An experience of finding rhythm and how it translates to coaching by Simon Darnton

Photo by Sticker Mule on Unsplash

If you have read my previous two pieces here on rhythm, you’ll already know it’s a bit of theme in my coaching work. But I'll admit to you upfront that how I bring myself to coaching is still a major piece of inquiry for me. I don't quite know yet and I'm intrigued by how this is unfolding as my coaching practice develops.

This rhythm thing, whilst I know it's central to my coaching, I'm also aware that it is right out there as my development edge and I haven’t developed the necessary vocabulary yet. Just like my motorcycle racer clients, I'm out there looking for a good feeling, whatever that might be!

So what follows is a playful tentative exploration rather than some kind of developed approach. Inquiry in action, shall we say! It’s going to take a path outside of the actual coaching process and then draw from that the beginnings of some salient points about finding a rhythm in the coaching context.

Let’s put aside the dance analogy

Once upon a time I used to refer to rhythm as a bit like a dance. I remember a motorcycle racer client from years back emailing the day after his most enlightening moment in racing; he found his rhythm. He wrote that it was a bit like he imagined ballet to be. He said it wasn't like normal club dancing because it had a story to it. It was choreographed with direction. It had a beginning and an end, and you were a real part of that story.

So whilst many racers I've spoken to have used the dance analogy, I think it can be a bit unhelpful to use it with those who haven't necessarily had this form of experience. I recently understood a bit better why this might be. I teach Tai Chi Chuan and I had a new student join the class. This student was a dancer. There were some analogies to dance in the beginning of her journey in Tai Chi, but after only a few classes she began to struggle. She just couldn't learn the Tai Chi form which is a defined sequence of movements. This was a disturbing realisation for her which she commented on, saying she couldn't understand why this was given how good she was at learning new dance routines. She couldn't get her head around this and left the classes shortly after.

So whilst dancing is a rhythm, it's not entirely accurate for what I'm writing about here. Rhythm here is another quality of experience which I’d like to explore in more detail.


Finding a Rhythm so I could write about it

As I was writing this series of blog articles, I was finding myself having to dig down into my personal history of experiences of rhythm to make my writing more meaningful (at least for me :-)). It's very hard to describe how it manifests in coaching and indeed even in Tai Chi because there's something soft and subtle about the experience compared to when I used to race motorcycles or when I ride my mountain bike. What I needed was an opportunity to get into a space to provide some recent, up to date, distilled experiences that enabled me to explore it in a repetitive way.

Something presented itself where I could do this and potentially as a bit of a laugh. I'd promised my son and his best friend a treat, I was going to take them go karting with proper petrol engine machines on a proper race track. I couldn't help but book myself in for a session too!!!

This was going to be fun. Learning should be playful, right?

I haven't driven a go kart in probably over 15 years. I haven't raced motorcycles in nearly that long either, so it's something that I'm more or less coming to afresh. Mind you, I was slightly mindful that my son would try to beat me so I did prepare myself a little bit mentally and so I was focussed for the drive. I couldn't possible go out there and be outshone by a 9 and 10 year old now could I?

The game was on.

Off we went.

From the start I wanted to have a bit of an executive eye on my proceedings so I made sure the monitoring part of my mind was engaged and I left that to roll in its own space to concentrate on the driving.

As I drove around the circuit for the few handful of laps, I realised very quickly that I'd gone back a few steps into novice territory, compared to when I navigated race tracks on a motorcycle. I was eventually able to find a rudimentary rhythm, not a particularly good one, but one that does provide a simplified story of what went on and how this parallels with seeking rhythm in coaching. It also ties together the elements in rhythm I mentioned in my previous post:

  • the temporal: going beyond just being in the moment to creating a meaningful adhesion between past, present and future;

  • how the analytical plays beyond reason;

  • how it informs an emergent learning and growth, both in the present and through post experience reflection.

Here is a description which really serves only to illustrate the experience:

Step 1

I'd never driven at this circuit so I didn't know it at all. There was no opportunity to do a track walk either because the track was already in use when we arrived.

I didn't know the kart, how it felt, or how it handled.

Priority one is to drive out on the circuit with a clear mind. Remove any preconceptions and assumptions and go with the flow. I'm not looking to impose myself on the circuit. I want to find the appropriate relationship with it.

Next, I have to reach outside myself to get a feel for the general environment through the means with which I'm interacting with the environment. In other words, I need to get a feel for the kart while also keeping on the circuit. It's an exploratory mission of sorts. I'm not making any conclusions, I'm just feeling my way.

