Learning to Train or Training to Learn

Practice makes permanent, productive practice makes perfect.

I’m about to head off on another coaching clinic to Turkey. I’m really looking forward to it, but what I help my students learn this week will just be the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully they will come away better but enthused to get better, With an improved understanding of how to make gains quicker, work out what they are doing right and wrong and act on it.

This article was first published in the last print article of Boards Magazine and if your stuck in a rut or just want to progress in the most efficient way, It’s worth 10 minutes of your time to save hours of frustration.

Learning to train and training to learn.


When we go Windsurfing it’s not often that we consider it training. Of course those breaking or competing on the world tour or vying for Olympic glory will certainly see this as what they are doing but for most of us we are just going for a sail.


We still want to get better though, from our very first step on the board for our entire windsurfing careers, and so we should be. It’s one of windsurfing’s ultimate appeals, there is always something new to try, kit and conditions to conquer and almost an infinite number of ways to fall in.


So maybe we should see it as training. If we want to get better faster, especially with limited water time then going out like your training will hopefully turbo charge our results.


So how do we go about turning our ‘going for a sail’ into ‘going out to train’?


Not just a matter of Hours


Many you would have read and heard of the 10 thousand hours concept. It was first proposed by Dr Anders Ericsson in the early 90s that to be exceptional in an activity it would need around ten thousand hours of practice. This was then heavily leant upon in the Outliers book by Malcolm Gladwell where great performance had been achieved it was normally down to a large extent lots of practice.


So the old adage time on the water seems to be the one, the more time we spend the closer we get to our 10,000 hours of practice. However as is explored by both these authors and in great depth by Mathew Sayed in ‘Bounce’ it is the nature of this practice rather than just the amount that makes the difference.


Going windsurfing twice as much as your mate isn’t guaranteed to make you twice as good.


Turning off your autopilot


Elton John is my vice when I windsurf. I have no idea why, I’m not a particular Elton fan but when I’m blasting along and my mind empties this is what tends to be going through my head. I’m in autopilot! I’ve been windsurfing for a long time and like most windsurfers there are so things I can do without thinking about them.


So I’m out there getting my hours up, spending time on the board but am I getting any better. The simple answer is I’m getting more consistent. Whether that is good consistent or bad consistent that’s another question, but I’m repeating things I’ve done 100s if not 1000s of times and each time I automatically go through the action I’m engraining that process a little more.


We affectionately know this as muscle memory but it’s not my triceps or calf muscles that are being programmed it’s my brain.


It’s the exact same process that keeps me driving back to my old flat even though I moved two weeks ago, in essence it’s habit.


It’s all about neural plasticity and the strengthening of neural synapses. When you perform a task connection between your synapses fire. The more you repeat the task the stronger this connection gets until it’s automatic.


If we go out with the intention to improve but sail in autopilot all we are doing is strengthening past behavior, we may well be building up bad habits. We need to be actively engaged in the process, we need to using productive and deliberate practice rather than just going through the act of practice itself.


It’s very well saying been engaged in what your doing when in Windsurfing there is so much going on.


Quite often we leave the beach with a clear idea of what we’re going to change and then return to the beach a couple of hours later having done nothing about it.


So where how to do we make sure we are sailing in this engaged zone? How can we make sure that we are getting the most development out of our session?


The simple answer is we need to operate just outside our comfort zone. Here we won’t be able to operate in autopilot and we’ll start being actively engaged in what we’re doing.


Where the magic happens


Out your comfort zone is where the magic happens. To get there we need to play with the variables in our session. There are three main variables that you can play with for a productive windsurfing session. These are the Kit, the Environment and the Skills your looking to perform.


If we are very happy with all three there is a high chance we are sat firmly within our comfort zone. If all areas are truly comfortable then we will be operating on autopilot when on the water. The practice hours are up but the productivity is low.


If we make all three outside our comfort zone, try brand new skills on alien kit in conditions we have never sailed in we have pushed so far away from comfortable that productivity again will be low. We’ll most likely be wrecking our base level sailing so much that we can’t aquire new skills on top.


The same is likely to happen if we take two things outside of that comfort zone.


So for maximum productivity we’re going to play with only one of the three.


Conditions, on a day when we feel the conditions are going to be a real test then this is where are focus needs to be. We would aim to take kit we feel strong with and work on moves that we can do especially in more favourable conditions. That way we are fully engaged and able to make technical and tactical variations on how we do thing in the more challenging environment.


Equipment, when looking to move onto more challenging gear then we need to make sure we are giving ourselves a solid platform for feedback. Favourable and comfortable conditions as well as doing skills we feel solid with will allow us to adjust to the gear we’re on and also tune where needed. For those looking to tune gear more effectively this is when it would be done best so all the focus is on how the kit feels rather than the skills your performing.


Skills, these are best learnt when the conditions and kit are in our favour. The more comfortable we are with the above to variables the more complex a skill we can focus on. The extreme case is lightwind freestyle, kit and conditions well within our comfort zone allowing us to be much more complicated in what we are doing with the kit. If there is a habit we really need to break as it’s become a consistent autopilot then we may well need to look at adjusting the other two variables well in our favour to focus on it.


By maintaining ourselves just out of this comfort zone we are more likely to ensure our sail is more like training and we will not only be engaged in what we’re doing but be able to focus in on what we need to develop.


But what about my 10’000 hours?


We can focus on making sure we are engaged in our sessions but time on the water will always be one of the hardest things to increase.


We tend to sail less frequently for longer periods. If it was playing the guitar or chess that we were trying to develop at we may well be able to do an hour a day. But Windsurfing for most of us will be less often but for longer periods. Two sessions a week of 2 hours each would be great, or it might even be an entire day every couple of weeks.


It’s about trying to get the most out of that period and this is where numbers rather than hours is better to count. We can give ourselves feedback after we attempt or even sail away from skills we are trying to develop. The important thing is being able to act on that as soon as possible.


To maintain engagement in the task we want to try and repeat a skill making adaptions as much as possible within a small time period. In short if you halve the length of your runs and double the number of gybes you’ll get more than twice the chance to improve.

It’s not just the fact that you’ve done more of the move you’re working on it’s the fact that you are more likely to carry feedback from one move to the next. You’re becoming a more effective coach as you have more information to analyse and you’re less likely to do things on autopilot.


The overseas instructor is a fine example, many great sailors in the UK and overseas have gone and done not just one but a few seasons. The sunshine, great kit and time to sail all help but the amount of time guaranteed on the water isn’t always as high as you would think.


The instructing day is a long one and with lots of jobs to do in a centre staff rotate their water time. A standard staff rotation is between 20-40 minutes. A 20 minute rotation could be enough for 5-10 runs, with long reaches and a few things being tried. What you’ll see though is instructors more than doubling these numbers, the sessions are short but highly effective. They go out with purpose and more than often get results.



So to train, which we can do at any level, we need to be engaged in what we are doing and not on autopilot. We need to operate just outside our comfort zone so we can continually grow it, and we need to effective with the time we have clocking up action and executing our own feedback rather than just spending time afloat.