What is this rhythm thing and what does it have to do with coaching? By Simon Darnton
In my first piece about rhythm being an untapped dimension in coaching and one that, for me, was born out of a domain full of speed and risk, it follows that what I do in coaching has to do with rhythm. I help my clients to find better rhythms, of course, but what about me? And:
What does this mean?
What is my relationship to these rhythms? And;
Where does the knowledge come from to make use of it in coaching?
I wanted to explore how rhythm as a fundamental quality of human nature emerges in the coaching context.
So it feels like I need to explore what rhythm is, starting from a place where I know it so well.
What is this rhythm thing?
Previously I described how I work with some clients who are entirely open to hurting themselves, sometimes quite seriously, in their professional pursuits (and personal ones too) - this includes motorcycle and mountain bike racing but also other high risk sports. For many of them, their profession is also their heart of desire; or as close to as you can probably get.
One of the first questions that seems to come to mind for those not familiar with this world is: “How can someone have a heartfelt desire to do something that might actually kill them if they make even the slightest mistake?”
I don't try to answer that one anymore as I have a blind spot; I can't enlighten you any more than they can as to why this is. That's because I've done these things too and although I've backed off a bit now (not entirely by choice but due to an illness with lasting effects), I still do some dangerous things from time to time, too.
I need to.
I simply have to.
Otherwise I just don't feel complete.
A recent experience where I crashed my mountain bike was a poignant focussing moment for writing this piece. While I was mid-descent, about to complete a jump with my bike, my rhythm said: “WRONG.” To cut a long story short, I wasn’t listening. It hurt. And even after 4 months now, I have trouble using one of my thumbs properly, and it still hurts every day (this is relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things, mind you).
So what would drive someone to, in the misconceived world of health psychology, do something that is so abnormal; to knowledgeably do something one could call self-harming? Are these people, me included, just a load of loons?
A drawing tide
Well, there is a quality of experience in all this that is, for want of a better word, spiritual. It whisks you away into another dimension. A paraplegic rider I worked with told me it's the only place in his world where his disability dissolves and he finds himself whole again.
In this experience, there is something like a kernel or core that centers you. It keeps you driven, gives you direction. But not in a blustering way. This is what I describe as ‘a central stability of sorts’.
But if only it was as simple as that.
There's a curious sense of direction and purpose, taking you with the tide. It's a tide that allows you to ride the rough, and to deal with the unexpected.
In this place, things come to you, that perhaps you never would have thought of, to do something, in response to something that presents itself and you're navigating a situation with waves of a knowledge you probably didn't know you had. It feels right and it leads you through the maze.
These things come to you even when it gets hairy, you slide the bike way too much, or come round a corner to find a bike lying there in your trajectory and the flags haven't come out yet. In motorcycle racing we'd call this a 'moment.'
And we'd laugh...you somehow made it through that one.
No way would you do that if you'd thought about it.
When I work with world-class competitors and I talk of rhythm, they know immediately what I'm talking about. You can see it in their eyes, but more immediately in their bodies.
When these racers compete they say they find a good rhythm, yet they also know that this rhythm is not fixed. They can't afford to settle into it. For example, in motocross (MX) or downhill mountain biking (DH) the course can change minute by minute. In MX, parts of the track can be destroyed in the space of a lap under some conditions. In DH, the natural courses will be completely different on Sunday's final race run compared to the previous Thursday's track walk. This is not to mention the randomness of 30 other riders fighting for the same space in MX or more than 100 riders doing several runs of the course in DH! These racers know that the rhythm isn't like just riding the peak or sinking into the trough, but something that connects them to an ever changing environment.
Even on a tarmac race circuit it changes on a continuous basis as the race progresses. The racers feel and respond to this input.
You might assume that I'm only talking about something relevant to athletes, but I’m curious that I don’t find entrepreneurs all that different either. They have their ups and downs. It's brutal. It's painful and potentially damaging, at least emotionally and psychologically. Perhaps they're also loons?
Yet, in very much the same way, if they're asked why they do what they do, in spite of the pain and the turmoil, there's a something they just have to do, to follow. They're drawn by some kind of force within them.
