What does your next move look like?

After I transitioned in athletics from clumsy reject to low performing bench warmer, I developed a reputation for hustling. Working as hard as I could, all the time, I rose to performing starter on the basketball team. My high school teammates referred to me as “the animal”. I thought I had arrived, this was what elite performers were made of and I was finally doing it.

Except I wasn’t. I thought the harder I tried the more I’d improve. Turns out, improvement is an outcome of intention, quality and effort. I was missing the quality aspect of it.

When I showed up at Cal’s Ky Ebright boathouse, a novice to rowing, I kept up my approach: push harder, run myself into the ground, pick myself up, repeat, thinking I was developing a higher ability to endure the discomfort of this new “elite” training I was participating in. On one occasion, I pushed myself so close to the edge on a 2000-meter ergometer (rowing machine) test that I blacked out during the final minute.

Given that pushing harder would make me unconscious, I pondered what it would take to produce that coveted higher level of performance. I was sure I needed a “bigger hammer”, which meant growing larger and getting stronger. I’d soon learn why this was not the answer.

During varsity practice early the next season I was paired up with a visitor, Fred Honebein, the “stroke” (rhythm-setter) of the US Olympic rowing team. I vividly remember feeling inadequate, thinking, “I’m going to have to pull so hard to keep up with this guy, how will I even keep the boat straight”. And when we took to the water, the boat turned with every stroke just as I had expected it would. Except it turned in the wrong direction.  Eventually, Fred stopped rowing, turned around, and said to me, “Not like that.” I second-guessed what he wanted me to do — row harder!  We resumed rowing, and again I unsettled the boat. After three tries, Fred lectured me: “I’m not going to fight you this whole practice. I’m going to teach you how to row well. Now let’s continue at one quarter pressure.”

One quarter pressure seemed totally wrong. How could I go faster pulling less hard? Turns out I lacked the expertise and understanding to see how one quarter pressure would trigger a whole string of adjustments, resulting in faster boat speed.

At first my movements were clumsy and uncoordinated. The boat responded in kind, rocking side to side and traveling forward unsteady. I thought I was failing, but Fred stepped in. Piece by piece he instructed changes to my rowing stroke without turning to look. He could feel everything I was doing. As the boat responded favorably Fred gave me time to practice each new stroke technique before adding new, progressively more complex focal points. School was in session and before I could stop to process it we were moving the boat along smoothly, applying strokes at 25% effort while traveling at the same speed I’d usually have to work 75% for.

The first big lesson: one must be willing to expose their weaknesses in order to turn limiting efforts into advantageous skills. I had been using effort, pressure, and rapid movement to compensate for lack of timing and leverage. Rowing at 25% pressure brought all of those stroke flaws out into the open, creating an opportunity for me to experiment with leverage. I was lucky to be rowing with an expert guide.

But my body couldn’t let go of the association it had made between boat speed and physical exertion. Fred called on me repeatedly to dial the pressure down. I thought we’d sit on this sticking point, but the lesson took a turn as we caught up with a pair of my teammates.

Now there is an unspoken rule among competitive teammates that goes: your bow must always be in front. Even when doing drills or paddling at light pressure, competitive rowers carry a deeply-seated need to have their bow in front of the boats they find themselves next to.

So as we caught the tail of another boat, rowed by two national team level athletes, Fred guided my attention. He knew I’d dump what we had worked on and instead go for exertion. “Hear how their stroke rate is up? We’re going to do the opposite. Bring it down one,” he said. We shifted down. Surprisingly, instead of matching the other boat’s speed, we moved closer. Of course, my pressure crept up, turning us off course, and again Fred called it down, directing my eyes into our boat and my attention on matching him. We inched forward on the other boat, under-stroking them until we pulled even. Fred finally let me look over. “Do you see how hard they’re working?” he said, calmly. “Now focus your eyes in our boat. Don’t pull any harder. We’ll get our weight just a little bit further off the seat as we practiced earlier.” We made the shift. Instantly we inched past the other boat twice as fast as we were moving on them before. After we pulled ahead a full boat’s length they peeled off in a new direction, exiting the contest.

The effectiveness of Fred’s rowing technique was obvious, but muscle and effort memory made it hard to let go of certain habits. Reproducing high quality rowing strokes continuously was a huge challenge, especially in the heat of a contest. It required being constantly aware and intentionally in control of my leverage, not just how much strength I applied to the oar.

All this happened in just the first half of one practice. Fred continued to help refine my technique and I rowed with him in two more practices. He helped me reintroduce effort, pressure and increased stroke rates without undoing the technical refinement. Over time that season I picked up gains in speed that outpaced my wildest imagination. I improved so rapidly that I made the second varsity team and we won the Pac-10 championship that year.

Looking back, there are three lessons on improvement that stand out, in particular, because since then I’ve seen them repeatedly work for others.

  1. Exposing weaknesses and limitations allow you to learn about yourself. If you stay curious, you’ll be able to identify and address the specific obstacles in your way.
  2. Accept that working on something new will feel foreign. Some discomfort is to be expected. Go along for the ride and pay attention to the outcomes you experience.
  3. Recognize when old habits introduce themselves into new efforts. It will happen. Practice letting go of what is detrimental to your practice.

A lot of effort can go into improving yourself. Being intentional about the way you practice and mindful of how the results change will ensure that you gain better outcomes. Sometimes the improvements in quality will seem small or insignificant, but stick with them. You will be justly rewarded.