Once I have a reasonable feeling, I then start pushing the boundaries, taking the kart to its natural extremes. This means finding the limits and getting on a few slides, braking hard to see where it locks up and getting on the throttle to push it through the corners.

I connect this feedback with the pattern of the circuit and the corners, gaining a feeling for the feedback through each corner.

As there were a load of people out there on the circuit racing each other, I'm having to unfortunately do this under slightly competitive circumstances rather than as a pure practise session.

I also have to resist the temptation to try and race.

This is all a reciprocal arrangement between me, my kart and the circuit. It's the beginning of a contract that requires giving space for both the kart and the circuit to come to me.

Step 2

Now that I'm getting a feel for the kart and its limits, I start to look for the lines through each of the corners. What information can I get from around me. What is useful, what isn't. What's performing the task of distractor rather than attractor.

And so my first novice tendency becomes apparent. I'm looking at spots on or next to the circuit that I'm using as reference points. Looking from one to the next, to the next. It's fragmented; a flicking from one image to the next. I know I need to get a flow so I begin to change my intentions about where to look. This improves things slightly by opening out my vision wider so I can take in more of the vista, giving me a much better sense of space, such as the full width of the circuit.

This is refining my relationship with the environment, mediated by the kart.

I would normally expect myself to begin seeing the lines here. I'm out of practise and just not seeing any. I have to be patient. I'm beginning to get a feel for where I'm better on the circuit and my approximate trajectories.

Now is the time to experiment not with finding one line, but testing out variations and changing the lines to test things out - this helps to find the right feeling. Wrongness helps to find rightness and the best lines tend to emerge from there.

Step 3

So, I'm fully in the moment, so much so I'm beginning to notice my body taking over where it needs to. For example, through one corner I notice how my feet have started to balance the brake and accelerator pedal all by themselves and on a couple of occasions I've caught up with slower drivers, simply glanced into the space between them and made the pass without any thought.

I'm noticing other things like as I brake too hard into the hairpin bend at the end of the straight, I'm getting good feedback from the brakes but this suddenly goes silent, feedback is switched off. There's a kind of blankness and then gently I feel the kart starting to spin around on itself which gives me back my feeling. I'd locked up the brakes. I'm noticing where I have feeling and where I don't; the information the kart is giving me, in more detail, at more specific places on the circuit and there's a 'dead' spot. I don't like these kinds of 'dead' spots because you don't quite know where you stand, but it is what it is and the relief is that when the feedback comes back in its progressive and not too late, so I can respond. Or shall I more accurately say my foot on the brake and hands on steering wheel respond before my mind.

Step 4

Here's where I notice I'm struggling. I should be able to start finding a rhythm but my rustiness along with not knowing the circuit very well are preventing this from happening.

I'm searching, it feels, in the dark for a feeling that's right and I can't identify it. I still don't know what a 'right' feeling is, even though I sort of do.

When I used to race motorcycles, I remember a moment in particular that illustrates the feeling. I was mid-corner in the second turn of the circuit, immediately after the start of the race. I was in the middle of the pack and conditions were difficult. It had been a wet night, cool morning, and now it was partially cloudy with the odd shower. The track was very damp with some drying patches. I had to choose an intermediate front tyre (an in the middle of wet/dry conditions tyre) and a dry, slick tyre at the rear. As I was driving through the corner someone got their line wrong and cut across me so I had to take evasive action. As I did so the front tyre started to slide. In this moment it was like somebody had turned the light on. This slide communicated everything I needed to know about the feel of this tyre. I let it do its thing and progressed to a third place finish in this race. I'd found a good feeling.

So back in the kart I'm completely in the moment but each moment doesn't hang together in a relevant flow. So I'll come up to a corner, turn into it and look for the apex through to the exit but that doesn't connect me with where I'm going in terms of flowing into the next corner and beyond; I can't feel that trajectory - not in a meaningful way anyway.

I'm driving one corner at a time rather than a corner that's an integral part of the circuit. My actions are therefore only dealing with what is immediate, not as a meaningful intention to guide me forwards. This lacks purpose and it means my inputs are just slightly held back and then delayed.

For example, as I come out of a corner onto a long straight, I press hard onto the throttle to accelerate, frustrated that I know I should have been feeding the throttle on at least 15 meters before but it's the fragmentation of my experience that causes this delay. One moment I'm in the corner, the next I'm on the straight that has opened up for me - I'm too late.