As with the racers and athletes, they have a central stability of sorts that guides them. A tide or current draws them along, if you like.
And as Chris Robson says:
‘You have to keep experimenting because you haven’t found your natural rhythm yet.’ (Confessions of an Entrepreneur, p115)
So in my words, their companies need to hum in a way that provides direction and still be flexible, agile, and adaptable. They never know where the business is actually going to end up, regardless of plans or dreams. To succeed, their rhythm must somehow be in sync with the market.
All the entrepreneurs I’ve met (and worked with) have a certain vibe about them.
A rhythm just like any other rhythm then...
Context is king
The truth of the matter is that their contexts are completely different.
Lets face it, the entrepreneur faces less real risk. By that I mean they’re not going to hit a tree or tumble through the air at over 100mph after their bike spat them off. They’re not facing the same traumatic impact. The nature of the experience is less condensed. It burns less fiercely, shall we say, than a weekend culminating in a 45 minute race, or a 4.5 minute final run down the side of a mountain. But it still burns...incessantly. And I think those entrepreneurs who do burn out have lost their connection with natural cycles of ups and downs and they try to stoke the fire to burn constantly bright.
The risks born by the entrepreneur are, however, wider, more varied and diverse. They play a bigger, more complex and ambiguous field. I’d venture to say the ego takes a more significant beating.
But unfortunately, in the contexts of coaching, psychology and business, it’s too easy to focus on the individual and their traits; they’re so much more than that which is so often overlooked.
Context changes the rhythm.
The rhythm I experienced racing a motorcycle is different to mountain biking, which is different to that of my Tai Chi practise and its meditations. It's also different to that of coaching.
My ability to find a good rhythm in those context varies too! When racing a motorcycle it was inconsistent. My ability to find rhythm within Tai Chi is almost consistent now (even if the rhythm changes every time I practise) but then I've been searching for rhythm there for nearly 15 years.
I can't explain why my rhythm is so different between contexts, and I wondered whether anyone else could.
There were a small number of top motorcycle racers that I found who said to me that you had to approach each race as something 'completely new,' 'different,' 'not the same.' You never knew what was going to unfold.
Each race circuit is a different context and each time you race the same circuit, the rhythm is also different.
One motorcycle racer I coached had a moment in our coaching when this made total sense for him. His realisation that racing is a world of unknown allowed him to start each race as a blank sheet, a new horizon. This was the catalyst he needed to achieve his first ever race win, followed by winning several championships.
Something clears the mind to invite the influence of context.
This opens the door to rhythm but there was more. More that wasn't normally connected to the rhythm.
Unlocking the secrets
In most extreme sports, the athletes spend a vast amount of time getting to know their environment. This is one of the strategies they use to mitigate risks. They know, of course, that getting to know the environment where they need to perform is going to help their performance.
One of the world's greatest motorcycle racers, Valentino Rossi, described track walks as a process of unlocking the secrets of the circuit.
Knowing the circuit helps to find rhythm.
Riders who are developing themselves to move up the ranks have often asked me why some racers do well at some circuits while they perform poorly at others. This is about how they relate to the circuit and whether they've managed to unlock the secrets they need to figure that circuit out. Sometimes they never do. Even the best in the world.
So rhythm does not sit somewhere inside the mind, it's also out there. In the world.
Now all the theories and conceptualisations I've come across that are of Western origin gloss over the context and miss the out-there-ness too.
Rhythm isn't just a line of numbers drawing out a graph, it's alive, it's kicking, it's full of life. It's stable, it has a significance about it that is at once substantial, even tangible. It is also fluid, infinitely malleable, adaptable according to context as well as our intentions. There's a resonance between internal and external, blending together to produce smooth, fluid, and beautiful action, thinking and feeling.
The whole person in relation to their environment.
Rhythm is ecological.
At once accepting, analytical and critical
It is not so surprising, perhaps, that the top players in their field are incredibly analytical - even while they're involved in their pursuit.
They're not just constantly solving problems because they have to, they’re more like searching for opportunities for action.
