Intentional Leader

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How being present can help us get better

Last week, my 6 year old son went back to his swim lessons after his holiday break. He was very excited about getting back in the pool as were his class mates. You could tell the kids were happy to see each other as they put on their “floaties”. What I didn’t know then was that I was going to observe a terrific lesson on being present.

Let’s start with a bit of context

When we develop a habit, or more precisely, an intuition or a way of doing something like swimming, it is extremely hard to change that “natural” way of doing it. This inertia persists even when we’re aware that there is a better way. Take a few moments to reflect on a conscious habit that you have changed in the past or want to change and your experience through that change.

Typically, as we’re working on this transformation, our thoughts sometimes shift to the past – “What was wrong with the old way? How did I get here? How does what I’m doing now compare with then”. Sometimes they shift to the future – “When will I be perfect? What will it look like in the future? How much of a gap is there to overcome?”. These thoughts, distractions, lead us down a rabbit hole of further analysis.

Recall what it felt like when you realized you had slipped into those thoughts and that realization immediately shot you back into the present – the realization of time that was lost in ineffective thought, having no idea how, or even if, you were progressing, the instant feeling of lost time followed by a surge of focus, of hyperawareness followed by pickup in your speed or a more perfect stroke. Suddenly, you’re present and involved and making progress!

Imagine if you could stay in that focused state and not slip into the thinking/distracted state. You could be more effective in building that new skill or changing that habit simply because of more time spent without distraction – just doing, not thinking. When we’re present, we are aware of various thoughts but we’re no longer driven to act on them immediately instead we let them pass as our mind is totally aware of the activity and the intention we’re engaged in. Thus we build mastery through focused practiced and achieve joy through continuously experiencing progress.

Getting back to the story

The kids didn’t know that they were going to learn a new swim technique that day. One that was completely new and different. Up until then, they had always paddled their hands and feet and for many this was second nature whenever they swam across from one side to the other. This time, the teacher wanted them to switch to a technique of alternating an arm movement with a leg movement. This is definitely hard and you could see the kids mentally struggle with the concept as she described it. An awkward, clumsy movement like someone learning to juggle for the first time.

Not only did this teacher break down the individual movements for practice with a swim aid, but she, inadvertently, gave a master class in being present and aware. She would randomly ask kids to practice the movement and then help a few while another junior teacher helped the others. The impact was immediate and large as the kids were randomly split in 3 at different times.

1. Baseline group – pretty much left to their own devices to learn. They largely reverted back to the old movement and awkwardly made progress when she checked them at the end (for the most part – one kid was a natural)

2. Full attention group – whenever the teacher had her full attention on a kid, they would focus on the movement and keep learning and getting better at it. In other words, she was preventing their mind from getting into distraction mode and keeping it in “be present” mode. At the end, this group had nearly mastered a conceptually difficult stroke without a swim aide.

3. Partial attention: The junior teacher had a more hands off approach where they got only occasional guidance and a few more laps. This group, despite theoretically having more practices, was a mixed bag and progressed somewhat but not even nearly as much as group 2, rather closer to group 1. My son was in this group.

The learning

So I got to witness a really important and observable lesson on the value of being present and coincidently it was referenced on one of my recent guided runs too. The coach pointed out how being present and aware of our intention, our movement and our environment during a run, puts us in a flow state by reducing the inner chatter, allowing us to bring our whole mind and body to the run and ultimately developing mastery when being present every time is combined with consistent practice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. What was helpful for you?

Take care and be safe!

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