I'm also missing the vital ingredient from the past; how is what I've done leading to where I am and what I'm doing? For example, if I've taken a wide line through one corner, does this dramatically impact the next? Right now, I simply don't know.

One motorcycle racer I worked with described this as when he was knocked out of his rhythm in a race it would take him several corners to get back into it again because both him and the bike would oscillate, or bounce around the right rhythm for a while until it settled again. The whole circuit hung together.


Rhythm’s temporal space

In rhythm, past actions are meaningful in their influence on the now as much as they are together with the now leading into the future (but not too far into the future - you can't be half the track ahead of yourself, just the necessary beats and you learn to feel where this is).

I was having fun, so these issues about feeling and rhythm really didn't matter, but I know very well how frustrating this not finding a rhythm place can be. Plenty of my clients have been there. What easily happens is they get frustrated, then aggressive with the bike, and they push too hard. The result is at best worse lap times and inconsistency, at worst it's a helicopter evacuation (twice I've been sitting in the pit lane garage while a client has been airlifted out).

Given that this is a rendition of some of the things going on during one 14 minute session on track, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I'd have a busy mind. To the contrary. My quality of mind is clear, spacious, quiet and calm without any intrusive thinking.

And whilst my rendition is rudimentary compared the demands of driving a F1 car, it serves to illustrate the quality of headspace which allows the professional driver to be making adjustments to the car setup via their steering wheel while driving at 200mph and doing it in a calm, relaxed and timely manner, without losing a beat.

How does this apply to the process of coaching?


Meeting the client and exploring with them

One thing I am aware of is that when I meet my clients, I'm mindful to make sure I meet them afresh each time. I have a connection to their past and I'm aware this provides for reverberations. Beyond our first sessions, whilst I'm aware that I have some knowledge of them, I meet them as if they're new to me each time. It's the paradox of riding the circuit - you both know it and you don't.

When I meet my clients for the first time I've realised that I don't, in the traditional coaching sense, see the process as meeting my client to build the coach/coachee relationship. Instead, I'm meeting my client's cosmos and developing a relationship with that. I’m getting a feel for my client’s entire world order and, in particular, the qualities with which they bring themselves to the coaching space.

From my perspective, this follows a similar process to that of walking the circuit. Exploring, getting to know, unlocking the secrets of the environment. I've got to reach out of myself to simply observe what is there, getting a sense of the lay of the land. As long as I'm open to it, allowing it to come to me, the landscape sketches itself out to me in the relevant way.

How does this feel?

When I was taking a couple of clients through a track walk around Silverstone circuit, the track comes out of the shadow of the pits and there's a fairly sharp right-hand bend, beyond which you can see the circuit snaking away round a fairly gentle but very fast left-hand corner. As I was talking, I looked along the circuit simultaneously noticing a moving visual current that created a feeling in my gut that drew me through the corner. I could feel that was the line. It was so compelling, I wanted to get on a bike and ride it.

This is what I find happens when my clients' landscape sketches itself out for me. I'm compelled to move in a direction. But at the start of a coaching relationship, it feels like a gentle process to explore many of these kinds of lines. I may present my sense, but I will just lay it out there. My client will choose to explore the ones most pertinent and compelling; or they'll feel their own line, which we will then follow and explore.

I'm drawn, together with my client, to following lines of inquiry, some of the lines feel right, others don't so they're dropped. And rhythms begin to emerge.

Here, there's no particular interest in the details, it's getting a feel for general movements and themes that seem to be more pertinent than others. There's no attachment. I engage in the process by feeling my way, aware of the senses and emotions that I experience in connection with my client. This experience evokes imagery which I can feed into the process.

For example, as I was talking to a client, I described a general assessment process to understand what was going on like that of seeing a new landscape for the first time. That when you open your eyes to experience it, you don't judge or criticise, you usually go, 'oh wow!' You wouldn't criticise the shape of a mountain, nor the organisation of trees in the woods. They are what they are, as is the current now.

Figuring out many problems is just like navigating a landscape. There are both freedoms and constraints, and you need to figure out each obstacle or challenge as you get to it. You also need to find your way through the forest rather than picking at the trees because they look like they're in the way.

At more subtle levels other similar patterns and qualities can be found. For example, themes of loneliness/connection, ups and downs, mental, emotionally and physically, these are merely the inner landscape of a dynamic world.