They're critical of what they're doing, how they did. A search for perfection never quite reached, nor will it ever be. It's a critique that helps them to achieve. To refine what they're doing and to improve. This is a constant and unobtrusive stream. It's part of the game. It's part of the draw. It's part of finding a good rhythm.
It's a form of pure, natural, unadulterated, active inquiry.
They're also completely accepting. Especially of where they're at and the situation. In dangerous circumstances that's all you can do. That's where you are, there's no changing that. But there is always a path, or multiple potential pathways and these need to be considered in some light. In the moment. Decisions made. Critical decisions.
Seeing things, and being in them, for what they are gives them a certain perspective. They see things differently, which sets them apart. They have the freedom to try things, to play; acting apart.
Rhythm is missing in the coaching research
Rhythm can be found everywhere. I’d even go as far as to suggest that rhythm imbues all parts of human function -individual and social alike. In ancient Chinese philosophy, for example, this is one of the central pillars of the cosmos: Yin/Yang, the waxing and waning of the moon.
In Chinese 5-phase Theory, rhythm is an explicit characteristic in how we bring ourselves to the world, how we achieve what we achieve. How we connect with others and our environment. It represents what is valuable to us and creates that stability of sorts - a tide that draws us along.
In this philosophy, our rhythm is a mutual exchange between us and our world, which is, in and of itself a rhythm. Breathing is the simplest example.
In other areas of psychology, particularly that researching extreme sports participation, the focus is largely on aspects like fear, motivation and other abstract phenomena of the experience, but rarely the nature of rhythm even if it is mentioned a lot by participants (except perhaps Brymer & Gray who refer to it as dancing with nature). Unfortunately the research often glosses over context. However, jumping off a cliff to do a BASE jump is different from navigating a path up a rock face to complete a challenging climb. There is rhythm to each, but it's different, as is the nature of the experience. Climbing a challenging cliff is a more complex activity than jumping off one, even if both require high levels of skill. The same criticism largely goes for the psychology of 'Flow' as conceptualised by Csikszentmihályi, colleagues and the positive psychology movement. I am not a proponent of the ‘Flow’ concept.
In neuroscience I find Co-ordination Dynamics to be a fascinating space for exploring rhythm. Recent advances in neuroscience resonate well with the experience of rhythm and how it enhances function. For example, in Dynamic Coordination in the Brain: From Neurons to Mind (2010):
'The universe is lawful but unpredictable. Regularities make life possible, but unpredictability requires it to be flexible, so, biological systems must combine reliability with flexibility. Neural activity must reliably convey sensory information, cognitive contents, and motor commands, but it must do so flexibly and creatively if it is to generate novel but useful percepts, thoughts, and actions in novel circumstances. Neural activity, however, is widely distributed, which suggests that activity is dynamically coordinated so as to produce coherent patterns of macroscopic activity that are adapted to the current context, without corrupting the information that is transmitted by the local signals.'
In the same book, Engel et al., go on to state:
'A key concept for understanding dynamic coordination in complex systems is self-organization. Self-organization refers to the spontaneous formation of patterns and pattern change in systems that are open to exchanges of information with the environment and whose elements adapt to the very patterns of behavior they create. Inevitably, when interacting elements form a coupled system with the environment, coordinated patterns of behavior arise.'
Lovely but still somewhat abstract…so I would like to get a bit more grounded with this.
In my next piece, I'm going to explore, through a single, focussed experience, how rhythm ties these things together:
the temporal: going beyond just being in the moment to creating a meaningful adhesion of past, present and future;
how the analytical plays beyond reason;
how it informs an emergent learning and grow, both in the present and through post experience reflection.
To connect with Simon Darnton
Brymer & Gray (2009) Dancing with nature: Rhythm and harmony in extreme sport participation. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 9(2). pp. 135-149.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Classics.
von der Malsburg C., Phillips W. A., Singer W. (2010) Dynamic Coordination in the Brain From Neurons to Mind. MIT Press.
Robson, C (2013) Confessions of an Entrepreneur: The Highs and Lows of Starting-Up. Pearson Business (Epub).