Listening to a presentation some time ago, a reference was made to a survey done in the US that asked over 10,000 adults if they knew how to ride a bike. The study was trying to determine how common a skill riding a bike was. Certainly not everyone knows how to ride a bike? There must be a few percent that haven’t had this luxury? Sure, most people know how to ride a bike, but exactly how many considered themselves proficient at it as adults was must know information. Out of the 10,000 respondents, only three admitted not knowing how. In a sample size of 10,000, 3 presents 3/100ths of a percent. It’s a trivially small number. Riding a bike is up there with walking, talking, and eating as skills we all seem to figure out.* Moreover, those that are introduced to cycling seem to universally pick up the skill.
Looking back, do you remember learning to ride a bike? Do you remember where you were when you did? Do you remember who you were with? Most importantly, do you remember how they taught you? Was it with a stick? Was it a have to? Did they tell you, today’s the day you learn to ride a bike, stop your whining and let’s get on with it? Or was it shortly after receiving your first bike as a gift? Did the bike come on your birthday or some other occasion where it was given just to you? Were you the center of someone you love’s attention in those moments? How long after you received your bike did the training wheels come off? Did you clamor to have them removed? As you were introduced to the activity, did you learn immediately? If you’re human, you probably struggled a little bit. There was the odd tumble. The bike veered left and right. Nonetheless, at every point, your teacher probably encouraged you. Maybe the encouragement came during pants and breaths as they ran along beside you offering support and direction. Any set back in your eyes was taken in stride by the teacher. The teacher had absolutely no doubt in their mind that you were both capable and would succeed. It was simply a matter of time. No matter what you did, no matter what happened, you were on the right track. Keep going. Their enthusiasm and belief in you trickled in to become your own belief. Perhaps, their encouragement was more persistent than your efforts?
If this describes in any way your recollection of your own experience or your experience with your own children, you likely have fond memories associated with learning to ride a bike. In fact, it may be one of the fonder childhood or parental memories you have. Why isn’t all learning this much fun? Could there be a relationship between the nature of this type of learning experience and the fact that virtually 100% of us meet success with the task? This type of learning experience should represent the target goal for all types of training. A few elements which makes our learning to ride a bike special include that both parties want to be there and have full faith in each other. The teacher has no doubt that the student will succeed. The student is both motivated to earn some freedom and make the teacher they care deeply about proud. This is a starting formula for commitment and progress. The activity itself has been done by billions before. The process to learn is pretty clear. Look ahead, pedal, keep some momentum going, and ta dah. You’re on your way. The task isn’t overly complex. The respective interest in the activity by both learner and teacher as well as the straightforward technique to try sets the process up for success.
We can consider conceiving of the magic of learning to ride a bike as an expression of the Engagement Equation. The activity matters to both student and teacher. They are “enrolled”. They have chosen to be where they are. When teaching or learning both are right where they want to be. It is infectious for each and creates a virtuous cycle. The student presumably having some desire to participate has basic belief in both themselves and their teacher. They have confidence they can do the activity and may have had some experience with the bike on training wheels. They feel prepared to take that next step. They have the self-belief and courage that translates into a willingness to try. The student’s teacher has complete belief in the student as well. They share this verbally and non-verbally. Again, creating a virtuous cycle spurring confidence in the student. The teacher has confidence in their system. They know how to ride a bike themselves. They fully recognize that pretty much anyone who does this can do it. The steps to make progress are cut and dried. The student knows this on some level and trusts implicitly their teacher. These fuel the student’s belief in the system. All elements of the Engagement Equation conspire to create full commitment of both parties to the practice. The activity matters and there’s plenty of confidence in self and system. As a result, the process goes smoothly and success assured.
We can contrast this with those that may only learn to ride a bike a little later in life. If one is unable to learn as a result of being a child and does so as an adult, then the student teacher relationship may be wildly different. There’s likely no longer that emotional connection. It’s no longer parent and child or sibling to sibling. It can be professional to student. The emotional connection will be much longer to create than the lessons themselves. The activity is no more complicated. The coordination no more difficult. The student continues to have plenty of capability. However, their confidence in themselves may be less. Moreover, how important the activity is to the student may also be less. As we get older, our risk assessment capabilities grow relative to that we have as kids. We fear pain. We fear struggle. We fear embarrassment. All of these conspire to reduce our self-confidence as well as potentially reducing the value of the activity in our eyes. Under these circumstances learning will take longer. This starts to be more similar to the types of learning we face in our work lives.
Our family lived for a few years in Houston, Texas. It was there, as a young kid, I was introduced to American football. A neighborhood friend helped me learn to root for the Dallas Cowboys instead of the, at the time, home team of the Houston Oilers. When we left Houston three years later and moved to Canada, I carried with me my love for the Cowboys. I have cheered for them ever since, much more quietly these days, unfortunately. In our early years in Canada, the Cowboys were a perennial playoff contender. They were a decent team for which each week there was something for which to cheer. I looked forward to Sunday games and would find time to try to watch them. In those days we only had three channels from which to choose. With cable, there were just the big three US networks available, CBS, NBC, and ABC. We were at the mercy of not just which networks had the coverage rights for certain games, but where that network’s feed was coming from. Typically, the closest US city. For us in Calgary, we received US network feeds from Spokane, Washington. The Cowboys were trumped by the Seattle Seahawks. If the Seahawks were playing, this was the game that was being played. I grew up being forced to watch the Seahawks. The only thing worse than not being able to cheer for your beloved team is being compelled to watch a crummy one. The Seahawks sucked. They were basement dwellers that struggled season after season. I learned to develop a deep contempt for that team.
