I recently noticed my own kids were getting in the habit of apologising for their errors when they were involved in a team sport. I could hear them saying “sorry” every time they made a mistake. “Sorry for what?” I asked. “Sorry for making a mistake”. I went on to explain the learning process, the importance of errors and being free to experiment and try different things. I asked them instead of saying “sorry” every time they thought they had made a mistake to say, “thank you” instead. “Thank you for that learning experience”. They had a laugh about it but in the process of saying “thank you” rather than “sorry” they gradually became less scared of making errors and more excited about trying something different. In fact, learning suddenly became fun, experimenting became accepted and making errors became a valuable part of the learning process. The more they experimented and the more errors they were free to make the faster they learnt.

To get good at something you have to keep making mistakes. Mistake after mistake after mistake. In fact, never stop making mistakes. It’s only by making mistakes you progress from the known to the unknown.

Think if everyone in the world only did what was known. There would be no inventions, nothing new and everything would remain as it is. Luckily there are many that value errors and mistakes and keep on trying new things and experimenting, constantly making mistakes over and over again until they create something quite remarkable, a telephone, a car, a plane, a computer. In our situation as athletes it’s ourselves we are creating and it’s ourselves that will become remarkable but only if we are free to make mistakes.

Snoworks runs All-Mountain courses where freedom, individuality and creativeness are actively encouraged, where mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process. Where self-consciousness fades and confidence grows as skiers learn to cope with the ever-changing mountain environment.

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