So, I would say that the initial stages of our work are to get to know the environment, the inner and outer, of my client’s world and I do this through simply observing without the intention to change anything. We let it come to us.

The initial hurdle

Most of my clients are not at 100% when I first meet them. What I mean by this is that they have a sense, a niggle, itch, they’re a bit bogged down and things aren’t flowing as they should. They’re usually trying to figure out complex questions and they’re frustrated.

I find a common symptom of this is that they have a very busy mind. It’s overflowing so the rhythm is one of expulsion. They need to talk and they need to get those thoughts out of their head and digested. If only we had a pensieve like in Harry Potter to work with, it would make clearing the mind a much simpler task!

This pattern I see in both business and racing contexts means the initial priority is to help them to clear their clutter out and gain some clarity in their mind again.

Sometimes this requires several monthly or bi-weekly sessions of just providing an empty and accepting space without intervention or pressure. It’s a bit like preparing the ground; weeding and tilling the soil.


Connecting sensory awareness in rhythm

You have probably picked up on my frequent use of the word feeling. It’s central to rhythm because rhythm is a kind of feeling composed of many feelings. All athletes that I have spoken to and worked with concur in their descriptions of finding a certain feeling and also listening to them.

For example, a renowned solo free climber, Alex Honnold, became the first person to successfully solo climb (i.e. without using ropes as an aid) El Capitan in Yosemite National Park recently (See National Geographic: http://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/video/tv/exclusive-climber-completes-most-dangerous-rope-free-ascent-ever). During his first attempt, he backed off due to conditions not feeling right.

These types of feelings aren’t just emotions, they’re subtler and more encompassing of experience.

Nowhere in Western child or adult development are we taught how to intentionally and systematically cultivate our sensory awareness for functional purposes (here I include thinking as part of it). In the growing mindfulness disciplines in ‘the West’(e.g. Mindfulness, meditation, Yoga, Qi Gong, and many, but not all, forms of Tai Chi as they have begun to be taught) there is an emphasis on merely focussing on the present moment of experience, which is usually confined to what is on your mind, even if it may involve body scans to focus attention on body senses and/or emotions, but without latching onto them. This is neither functional nor is it rhythmical as it does nothing to educate someone of the rhythms and relationships between the quality of those experiences within specific contexts of function. This is not to downplay the benefits people report from their practise of mindfulness type disciplines; merely an observed limitation to it.  Mindfulness can help as part of this process, and it can be a useful technique in clearing the mind.

For me and my practice, a major part of the development process in finding rhythm is to do with cultivating a functional relationship with feelings, senses and emotions, as they ebb and flow, probably in more concrete ways than our thoughts. But more importantly how they do this in relation to our wider environment – to connect us with our environment. It is also this dimension which is so important in effectively navigating complex situations and environments because it engages so many parts of our nervous system that are simply not available within our rational thought modes.

Integrative function

Beyond developing sensory awareness one of the qualities that I find so fascinating about rhythm is that it appears to be an integrative function, a harmony or resonance between thinking, feeling, emotions, our experience of self, and environment.  It enables a certain quality of thinking and cognition (critical and analytical) together with which is meta-cognition, in synthesis with ongoing sensory awareness. They seem to be layered upon each other - the body and mind are unified in having a balanced role in functioning.

This certainly appears to be the case from my own experience as well as that of world-class riders who’ve told me about how they can think and make accurate tactical and strategic decisions while retaining good feeling and rhythm. They’re also able to accurately recall the quality of experience to reflect upon it, communicate it to others, and undertake technical changes to both equipment and future action.

In finding my own rhythm within executive coaching sessions, this tends to bear out too. It enables me to be aware off my flowing sensory experience in relation to my intellect and reason in a balanced way that also keeps me completely engaged with each client, their cosmos and the wider environment. Over time, I have realised how it helps me to be functionally more efficient. I used to become quite exhausted by long coaching sessions whereas now I usually emerge from them feeling nourished too. Being in rhythm is more effortless yet at the same time more connected somehow. It helps clients to feel safe yet experience a challenging, critical and analytical space which they tell is helps to generate new thinking without them being questioned.

Feedback from clients suggests that one of the outcomes they experience is an enhanced sense of flow and rhythm in their lives too. In fact, it was client feedback that helped me to design my logo which is representative of how our relationship enabled rhythm for them. Exactly how this emerges, I’m not yet sure as rhythm doesn’t form an explicit part of the conversation in executive coaching work. Well, typically!

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