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Have you ever had to perform a task that involves some small, minute target? It might be trying to hit the tennis ball canister on the ‘T’ of the service box, or the bullseye during a game of darts, or the inside side netting of the goal during a penalty. In this case the team were tasked with hitting a single cricket stump during a fielding exercise from around 10 metres away. The intensity and quality of the practice was of a high standard from the start, however after 3-4 minutes not one of the experienced twelve guys had hit the stump yet, despite a number of close misses. As each throw went by, the silent frustration amongst the group was tangible; throws becoming harder and more wayward – why can’t we seem to be able to hit the stump?! Another minute went by with similar results, until the coach quickly jumped in and said, “right we’re not trying to hit the stump now, we’re going for a near miss!” A slightly bizarre comment in any cricketing context I’m sure you agree! But you can probably guess what happened next….that’s right – the guys must have hit at least six or seven times in the next minute!

It’s been a while since my last post, but this scenario which only occurred a matter of days ago led to some though provoking questions. How was it that they could start hitting the target upon those words? Was it the words themselves? They certainly weren’t taken literally as I guarantee you every one of those players were still trying to hit the stump after the coach’s instructions (and it showed!). The effect of those words though; it was as if ‘trying to not hit’ liberated the pressures and frustrations of not hitting in the first place. By honing in less on the very precise target, you had a better chance of hitting. Sounds odd doesn’t it?

Perhaps it does at first glance but try putting it into a coaching or teaching environment – your best ever lesson or session that you recall taking, perhaps even a presentation to a group of clients. Did it go exactly according to the detailed plan or script that you had down before you started? Of course not! Out of all the teachers and coaches I know, and have had the privilege of working with not one of them has said they had a session or lesson go exactly according to plan. It just doesn’t happen!

Dart and bull's eye copyright Bill Frymire June 2004

Looking back on some of my coaching plans from previous years, I question how effective they really were. Why? Because I so preoccupied with sticking to the plan, refusing to deviate from it. In other words being so precise was potentially hindering further opportunities for learning, making sessions far less effective. That’s not to say planning isn’t important, far from it as it forms the bedrock of many professions. Going back to your best session/lesson however, why was it so good? Sometime people don’t know why, they can’t remember – it just was. Sometimes students interpret the task differently to how you expected and engage with it brilliantly. Sometimes someone might ask a question and you go off on a slight tangent whilst the group debate it? How do you plan the best ever session? Simple answer – you can’t! So perhaps being a little less precise can have its benefits. Having an open mind, listening to people’s feedback and adapting to it can help massively to this along with developing a spontaneous approach.

Take one last example of a conversation I had with a player last month; a player striving desperately to make a career out of cricket. Every performance, every bowling spell, every delivery was geared towards this fixed end goal. It was consuming him every time he stepped onto the pitch, to the point where enjoyment and effectiveness were being severely limited. The recurring theme of precision rears its head again – great that there are aspirations to progress higher, but with the end goal being so precise and at the forefront of his mind, the performances and other factors to achieve this goal were being lost along the way. Why not be a little less precise with that end goal? Perhaps keep it in the back of the mind, but focus on the performances in the here and now. The same goes for the coaching session or lesson; have the objectives or aims in mind, but be remain flexible and open as to how they are achieved.

So there you have it, maybe try it some time the next time you have a task that requires something very precise. You could be surprised with what the most effectiveness strategy to deal with it is. That’s not to say being less precise helps all of the time. There is plenty of support in the elite end of sport to suggest otherwise. Take archers or shooters for example, they may argue being precise is what makes them successful; Jonny Wilkinson who was renowned for focusing on a lady’s hat, and then lapel pin in the crowd when standing over a conversion might argue the same. Perhaps at the elite end it may be slightly different…. even if it isn’t though, it’s worth some food for thought.

PS. Many thanks for some of the fantastic feedback that continues to come in! With the summer holidays in full swing will try to keep them coming regularly.