Nowadays, with NFL ticket and DAZN, it’s much easier to have control over which games to watch. You can choose to watch your own team wherever they may be playing or you can watch other meaningful games between well matched teams. Viewers are less passive consumers of whatever a network opts to put forth. This has made it fun to follow my childhood team, the Cowboys. Ironically, the Seahawks and Cowboys have flipped places from my childhood. For the past 15 years, the Seahawks have been one of the better teams in the league. They continue to perform and compete for playoff berths regularly. They have earned their spot to two Superbowls, winning one. The combination of quarterback Russell Wilson and head coach Pete Carroll has been a productive one. They seem to both respect and appreciate each other. A clear commonality between them is their positive attitude. Coach Carroll is the oldest coach in the league well into his 70s. Yet, you would never know it looking at him. He roams the sidelines with the restless energy of a teenager. He happily high fives his players and runs with vigor along side developing plays. He expresses a constant stream of positive belief towards his players. With Carroll, his team always has a chance. No matter the situation, no matter the score, Carroll is confident that his coaches and players will work together to manage successfully. Wilson is a clone of Carroll’s enthusiasm. As the physically shortest Quarterback in the league, Wilson looms large as a figure on and off the field. If he’s not immersed in a huddle sharing a play and urging his team to bring their best forward, he’s doing it with players on the sidelines. Wilson, like Carroll, has full belief in his own abilities and those of his teammates. When on the field, Wilson always believes there’s a chance. Both Carroll and Wilson are all in, all the time.
Their enthusiasm isn’t blind back clapping or fake words. It’s real. It is based on years of experiences where their demonstrated competence has created this confidence. They have reason to be enthusiastic. What’s great about their earned enthusiasm is they have such a solid track record of performing that they are able to share their belief with others and it’s contagious. Their conviction in their competence affects not just their own contributions, but instills an improved self-belief in teammates. Teammates buy into Carroll’s system and they develop a bigger belief in their own contributions. As a result their efforts step up and the positive cycle propels the players and team forward. It’s a virtuous cycle that flows from the enthusiasm and encouragement of leaders like Carroll and Wilson.
US General, Colin Powell, wrote My American Journey. A professor, Oren Harari distilled Powell’s principles earned over a lifetime of experience into “A Leadership Primer.” The twelfth lesson offers: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Harari writes, “The ripple effect of a leader’s enthusiasm and optimism is awesome. So is the impact of cynicism and pessimism. Leaders who whine and blame engender those same behaviors among their colleagues. I am not talking about stoically accepting organizational stupidity and performance incompetence with a ‘what, me worry?’ smile. I am talking about a guns ho attitude that says ‘we can change things here, we can achieve awesome goals, we can be the best.’ Spare me the grim litany of the ‘realist’; give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.”
I was skiing with a friend who is a coach with the Canadian Paralympic Team recently. They had the tail end of their season cancelled in March 2020. Since then they have regrouped and focused on the 2021 winter. They’ve been to Europe a couple of times since the fall to train and compete. They’ve also spent time in various parts of Canada training. I asked my friend how things had been going both internationally and domestically with respect to testing. How often are tests being done? How difficult are they to get? Are all the protocols in place taking a toll? How often is new information provided imposing new obligations for the team? He noted that indeed managing through the pandemic has imposed all kinds of new challenges and burdens. None of it is easy and it does take a mental toll for all. He offered they had been doing ok, but were hit with a big blow this past week.
Their program had just cancelled a big trip to Europe as a result of recent changes impacting those entering/re-entering Canada from abroad. The restrictions were anticipated to add an extra $5,000 to $10,000 per traveller. This made the travel untenable economically to their organization and the trip cancelled by their sport’s domestic governing body. Athletes had been training for months in order to compete at the highest levels of their sport. The heart of the season had been looked forward to and used as motivation for their prior efforts. As important, this trip would lead them into the World Championships for their sport. For some, this could be their first or last time participating at the peak of their program. Within 24 hours of the scheduled flights, the plug was pulled.
My friend acknowledged that the hardest part of this was communicating to their athletes the negative news of cancellation. Coaches got together before hand and talked through the conversation anticipating what responses and mood they would encounter. Then he leaned forward and softly said, “We realized this season has become a once in a lifetime opportunity to lead. Our athletes need their coaches more than ever to buoy the group’s mood. We need to hold our head high, adapt with smiles on our faces, and get excited about the next opportunity. That’s the most important part of our job right now.” He went on noting that if he groused and complained about testing protocols or disrupted plans, then how could he expect his athletes not to do the same? If he couldn’t embrace the environment in which they find themselves and make the most of things working to be motivated, then how could he expect his athletes to do so. If there is a time to lead by example, this was it.
In his mid-twenties, he has the foresight to recognize the importance of his mood as a contributing factor to his team’s performance. They can’t control these things. They are in some way privileged to play the game they’re playing. He’s finding a way to keep them motivated to work hard trying to improve. Apparently, his athletes felt similarly as the team took it quite well. The conversation quickly turned to adapting in order to lean in and use the change in plans to create new ones. These high performance athletes wanted to not sit down and feel sorry for themselves. They didn’t want to blame and talk about what had been lost. They wanted to move forward, hold on to their hard won progress, and look for more training opportunities domestically. Within a week, they have a new program calendar and will be back as a group training.
As the darkness of winter drags on stretching out our pandemic period, being positive and trying to find productive places for our efforts is as important as ever. Regardless of our role, how can we adopt a posture of encouraging ourselves and others in our day? How can we make the most of where we find ourselves? What steps can we take to improve our own attitude and help others generate enthusiasm?