How trying harder can hold you back

Imagine while parking your car, you suddenly feel a “crunch.” Oops! You hit a parking meter! Now, once you realized this, would you continue to go in the same direction, thinking “well, if I accelerate hard enough, I’ll be able to get through this obstacle”? And then if it didn’t work the second time, would you keep trying this over and over, trying to run over the parking meter to get it out of your way? Of course not. You would back up a bit and try again with a slightly different approach.

The same idea also applies to learning or refining physical skills

When we deal with clear, external obstacles, most of us can figure out a variety of different solutions. If we can’t go through obstacles, we go around them, over them, under them. But when we learn a new physical skill (or refine an existing one), many people try to keep running over the parking meter (so to speak). Instead of backing up and trying to find a slightly different approach to the problem, we keep trying to do the same thing—just with more force.

Why do we do this with physical skills, when we would never do it with external obstacles?

To begin with, the internal obstacles we run into when learning new skills are more subtle, and therefore easier to ignore than that parking meter we talked about. But there are other reasons people keep running full-speed ahead, in spite of a clear sensation of internal resistance or difficulty.

  • This approach is deeply ingrained in our culture. We even say: “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.” Note that the saying isn’t “if at first you don’t succeed, try a different approach.” No, we get messages throughout our life that we can achieve anything if we simply try hard enough. So we diligently apply our self-discipline and willpower to the problem, and keep hitting the metaphorical parking meter until it breaks.
  • It can be very gratifying, when it works. Smashing your way through an obstacle can make you feel very strong and powerful—like you could conquer anything. Some people enjoy this feeling of overcoming obstacles through brute force so much that they actively seek out very challenging situations that will allow them to experience this feeling of accomplishment over and over again. (I should know, I used to be one of them.)
  • We simply can’t find other options. We only know how to do it this one way, so we just try over and over, hoping that it will eventually work. We learned to find alternate solutions to the external obstacles in our life at a very young age. But very few of us learned how to find alternate solutions to the internal obstacles we run into when learning a new skill. (Side note: the Feldenkrais Method® excels at helping us find new options.)

So how exactly DO you find a different approach to learning a new skill?

Many different strategies can help; here are two to get you started.

1. Adjust your trajectory

Literally. Pay close attention to the trajectory of your movement. Then try changing that trajectory a tiny bit, and notice how that impacts the movement.

Example: If you go for a jog (or walk), pay attention to the trajectory of your leg as you run: does your knee go straight forward, or does it roll a little out or a little in? And what happens if you deliberately change that angle just a tiny bit? Experiment with several different tiny changes in your trajectory, and see what impact you create in the way your feet hit the ground, or in the way your pelvis and spine move.

2. Think of starting the movement from a different place 

When we learn a skill, our nervous system essentially learns a new pattern, not unlike a computer program. When we decide to do something familiar like jogging, our nervous system basically just runs the internal program that it has for “jogging.” The nervous system does this pretty automatically, without a lot of analysis about whether or not it could be working in a better way.

But if you consciously think of moving from a different part of your body than usual, you circumvent the default “jogging” program, and run a slightly different program instead. You’ll ultimately still be using the same muscles. But a slightly different combination of nerve endings will fire, which can make the movement feel VERY different.

Example:  Instead of jogging (or walking) on auto-pilot, think about leading the movement from your knees. Or from your toes. Or your heels. Or try starting the action by bending in the front of your hip. No matter which you choose, you’ll still jog. But thinking about starting the action from a specific place can help scramble your auto-pilot just enough to give it a chance to learn something new.

So next time you hit an obstacle in your learning, don’t keep running over the parking meter

Instead, take a moment to back up and adjust your approach. Resist the temptation to “muscle your way through” the problem, and instead look for a different strategy to get around the obstacle.

Take a moment now to think of either a new skill you’re trying to learn, or a familiar skill that you’d like to improve

Then choose one of the two new strategies to experiment with the next time you do the activity. Either try playing with tiny variations in the trajectory of your movement, or try initiating the movement from a different place in your body. Just like when you hit an obstacle in your car, you’ll find that making simple, small changes to your approach will make your movements a whole lot easier.

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