Rhythm - an unrecognised and untapped dimension of coaching: seen through a perspective born of speed and risk by Simon Darnton

 Rumble strips on the exit of Hawthorns bend, Brands Hatch GP circuit.

Rumble strips on the exit of Hawthorns bend, Brands Hatch GP circuit.

It was around five thirty in the evening. A warm, sunny August evening. Delightful. The course was now almost deserted as I descended the start ramp on foot with Finn, my 9 year old son.

Finn has been into mountain bike riding since I bought him a cheap balance bike, almost before he could run and he promptly snapped the front forks doing tricks on it. He 'owns' more bikes than I do. He has been riding a downhill mountain bike for a couple of years already but hasn't until now been interested in racing. Until this summer..

We're at his second race, and he's asked to do a track walk this evening in preparation for tomorrow's race. I oblige.

Finn knows some of the names I have worked with. He has some posters of them, or their team, up on his wall and he's seen some of them on the TV. This doesn't mean he listens to me one bit. In fact, he likes to dissuade any input from me if he can. What do I know anyway? I'm just his dad.

Yet, I suppose the reality is that it's difficult to translate a static image on a wall into a dynamic, meaningful experience, even for adults. Those holiday snaps never quite capture the complete magic of the moment..'you had to have been there' I think is the appropriate phrase.

So as we're walking the top of the circuit, Finn is describing to me what he's looking out for, the lines he's choosing and why.

That's pretty normal fare in this game.

I kneel down next to him, and ask him to stop for a second at a place where we get a really good vantage point of a section of the course. I ask him whether he would like, not some tips or pointers, but just a suggestion that he might find useful for finding his own lines.

He replies: 'Yes okay, daddy, you can do that.'

Wow, I've just moved up a notch in the world hierarchy. The pressure's on.

So I describe how I think he is looking at the course. He's primarily focussed on it yet with momentary glances to other parts of his environment. Looking at a specific tree and a specific point of the course (which helps to guide his vision around the corner, through a section, or beyond the face of a jump). This, again, is standard fare in the business. It means that your vision when walking the track is pretty focussed, mostly in a downwards trajectory on the course itself.

He's says I'm spot on and that's exactly what he's doing.

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I pick a spot on the course and invite him to raise up his vision to a certain level, almost as if he's looking towards the horizon. To refuse to focus on a specific point, to see beyond everything, and then to really open his eyes; to see the whole picture in grand panoramic beauty but holding an idea of where the course is guiding him to go.

So I ask him what happens to his experience:

"Ah, yeah, that's so weird, daddy. I can feel myself being pulled through the section. Even though I'm standing still, I'm feeling my movement and it's showing me my lines.'

He then proceeds to ask me how I did that because it's like magic. I replied that it is a piece of magic that I observed on my travels with motorcycle racers and mountain bike racers.

'Cool' as he drifts off into his own reverie.

Once this has settled, I ask him to describe the difference for me. He goes back to what he's been shown and coached by others and then to what I've just guided within him. He says the former is static, like he's flicking from one picture to the next without a bodily experience, the latter is a uniform flow where he's pulled through the course by a bodily sensation. (Yes, I know, this is from a boy who has only just turned 9, and it really was.)

The former is the standard way of coaching this kind of thing. It's pretty much the same in motorcycle and mountain bike racing but in mountain bike racing they have better track walking habits. But what mountain bikers do that hinders them, even at world level, is to focus too much on the course section by section. They will study and then just ride certain technical sections over and over until it feels right, yet when they then ride the full circuit it feels wrong.

These procedures aren't entirely wrong as it helps racers to engage with the circuit or course, but it is also wrong because it limits their perception and much of the sports coaching world hasn't cottoned on to this. Unfortunately.

The competitors whose brains I’ve picked, and who are at the pinnacle of the game, learn this stuff intuitively and in many case will contradict the ‘coached’ methods saying that’s not what they do, much to the disagreement and disbelief of the ‘coaching’ bodies of belief. No tension there then, but as a former racer I know all about this as it’s something I experienced myself.

For those who really want to excel it takes some coaching to get them out of these limiting habits.

There's one huge difference in these approaches. One is reasoned, the other isn't. It's a real effort to move from one to the other.

This 'perceptive' flow is the foundation to finding good rhythm. When these racers find good rhythm, that's when they excel in their performance.

This isn’t limited to bikes. Listen carefully to all world-class competitors and they will allude to the importance of rhythm in that they seek a certain type of feeling. That’s when they know..

The difference that might be expected? Well, it depends. Here are a couple of examples from my work:

A world cup mountain bike racer asked me to help him learn how to qualify for the World Cup finals. His results were great at European competitions which meant that he should be qualifying relatively easily at the World Cup rounds. But he wasn’t and he couldn’t figure out why.  After our 1.5 hour session on rhythm, he qualified at the very next World Cup race in his best position ever (he finished the race with his best ever result too).

