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“We Don’t Just Talk About Rowing
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“We Don’t Just Talk About Rowing – We Actually Row!”

Learning New Technique Makes My Brain Hurt

Learn New Technique makes my Brain Hurt

Hi everyone, it’s your masters rowing coach Rebecca here, and today, let’s talk about a subject that affects every rower but few like to talk about—learning a new technique.

Whenever I coach masters, I find that these talented adults overthink everything I say. I know, they are trying to learn something and maybe want to please the coach, but there is something to say about not overthinking when learning new techniques.

That’s understandable, but do you remember learning how to drive? Remember how you thought that there was too much to do, too many things to think about at once, and too many things to look out for?

Now you can probably drive without thinking about it. That is exactly the goal I have for the masters that I coach. Unconscious competence. I’ll talk more about that later on.

If you would like to learn new techniques minus the headache, get on board!

The Workings of the Human Brain

4-Stage Progression Human Brain

There is a 4-stage progression that every human goes through when learning a new skill.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

This means that you are doing something poorly, but you don’t know how poorly you’re performing.

2. Consciously Incompetent

This is when you somehow become aware of how badly you are doing something because someone tells you or you discover on your own.

3. Consciously Competent

This is when you can skillfully execute something, with conscious thought about doing a technical point and making an effort to accomplish it.

4. Unconscious Competence

This is when you can skillfully do something, such as rowing (or driving), without thinking about it.

This is a natural process that everyone goes through, regardless of what they are trying to learn.

If you’re a coach, you can use your knowledge about this natural progression to help your crew acquire the technical skills they want without the headaches that go with it.

If you’re an athlete, you can also use this for self-coaching.

Using the 4 Stages of Competence to Learn New Skills

When it comes to rowing, nearly everyone will start at the consciously incompetent stage of learning. You know you want to accomplish something, and you know that you are NOT doing it correctly but have no idea where to go from there.

Coaches can introduce exercises and drills to isolate the portion of the rowing stroke that you want to learn. This will immediately push you into the conscious competence stage.

team of young rowers earning new rowing technique

Check that out! See if you can do the drill as your coach teaches you, then see if you can integrate the new skill into your rowing. If your answer is yes to both, you’ve already made progress. Congrats! You’re now consciously competent for that skill!

Now, the trick is moving from conscious competence to unconscious competence, the part where you do it without thinking.

Let’s say that you’re trying to learn an early square during recovery. While rowing, think about the steps involved in the drill as you perform it. Are you squaring early while thinking about it?

Now continue rowing without thinking about squaring early or anything for 10 strokes. Then, return to actively thinking about squaring early without changing your rowing technique but instead observing your stroke. Are you still squaring early?

If you’re not, then correct your execution so you go back to squaring early. If you’re still squaring early, then you don’t need to change anything. Continue rowing without thinking about it. After 10 rows or so, check your stroke as objectively as possible, and make necessary changes if you’re not doing it correctly.

Keep repeating the steps of thinking/not thinking and checking/correcting until you have trained yourself to do an early square without thinking about it.

Coaches, you can act like a coxswain and call it. “Early square. Early square. Early square. Early square. Early square.” Then stay silent for the next 5 strokes. Repeat this several times and when you think that your athlete may be ready, don’t say anything, just see if your rower is still doing the early square without you telling them to.

Self-Coaching (Inner Voice)

Now, we all have an inner voice that goes along with us no matter where we go or what we do, right? You know, it’s the one that tells you— “Turn right at the next corner,” or “Wait, is that a sale at my favorite store?” or “Don’t eat the second donut, you don’t need it,” etc.

lady rowing on water

This inner voice is very influential on your ability to learn. Children don’t have this inner voice but unfortunately learn it from the adults they deal with.

If you tell your child every day that they are clumsy, guess what? They will be.

This is why some adults have a harder time learning new things. They hear that inner voice telling them, “You’re too stupid to do this” or “You take forever to do anything.”

Someone once described this inner voice as a tape recorder. When an adult is faced with a new situation (or is trying to learn a new skill) this triggers the ON button on the tape recorder, and it plays the same tape that was recorded when they were children (You’re dumb, you’re slow, you’re clumsy).

It’s time to change that tape!

You can record over that tape, but it does take some effort.

Be objective every time that voice pops up. Are you really clumsy? Didn’t you learn to row faster than all your classmates?

Now it’s time to record over that tape. Every time you hear that negative thought, say to yourself, “That isn’t true. I am X, I am X, I can do X.”

Keep repeating it. It may take months, it may take years, but you can learn to quiet that inner voice and make it more affirming and productive.

Don’t Multi-Task, Don’t Multi-Think

Multi-tasking is a real thing, but unfortunately, you CANNOT think about multiple things at the same time. You may think quickly, but even Olympian rowers (or famous rowers) cannot think about multiple things at the same time.

man resting after rowing training

Rather than even try to multi-think, focus on one aspect of the stroke. Just one. Later, you can add a second, complementary action. Then try to do these two things in a single motion.

One example of this would be to work on improving power in the second half of your stroke. You can start by activating your backswing, then add the arm draw to the backswing, and finally, put these both together in a single stroke.

Don’t forget to fight that inner voice. Your subconscious believes everything your conscious mind thinks, so instead, make yourself a mantra that says, “I am X, I am X, and I can do X”.

Don’t be shocked when you discover that you really are X, and you really did X!

At the End of the Day

At the risk of repeating myself, someone once told me that if the whole world were lumberjacks, we would be sitting on tree stumps, not furniture.

lady learning to row on water

This means that some people are just naturally better at some things than others. Some people learn some things faster, other people become truly amazing at certain tasks even if it took them longer to learn it.

Don’t berate yourself if you take more time to learn a new technique. Not everyone is a carpenter, and not everyone is a decorator. You are you, with all your flaws and all your perfections. That’s what makes each one of us special, right?

As I once saw on a bumper sticker, “I’m not perfect, but parts of me are excellent!”

Remember to rerecord that tape, that practice makes perfect, and you will get there in no time.

2 thoughts on “Learning New Technique Makes My Brain Hurt”

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