5 Steps to Mastering Any New Skill in Sport

By Syd Schulz, CTS Athlete

One of the most important skills I’ve learned as a professional mountain biker is how to learn. Why? Because I used to be bad at it, and now I’m not. In order to grow as an athlete, progress in a career, or build a successful relationship, learning to learn is as important as any particular fact or skill you pick up along the way.

In the past, my learning process was a certified disaster. If I didn’t pick something up in the first session, I immediately assumed I would never figure it out. I was hampered by a series of (mostly imaginary) limitations — “I don’t hit drops”, “I suck at riding wet roots”, “I’m not strong” — and I would frequently melt down after a bad workout or skill sessions.

It took a while, but I slowly developed a process for learning new skills that was actually effective — in fact, far more effective than I ever would have imagined in my previous headspace. I’ve learned to corner my bike properly, to hit large drops, to slackline, and most recently, to FINALLY do a pull-up. The best part is that this process works for bike skills, and pretty much everything else.

Step One: Start where you are, not where you think you should be.

This was a big one for me. For the first two years I raced mountain bikes I was hampered by feeling I was constantly playing catch up with racers who were ahead of me in every way (I’m not going to lie, I still feel like that way occasionally). This meant anytime I went to practice my jumping skills, my point of reference would always be that massive drop so-and-so hit and posted a picture of on Instagram. (Social media can be evil in this regard). With a reference point so far from where I was at that time, I was setting myself up to fail. There was literally no way to succeed.

Lofty goals are great, but not if they drive you nuts, and not if they’re based on what someone else is doing. To truly learn something, you have to accept your starting point, even if it is far from your end goal. Can’t do a push-up? Start on your knees. Can’t run a mile? Run for one minute, walk for two, and then repeat. Can’t ride a drop on your mountain bike? Start by popping off a curb. It is smarter and more courageous to swallow your ego and start small than to fall for the “go big, or go home” trap.

As the wise philosopher Drake once said, “Started at the bottom, NOW WE HERE.”

Step Two: Develop a growth mindset and ditch your limits.

I’ve written about growth mindset and the importance of replacing negative phrases with positive ones. All those “I can’t” statements are unhelpful, and untrue. If you believe you can change, you can. If you believe you can improve, you can. Serious physical or health limitations aside, our minds are almost always our biggest limiting factor. Given enough time, patience, and direction, you will be able to do things you now see as impossible.

Step Three: Practice. Practice. Practice. Patience. Patience. Patience.

We’ve all heard of the 10,000-hour rule and a million renditions of “practice makes perfect.” And yet, many people – including me – have an inner narrative that goes something like this: “It’s not that I’m not willing to put in the practice, it’s that I don’t get it. I’m not making any progress, I’m just making the same mistake over and over again.

The truth is, incremental improvement is sometimes hard to see, and sometimes you have to fail for days on end before it clicks and your body and mind start working together. If you want to learn something new, do it every day, but not for too long. For skills work in sports, for instance, you want to attempt or repeat the skill several times, but not for so long that you become too fatigued or frustrated to make additional progress. I find 15 to 30 minutes per day of working on a new skill is ideal, as I don’t get too tired and frustrated to feel positive about the session when I’m done. Be honest, how many times in your life have you practiced the same skill every day for a week? For a month? If the answer is never, you aren’t fully tapping into your potential to learn.

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Step Four: Get to know your learning process.

I find I go through a pretty similar cycle every time I try to learn a new skill. The first few sessions are great. I start to see improvement as I pick off the low hanging fruit and grasp the theory of the skill. Then, once I understand the theory, I expect myself to immediately be able to execute it. After all, I can see myself doing it in my head, I understand what I’m supposed to be doing, so why is it so hard?

This phase is the hardest and it can go on for days, weeks, or even months. It can be frustrating and infuriating. I usually hit a point where I get angry and want to give up. And then, just when I’ve relegated myself to never being able to do it, something clicks. Now that I’ve gone through this cycle a few times I can recognize the signs, and while I still get frustrated, I embrace it as part of the process. I now know I have to push through a lot of rough practice sessions to get where I’m trying to go.

If you are struggling with a new skill or process, examine whether the way you’re trying to learn it has been a successful learning process for you in the past. If the answer is no, then see if there’s a way to address this new skill or process that fits your preferred learning style.

Step Five: Seek expert advice and be open to it.

Many people are willing to seek expert advice, but far fewer are ready to take advantage of it. Being truly open to advice isn’t possible until you’ve embraced Steps One – Four. For example, if you refuse to accept your starting point, you probably won’t like the advice you get. Coaches have an uncanny ability to see through your BS and discern your actual ability level. Unless you’ve accepted where you are, you might chafe at being told to work on your core strength instead of doing heavy deadlifts. (Everyone hates planks. Yet, nearly everyone needs to do more of them.). Likewise, if you have a lot of self-imposed limits, you will drive your coach up the wall with “I can’t” statements. And if you don’t practice, you’re wasting everyone’s time. However, once you master the first four steps you will find yourself more open to expert advice, which helps you make more significant changes and make greater progress.

Syd Schulz is a professional mountain bike racer, focusing on enduro events. She is also a writer, blogger and lifestyle athlete. Currently based in Taos, NM, she grew up in Ohio and started riding bikes as a kid in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Over the past three years, she has raced her bike on four different continents and traveled all over the United States in a dirt-bag van (see the van profiled in Outside Magazine here!). Her blog focuses on inspirational content and stories of her own personal development. Her goal is to inspire others to tackle their biggest hurdles in life (and on the bike).

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Comments 9

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  3. Wassup man I really like the content you post and you are right my brother. I’m a former basketball player and I currently a high school basketball coach and I love to see these soon to be stars develop not only in sports but in life. While putting in the effort you have shown I also use this very efficient product to help my players get better. https://bit.ly/2V4malZ I thank you for inspiring me

  4. Syd, you are spot on!

    Your advice came at a crucial time in my outdoor sports life. I’m relearning how to cross country ski and I’m the type of athlete that needs to perform at the highest level, always and every time!
    I decided to go cross country skiing off the beaten path and take on snow covered technical bike trails the other day. I usually run those technical bike trails throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons, but cross country skiing them is another beast!

    I took on a few down-hills with my cross country skis and it was “terrifying!”
    After almost doing the human “banana splits” on the first hill, I was able to ski down a couple more steep hills without killing myself.
    I’m going out today, but I’m going to approach it with the advice from your article, thanks!

  5. Great article, thanks Syd. For CF above. Like your correction, “practice makes better”. Different phrase but encompasses everything equally well, imho, “Perseverance pays”.

  6. Would add one correction. “Practice makes better.” If you set the bar at perfection it is equivalent to starting with “the big drop”. Celebrate the small steps, the small incremental victories rather than always chasing perfection or unicorns.

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