A paraplegic motorcycle racer improved his lap times by between 8-10 seconds per lap following our wheeling the lap together. He told me afterwards that he was amazed how much more space he'd gained in his head instead of having to think all the time about where he was.


What has this got to do with the boardroom?

Firstly, let me admit that I don't spend any time at all in any boardrooms. That's the nature of my business. I work mostly with individuals in private locations. Where these individuals find themselves is a different matter, so I just help them with that.

As I'm sat across the table talking some heavy duty principles of psychology within executive coaching with another psychologically minded and experienced coach, he says something of significance to me. I take a deep breath, lean forwards and thoughtfully cup my chin in my hands. I turn my attention inwards to consider what he's said. Mid flow he interjects, jumping on this tenor of mine to tell me that my body language has just told him I don't like what he said.

That moment of significance has now been lost to me, the flow that was there has been disrupted and I'm now having to explain my movements and tenor, describing what is actually going on. Of course, this entirely loses the quality of the moment.

It's rather reminiscent of the standard fare of coaching in my sports where riders are coached in identifying, locating and then reasoning through their trajectories, point by point (ever heard of the term reference points?). I'm often told in great depth what a racer is doing, the line choices they're making and why.

The tendency towards point-to-point isolation of perceptual moments lifts them out of the flow yielding jumps between static to static picture. It dilutes the richness of experience, which hinders action.

 Approach to Redgate corner at Donington Park

Approach to Redgate corner at Donington Park

This was put to the test quite specifically with a client in the British Superbike Championship which is probably the world’s most competitive national championship series. He was down on time through sector 2 of the circuit. He was aware he was struggling and a bit lost in one particular corner. It’s a short sector that’s between 12-14 seconds long. The overall lap time stands at between 45-48 seconds at this level. Reengaging him with his rhythm through this corner gained him about 0.4 seconds in that sector alone during the next session.


It's about a perspective

As I was walking one of the great race circuits with a client, Donington Park (which is renowned by world-class racers as having two distinct rhythms), we came to a critical corner for the really fast flowing section. This client was racing at club level and I could tell the level of riding standards by simply looking at where the tyre marks were located on the circuit from the day's sessions - they're miles off what you would find at national and international levels.

Before he even began to explain to me where his lines were, I walked over to a position in the corner, turned around and said to him that this is where I thought his lines were. Surprised, flabbergasted, he asked how I knew. I said because along this line, you think it gets you as far away as you can from what looks like a tyre wall that's far too close to you on the outside of the circuit. He completely agreed with me, thinking that I agreed with him on his choice. So I suggested he come with me, further across the circuit. He started to protest telling me there was no point because there was no way he would be out there due to the close proximity of the tyre wall.

I asked him to bear with me. Humour me for a moment. I took him halfway across the circuit and asked him what he saw now. To his amazement the tyre wall was now much further away. Almost twice as far away as it had been before it seemed, even though we had now physically moved closer to it - he could now see a huge and wide strip of grass between the edge of the circuit and that tyre wall. Simultaneously, the visual illusion of a tight corner disappeared and he realised how wide and open the corner was for him (and subsequently why the fast riders are so fast through the section).

I'm not sure, but I think he made up about 5 seconds per lap and was fastest in his class through that section the next day. He was beaming..

It's amazing what a relatively small difference of a couple of meters can do for perception, action and the resultant flow.

It's amazing to me how difficult it can be to change perception and action in environments where, in real terms, there's very little risk of serious harm or injury.

The most significant shifts I have found always come from movement. From usual grind (riding the bike around and around the circuit) to standing, sitting and even lying on the circuit instead, to consider the new perspectives in an entirely new light.

But in executive coaching we rarely shift or move either. We sit in a box. Remaining static.


The Nature of Rhythm

All human interactions, whether one-to-one or in groups tend to follow rhythms of their own. Providing we open our eyes to it, it's the nature of this flow and a person's ability to find the rhythm within it which ultimately determines performance and outcomes. The rhythms determine influence, communication, learning and behaviour, and they are, of course, not a one way street. The rhythm of one person will influence another who influences the other in turn. In one sense, this can be considered a basic and natural exchange of information.

So, I am particularly interested in the nature of our experience of those rhythms, in performance, function, and wellbeing, as well as how it influences learning, either in our relationships with our environment, in human interaction, or in both.

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I think it’s an unrecognised and untapped dimension of coaching.

And in case, you’re interested, Finn finished his race in 7th position in the class for age 12 and under.

Finn mid-flight on his mountain bike – why rhythm is important.

Where is your rhythm at?

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