The making of an Expert

To learn it more deeply, teach it.

Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code’ is one of my favourite books. It is a goldmine of tips on developing skill. It debunks the myth that talent is born. Instead, demonstrating through examples of the author’s research, how talent is developed. Ten thousand hours of deep practice is the core premise of becoming an expert.

What is deep practice?

Deep practice involves struggle. It is a cycle of paying attention to errors and practicing again by making a correction in the quest for a better attempt.

The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.

Daniel Coyle

The theory is pertinent to any skill being developed. We often classify our skill level based on years of experience. However, this is not a true measure of skill. The amount of time spent gaining experience is only worthwhile if the practice involves extending your capabilities by making mistakes and being particular about correcting errors.

I have posted previously with some thoughts on how we can be misled into discouragement. Expert information is powerful and let’s be honest, it’s something that some experts try to protect for their own security. We need to debunk some myths on that journey:

  • Years of ‘experience’ by itself does not make an expert. The willingness to struggle over and over learning from mistakes is the key to becoming an expert. Reaching the top level of talent takes about 10,000 hours of this process.
  • It is not a linear process. Change follows a very chaotic pattern which is mostly hidden from view in the recounting of how people reached success.

In Daniel Coyle’s book he has researched some of the talent ‘hotbeds’ where exceptional skill is mastered; the soccer schools of Brazil, the tennis academy in Moscow, the writing of the Bronte sisters. The author has found similarities in all of these skill incubators – Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching.

Ignition is the energy, passion and commitment. It is the motivational fuel to make the struggle worthwhile. In my own experience of running a grassroots vaulting club, the ignition is absolutely critical. It is the first part of developing skill. For our club to begin, we looked to the top performers to provide our ignition. They were the inspiration where we could see the future possibilities. Our vaulting club was started in 2014, the year that the New Zealand vaulters competed in the World Equestrian Games in France.

The other part of the developing exceptional talent is the coaching. One important skill of the coach is that they are absolutely committed to the development of their students.

One does not become a master coach by accident.

Daniel Coyle

The skills of master coaches are not grandiose and a mere radiance of their presence. This is why a highly acclaimed expert is often not the most successful coach. Master coaches have the following similarities:

  • Listening far more than they talk.
  • Older and reserved.
  • Less inclined to give inspiring speeches and pep talks.
  • Spending the most time offering small and deliberate alterations to student practice.

Our Real Life Experience – the making of a vaulter

The journey of my daughter, Jasmyn, is a great example of some of the concepts in this post. Our vaulting journey began in 2014 when we attended Equidays and Jasmyn met the Kapiti Vaulting Club team that had represented New Zealand at the World Equestrian Games. In this video Jasmyn is trying vaulting for the first time as part of the youth camp at Equidays.

From then on Jasmyn was hooked, the ignition had been started! She had two collaborators to help her in this journey – me (Mum) providing the resources to allow her to practice, and her younger sister who was equally keen to do gymnastics on horseback.

Then came five years of practice. Jasmyn wasn’t afraid of making mistakes and trying again. In fact she had printed out a saying and posted it on her wall.

Don’t be afraid to fail

(jasmyn’s wall quote)

That quote served us a few times in our struggles and suffering of major setbacks. We tried to create a financially stable club – we failed at that, but continued using our own resources to keep vaulting and train others. We were privileged to be given a trained horse, but he had difficulties and we ended up having to retire him early. There were consequences for our lack of funding and after a few tries, we decided that it was not viable for us to run camps. But we took every opportunity that came our way, from performing at local events to attending the vaulting camps and club competitions at the Kapiti vaulting club and eventually joining them to perform at Equidays .

Our little club that was operated from our home barn gained a presence in the online vaulting world with videos of our training sessions on Muriwai beach. This attracted some highly experienced European vaulters to stay with us while travelling in New Zealand, providing us with expert coaching. Our lovely 18.1hh horse, Tiny, gifted to us from the Kapiti Vaulting club, was certainly a catalyst on this vaulting adventure.

After sending Tiny on to live a more relaxed life with a new family, we only had our smaller Clydesdale crossbred horse, Hugo, to carry on our performances. As Hugo became slower with age we even had our little 13.2hh pony in some events. It was not ideal, but Jasmyn and our small group of vaulters continued despite the barriers, and driven by the inspiration of the Kapiti Vaulting club and the vaulters who had came to coach us. The calendar of the 2014 performance at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France was still hanging up in our hay barn beside the vaulting barrel and a wall mirror for perfecting those moves on the barrel. Our skills at performing to music were improving as we showed up at more events doing our own performances and watching other performers, learning from mistakes and also successes. We studied what others were doing, and also developed our own flavour and creative skills. The following video shows the girls practicing one of the performances, as they did judiciously for hours on the barrel in the barn. It was later performed on Tiny at his last vaulting event.

In 2017 we purchased a big warmblood called Chico to replace Tiny, but we were sadly misled in this purchase, costing us quite a bit of money for a horse that was not suitable for vaulting – in fact he was a rehabilitation case and we ended up exhausting our finances trying to help him. The vaulting club pretty much ground to a halt in that phase. We gave a big push to reinvigorate it by offering vaulting barrel lessons, but that didn’t take off. Another fail.

Jasmyn kept going though. While our vaulting club had come to a demise, she looked further afield, setting her sights on making the New Zealand team that was aiming to compete at the Vaulting World Championships for Juniors in 2019. At 14 years old she was invited to Kapiti, with a host family arranged, and she went to train with the club in their build up to the World Champs. She had some catching up to do, not having done canter vaulting in a while and having started vaulting a few years later than most of the team. The determination was there and she was selected to the New Zealand team, culminating in her international vaulting debut. Jasmyn went to compete in Europe in 2019, with only a few chances to practice before this competition on a completely unfamiliar horse (and she exercises her motto with perfection here, keeping going after a fail).

Jasmyn had been an integral part of the Waimauku Vaulting Club, teaching others at clinics and lessons over the years. We went on that journey with her, keeping the motivation around for her to reach upwards. Her vaulting continues now through the Kapiti Vaulting Club. There are still momentus barriers from our little island in the Pacific where there is no formal competition, and the recent world pandemic state has isolated us even further from aiming for another achievement. But maybe it’s a little ‘hotbed’ for vaulting here in New Zealand? The ingredients are here and the struggles and failures are certainly real. Perhaps that makes us all that more determined to get there in the end.

Even the most creative skills—especially the most creative skills—require long periods of clumsiness.

Daniel COYLE