Coaxing Superior Performance

Sometimes getting people to do things properly is difficult.

I used to teach kids how to swim. I remember one boy always lifted his head up to breathe while doing front crawl.

There’s a progression for front crawl and we had gone through all the steps: float, kick, breathe-to-the-side, wind-mill the arms. This kid could do it all, but when he tried to put it all together, his head always came up to breathe. He looked straight down the swimlane and his feet sank as a result.

I told him, “Look for me next time you breathe. OK? Look for me.” He agreed and off he went.

A boy swims in a pool between lane markers.

Lifting your head up when swimming makes your feet sink. Photo Marcus Ng, Unsplash

When he brought his head up to breathe, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t at the end of the lane. He looked around and finally found me standing on the deck, way behind, over his shoulder. I waved at him and smiled.

I still remember the look of surprise on his face.

He gathered himself and started again. He kept his head down and lifted his face to the side to spot me on the deck. We made eye-contact, he took a breath, then continued swimming his most effortless length to date.

Sometimes, the conventional approach just doesn’t work. I tried explaining in words. I tried stationary practise. I tried demonstrating. I tried reasoning. Nothing worked. Only by observing his open eyes and changing where those eyes looked could I get him to breathe properly.

Sometimes a creative, individual approach is necessary. Sometimes, in corporate training, that doesn’t scale the way we’d like.

How do you know when your corporate training approach needs a creative reboot, or an individual touch?