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Driving Cars and Kettlebells

Chris White Coaching

I have been lucky enough to travel to 48 of 50 states in this great country of ours and it was mostly due to my aunt. My aunt is a Holy Cross nun and while I was in junior high, she was celebrating the 25th anniversary of taking her holy vows. So, my parents decided to drive the family from California to South Bend Indiana to celebrate with her at the University of Notre Dame. Needless to say, this is when I developed my love for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Everything about the campus was stunning, but nothing was more beautiful than the pop top van my parents were driving.

Fast forward a few years and guess who was going to be driving that beast to high school! The seven passenger van with interior mood lighting, sun roof, back seat that converted into a queen bed, TV, and VCR was all mine! My siblings and I had outfitted the van with the original Nintendo, the original Star Wars movies on VHS, and rewired the lighting system to include a disco ball that would light up the interior with the flick of a switch. The only thing left to do was to learn how to drive.

When I first got behind the wheel with my mom in the passenger seat, we drove out to an empty dirt lot and every last bit of my attention had to be on controlling the van. No radio, no cell phone, no distractions and there weren’t even any other cars on the road! At that point, it took all of my focus to not make the van look like it had hydraulics when I was breaking and accelerating.

Fifteen years later with a few accidents and speeding tickets under my belt, my focus switched to other drivers around me and I didn’t have to think twice about which pedal to use. My driving experience is not unlike your journey to master the kettlebell, and as a coach you must possess a certain level of expertise when teaching the skill of strength.

In order to effectively develop talent and transfer knowledge, coaches need to be aware of the client’s journey on their road to expertise. Each phase of the journey is affected by a range of environmental constraints that can include factors such as: level of instruction, quality and frequency of feedback, opportunity to make decisions, type and frequency of practice, exposure to other sports, organismic factors and socio-economic/cultural limitations (Magill, 2007).

The stages are also accompanied by a level of attentional capacity which increases as a skill becomes more automatic. Think of attentional capacity as a giant balloon that is about to burst with everything you need to consider while performing a skill. As you continue to improve, that balloon no longer needs to be filled to the limit, and your reactions take over for your thoughts. You begin to own parts of the skill and can now focus on environmental factors like the other drivers.

The first step is to identify which stage of learning your client is currently experiencing. Fitts and Posner (1967) suggested that the learning process is sequential and that we move through specific phases as we learn.

There are three stages of learning a new skill:

Ricky Bobby Phase

This phase is more commonly known as the cognitive phase of learning. This stage is highlighted in Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby’s hands uncontrollably rise up while he is being interviewed for the first time. He famously states that he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. When you introduce clients to the HardStyle swing for the first time, they are Ricky Bobby. Awkwardness, errors, and confusion/disorientation are to be expected since all of your clients’ attention will be on what to do—not how to do it.

It is important for instructors to recognize the types of exercises and coaching behaviors most beneficial to provide athletes with the best possible foundation for growth during their time in this stage. Tasks should be structured for early success to ensure that the athlete or client’s confidence in their own competence grows. Visual representations of both skilled technique and beginner technique are the next essential steps of this phase.

According to Rohbanfard & Proteau(2011), mixed model observation results in a better conceptualization of the targeted task, compared to observing either a novice or expert model. Mixed model observation presumably leads to more active information processing for the formation of a standard of reference (or template) and error detection and correction mechanisms (which could result in the activation of more brain areas).

How long an athlete stays rooted within the cognitive stage depends on many factors. Some may simply never graduate from it. One of the best ways to help someone progress out of this stage is to provide them with measurable goals. This can be achieved through a range of tasks, sports, games and exercises.
When they can demonstrate an understanding and execution of a skill without conscious mechanical thought, their journey to the next stage of learning has begun.

Teen Phase

Clients are like teenagers during this stage. They think they know what they are talking about—but don’t know what they don’t know. This step—the associative stage—is frequently characterized by an emphasis on practice. At this stage, your client is now concerned with performing and refining skills. The conscious decisions about what to do are becoming more automatic.
Your client will continue to produce some of the same errors as in the cognitive stage, but less frequently. At this stage, the value of feedback, reflection, and adjustment are even more essential.
RKC Team Leade, Chris White Coaching

To maximize performance, attention to detail and corrections to complete a skill efficiently and effectively is critical. The value of deliberate practice should not be overlooked. Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity with the specific goal of improving performance.
In his research into the development of expertise, researcher Anders Ericsson believed that it would take an athlete 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve excellence. The deliberate practice framework suggests that it is not enough to simply practice skills—the sessions should focus on improving performance rather than gaining immediate social gains. Practice should be work-like (Farrow, Baker, & MacMahon, 2008).

Each time the brain completes a skill, an impulse/message is sent between the brain and the functioning body part. The generalized motor pattern (GMP) for that skill becomes more robust with every rep. The deeper your GMP, the faster an impulse travels from the brain to the moving muscle. This increases the efficiency and accuracy of the action, and reduces the time needed to complete the skill. The depth and detail of the feedback from coaches, and the technical nature of the practices are essential. Remember, practice makes permanent, but not necessarily perfect.

