Learning never stops. In fact, you could say that after you leave school there is even more to learn than ever before. However, the earlier we start to engrain a philosophy of lifelong learning into our young people, the better. Professional athletes make lifelong learning a habit from an early age because they know that they cannot reach peak performance without it.
Readers of my previous blogs already know of my philosophy of ‘there is no destination’, which has guided me throughout my time in sport, business and education. For me, ‘there is no destination’ means that there is always more to achieve and drives me to constantly look for new ways to improve.
In athletics, even after months of hard work, any improvement might be measured in just a split second. The margins are miniscule, so I learnt to appreciate those small successes but also to enjoy the process of learning. Making learning fun, appreciating small successes and making lifelong learning a habit is definitely something I have taken from the track into my work as Elite Performance Coach at BISS Puxi.
Making lifelong learning a habit is easy to say and difficult to do. It takes a certain discipline and perseverance and to be honest, often comes from getting through tough experiences rather than reading a book. Fortunately, I have had plenty of tough experiences to get me there!
As an ambitious young athlete, I was obsessive about beating a sub 11 second 100m time, which was the benchmark for youth level athletes at that stage. (Please note, this is not to be confused with the world class sub 10 barrier). In 1994, everything was there for me to break that sub 11 barrier. I had had a great winter training programme and was in peak form; both my coach and training colleagues had the confidence in me and we all expected me to reach my goal – it just didn’t happen.
I couldn’t believe it! There was just no logical reason why I should not be smashing this barrier after the months of hard graft that I had put in. I was massively disappointed and whilst my coach encouraged me, I knew deep down that they would be disappointed too. It’s at the time when you hit a wall that you can’t get over, or that you receive a crushing blow like an injury, that the wisdom of experience and the habit of lifelong learning must kick in, for you to get through.
My first reaction was to drive harder, channelling my frustration into the task. I worked with the team to make changes to the way I was running, which improved my performance, but I could not break the sub 11. I ran a race and gave it everything I had and hit 11.01 seconds - just a split second away from my goal. I felt miserable! I had been so close and yet so far away from my goal. It seemed to me that it did not matter if I trained hard, had a massive tailwind or would even run downhill - I would ever reach sub 11 second for the 100m! There was something that I was missing.
The missing piece, of course, was the habit of lifelong learning. My obsession with the goal had led me to a very numerical-focused approach – and that approach had taken me a long way forward. However, for me to reach peak performance and to break the sub 11 benchmark for that level, I needed to get back in touch with why I love athletics. I had to reconnect with loving the process of training, I needed to feel satisfaction from the split second progress I was making. I needed to understand that all this was the path to the sub 11 which would come and would just be one part of a bigger journey towards greater things.
Having refocused my mind on the idea of ‘there is no destination, my time finally came. In the (not so) glamorous surroundings of Blackpool Athletics Stadium at the English Schools Championship I finally ran a sub 11 time of 10.66.
Don’t get me wrong, breaking sub 11 goal felt great – but if I had not taken the lifelong learning approach of having fun in my training and appreciating every step of the journey, I would never have made it. After that experience, whenever I have hit a wall, I cast my memory back to that moment and I know what I need to do to push through. At BISS Puxi, I like to really stretch the children to be the best that they can be. Sometimes, that can bring tough moments for them, but I know with the right coaching they will grow all the more for it.
A habit of lifelong learning is important for when times are tough but essential for when you start getting a little bit of success. Again, my philosophy of ‘there is no destination’ ensures that I am always looking to push myself to improve and the habit of lifelong learning can do the same for you.
When I achieved the status of Junior European Champion and won my gold medal, I had achieved one of my goals as an athlete. I was respected amongst my peers and I had a lot of people saying lots of nice things about me. It was a dream come true and encouraged me to strive further. But it was also a dangerous comfort zone that inhibited me from making greater progress and I knew it.
My coach, Wayne Morant, and the team of athletes I trained with were a large part of my success up to that point. We had all worked hard together and shared many successes and failures. I am who I am, in part, thanks to these people. I also knew in my heart that in order for me to grow, I needed to somehow break away from this group and train with athletes who were better than me and who would drive me to the next step.
Peak performance is not just about hard work. It’s about making tough decisions and having the courage to have difficult conversations when you need to. After everything that Coach Wayne and the boys had done for me, how would they react? How could I possibly tell them this? Would they see this as arrogance or a lack of gratitude? I very much hoped not, as that was not my intention.
I framed the conversation around lifelong learning with Wayne, which was natural because we had already developed a relationship of constantly seeking to improve in whichever way possible. I won’t say it was an easy conversation but as a professional coach and a lifelong learner himself, he understood my intention of ‘there is no destination’ and my desire to improve.
I have only fond memories of Coach Wayne and the athletes in the squad. I left on good terms and I value our lessons learnt to this day. Moving on, I also spent time in the USA, working with sprint legends such as Tyson Gay, Veronica Campbell and Debbie Ferguson to name a few; again at the highest level we all pushed ourselves to new heights. At BISS Puxi, I work with the student athletes and if I think any of them are getting comfortable I make sure I stretch them. We have the Nord Anglia Games which is a great opportunity for BISS Puxi student athletes to compete with our other nine schools in China. Through the Games, they learn very quickly that there is always someone better out there – and if you don’t find them, they will find you!
Next time, we will look at M for Motivation. If you think I enjoy springing out of bed for a 6 a.m. training on a cold winter morning in Coventry, you would be very wrong! So, we will look at ways of keeping ourselves motivated towards sustained peak performance. See you then!