Why you need to remember being the learner

When you remember how awkward and vulnerable it can feel when you are learning something new, you can better understand the learners around you.

Steffan Surdek
July 17, 2017
A person getting ready to throw a bowling ball

My son plays bowling in a junior league every Saturday morning. He started playing last year, which led us to our weekly Sunday night bowling nights together. One of the side benefits this creates is all the time we get to spend together now to share our stories.

Because he loves bowling so much and we play together every week he improved his game a lot over the last year. The challenge for me is to keep up with him now. I do not have a need to beat him per say, but I need to keep it interesting and challenging for him.

About a month or so ago, I recruited one of his coaches to help me improve my game with evening coaching sessions. My first session with him reminded me of something very important for a coach: How does it feel to be a learner?

Here are some of the important lessons that first night of coaching reminded me of.

Being a learner can be uncomfortable

I started bowling when I was a teenager, occasionally going out to play with my father and my aunt. No one ever taught me proper technique, I learned to play as I went along.

Last year, I got my own bowling ball which allowed me to no longer depend on house balls when I played. It also meant I needed to learn real technique to throw this ball.

When I reached out to the coach, I wanted to learn the technique to throw my bowling ball and improve my scores. As a learner, in this first session, I realized fast there were many things I did not know that I did not know.

The first session focused on taking the four steps before even releasing the ball. The uncomfortable part was to unlearn what I learned in the past as I had my own way of taking those four steps. Learning to not do that anymore was awkward and sometimes uncomfortable as well.

A learner needs to be curious

The session also taught me that being a learner also means you need to be curious and want to learn something new. If you show up believing you know everything and you are doing everything right, why do you need coaching at all?

Being curious means wanting to learn something different. It also means wanting to know what you are doing wrong and what makes you tick that way.

The paradox here is that curiosity also applies to the coach or the teacher. Who is this person you are teaching? What do they know? What don't they know? How open are they to learning and receiving coaching? How much do I tell them and how much do I tease to keep them curious?

A learner needs to practice

My bowling coaching appointments are like a free bowling session. Free in the sense that there are no frames and no scores, all I am doing is picking up the ball and throwing it. My coach often reminds me that we do this to focus on technique, not on how many pins fall.

The more you practice and the more you focus on technique, the more you integrate it as well. Integration means the more it becomes natural and a new way of doing things. Integration is what allows the awkwardness to go away.

I try to put two or three weeks between our sessions as well. This gives me a couple of Sunday nights to practice and integrate on my own before I see him again.

Learners can laugh at themselves

In my two coaching sessions, the thing that surprised me the most is how much I laugh at myself. In this particular case, learning is completely optional to me as I am doing this for fun. Because I am choosing to do this, I am also choosing to enjoy my time doing it.

In my first lesson, when I mistimed my steps, I would almost trip and fall down. My coach would sometimes place his arm up to give me a visual indication of where to keep the ball. Each time the ball hit his arm, it messed up my timing and my shot as well. As a learner, I could get mad for messing up or laugh at it instead.

In another one of my experiences as a learner, I took up short track speed skating. I am good on hockey skates but when I got on the ice with the short track skates, it was as if I had never skated before in my life! It was borderline embarrassing!

People often believe once they start learning, they will quickly become an expert. The problem is that learners often go through a "J" type learning curve. They need to get down through the bottom part of the curve before they see improvement!

Why does this matter?

As a leader, a coach or a manager, part of your role is building capacity on your teams. In other words, you need to be a teacher for the people around you.

When you forget what it means to be a learner, it is easy to judge people: "They are not good enough! Why don't they get it?"

To be a good teacher, you need to remember how it feels when you are learning something new.

Tell me, when was the last time you were a learner in your life? How did it feel to be learning something new? As a leader, how can you use this feeling to better understand the people that are learning around you?