Money Phase

The last stage of learning is nearly automatic—in the same way that we walk automatically without conscious thought. At this point, the skill is well learned. There are few errors and athletes can detect and correct them. Now the athlete can concentrate more on other aspects of the game. I have nicknamed the autonomous phase, "The Money Phase," because if you’re in this phase, you should be yelling at Jerry Maguire to, "SHOW YOU THE MONEY!!!!"

In order for a skill to be autonomous, your client must have correctly developed all of the skills required in both the cognitive and associative stages. Physically, clients must be able to now combine the simple movements into specific, complex sequences in a smooth and flowing manner. The highly specific technical points within a skill (such as swinging a kettlebell) must now be unconsciously present.

Now that your client can effectively and efficiently execute the swing, snatch, or clean, they can focus on a range of visual cues that will influence decisions made during these exercises. This is the transition to expert and elite. In order to both achieve and remain in the autonomous stage, the clients must be consistently challenged by coaches.
According to Daniel Coyle, once the early success and understanding of a skill is achieved, a paradigm shift is unleashed—the effortless completion of a skill and demonstration of talent is almost seen as a negative thing. "Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways, and operating at the edges of your ability where you make mistakes, makes you smarter. We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn" (Coyle, 2009 pg. 18).
RKC Team Leader Chris White Coaching

So What?

Supply your athletes with detailed information in the early stage of learning. If you want your athletes to perform correctly, give them the correct information. You need to be clear and concise with your instruction—and you must know talking about. In other words, if you tell them, "In non-weight-bearing activities, the hamstrings generate a posterior shearing force of the tibia on the femur that increases as knee flexion increases and peaks between 75 and 90 degrees of knee flexion and although this posterior shear could reduce strain on the ACL, it may increase strain on the PCL," then you may need to tone it down, Bill Nye!

If your athletes don’t understand exactly what to do, they won’t do it correctly and if they don’t understand, it is your fault, not theirs. Speak to them in a language they can understand—or you may lose them! Continually remind them that if they trust you and stay committed to the new movement, eventually it will become automatic and improve their performance.

Be patient with your athletes during the associative stage. Based on the stages of learning, we now know that inconsistent movements characterize the associative stage. Performances aren’t always going to look like Steph Curry’s or feel very smooth at first; it is part of the process. In this stage, do not set up athletes for failure! Manage both your and their expectations.
Warn them that their performance will not immediately be glitter and rainbows. If you don’t, you will be disappointed, disillusioned, and perhaps even somewhat distraught—and your athletes will too. Remain patient and facilitate learning by creating process goals for them to achieve during their stay in this stage. Your impatience is likely to make your athletes anxious and impede their learning, whereas your patience and confidence will motivate them to persevere.

Stress the importance of positive information during the autonomous phase. Unfortunately, when things become automatic, there is plenty of extra room for distractions in your attention capacity balloon. Negative thoughts may begin to occupy the athletes’ brains and they may begin to reflect and repeatedly dwell on damaging and unproductive thoughts.
For example, some athletes focus on the outcome of competition and the thought, "What if I lose?" These thoughts are often unconscious and through sheer volume of constant repetition become overwhelming and overtake their working memory.

If you talk to an athlete during a competition and see a blank look on their face, it is time to re-center. Their entire focus is on an internal thought, and they are lost to the external world. Help your athletes fill their brains with the right stuff. Teach them to monitor their thoughts, use thought-stopping statements, redirect their thoughts, engage in positive self-talk, and answer negative thoughts and images with positive thoughts and images.

Final Thoughts
  1. Get your eyes on as many clients as you can and surround yourself with experienced coaches. Quickly assessing the stages of learning and problems with movement patterns will save your client’s time and money and will make exercise prescription much easier.
  2. Be a professional. Your clients are entrusting you with their health. If you don’t know, admit it and then help find the answer or refer out to another professional who can help.
  3. Allow them to fail but fail well. Failure is one of the best teachers since it teaches clients what not to do and will help them learn for themselves. If they must fail, teaching them how to fail without hurting themselves will keep them safe and allow them to train with you for a lot longer!

  1. Davis, B. et al. (2000) Physical Education and the study of sport. 4th ed. Spain: Harcourt. p.321
  1. Fitts, P.M. and Posner, M.I. (1967) Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks and Cole
  2. Magill, R. A. (2007). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  1. Rohbanfard, H., & Proteau, L. (2011). Learning through observation: A combination of expert and novice models favors learning. Experimental Brain Research, 215(3), 183-197.
  2. Farrow, D., Baker, J., & MacMahon, C. (2008). Developing sport expertise: Researchers and coaches put theory into practice. London: Routledge.
  3. Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn't born: It's grown, here's how. New York: Bantam Books.

Chris White CoachingRKC Team Leader, Chris White, MS, is an assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cal Poly, and can be contacted at Please mention RKC in the subject. You can follow him on Twitter: @DUBeastC.