Pushing Past the Plateau

Tips for handling the halt in technique progression

Reaching and staying at the plateau. Photo: Aaron Schmidt

By: Thomas Hall

I thought I would begin this series of tips by sharing my secrets for dealing with one of the fundamental, and insanely frustrating, features of skill development: the plateau.

The plateau is something I wrestled with throughout my athletic career. In trying to master the vagaries of the sprint canoe stroke, I would frequently find myself arguing with my coach about whether or not I had done something right. “That was better?” I’d say. “Nope,” Coach Mike would reply, “angle’s still off.” I would argue, and Mike would show me the video he had taken during practice: a frame-by-frame dissection of me failing to do what I was so certain I had finally done right. I came to learn that a common occurrence in skill acquisition is that you digress before you progress; that skill acquisition is itself a skill and you can’t force it.
No matter how stubborn you are, your neuromuscular system will dictate the speed at which you learn something new. It turns out patience is the secret. When you know, inside and out, what you have to do, but you just can’t put it together and find yourself making silly mistakes, you’ve reached a point where you have to let your body catch up to your brain. In other words, forget about it for a while.

Here’s an example:
You’ve planned a weekend trip to your favorite wave. You’ve been practicing a spin for a while now, and you’re convinced this is the weekend you’ll nail it. You’ve dreamt about it at work instead of answering emails. You’ve visualized it; you’ve watched YouTube examples for hours. You’re ready.

Arriving at the wave, you warm up appropriately and then get comfortable surfing the wave. Everything is going great. You try a spin, miss it, try again, miss it again. Hmm, something isn’t right here; this isn’t going according to plan. You try a few more times and find yourself barely capable of surfing anymore because you’re so focused on getting that damn spin. What to do?

The three-step process to get past a plateau:
-First, and critically, forget the spin. If you’re making mistakes you wouldn’t normally make, your body is saying, “Enough is enough.” Listen to it.

-Next, have fun. Whether you like yoga, or reading, or doing paddling moves you’re comfortable with, just do something unrelated to the spin for a while.

-Finally, try again. Just later. Maybe it’s later that day, or maybe it’s next weekend, just allow yourself enough time to rest and have some fun before driving yourself crazy.

It’s that simple. Remember: you’re brain needs time to process, and you need to let it. By the following weekend, you’ll have spent another week thinking about the move, and you’re brain and body will be ready for another try.

Get that turn! Photo: Aaron Schmidt

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