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The Beginner's Advantage: Why Starting from Scratch Can Be a Strength

Posted by George Parker on

I talked with my friend yesterday about coaching our kid’s under-8 sports team. Neither of us is remotely qualified to coach based on our athletic careers! My friend said something that struck me as wise and affirmed why he has been so successful as a corporate business leader.

My friend attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later served as an Armored Cavalry Officer in the Army. At West Point, he was indoctrinated with a specific method of training. First, young cadets learn individual skills: organization, discipline, weapon handling, and marching. (As a civilian, please forgive me if I get military terms incorrect and focus only on the broader concept.) Once you master individual skills, you learn new skills on how to manage a small group at the company or unit level. Then, you progress to more complex skills on moving and managing groups of companies organized into a platoon. Each progressive level builds upon the prior level, starting with individual skill mastery.

Individual skill mastery is what my friend focuses his coaching on. In contrast, other coaches equally weigh teaching small group movements. I will use soccer as an example: As a coach, my friend would encourage the kids first to become comfortable with the individual skills of dribbling, passing, receiving, and shooting. Next, he could teach the kids to operate as a small group of four kids in the traditional diamond pattern. Later, you can add more kids, more complex formations, and, eventually, plays.

But it all starts with individual skill mastery.

Consider how relevant this is to other things we do in our lives. It would be best, to begin with basic individual skills to improve or start something new. This is where many people get hung up because it is humbling to go back to the basics. No one wants to be a bumbling beginner again, but, as my friend learned at West Point, that is the optimal way to progress toward mastery.

What could this mean? If you are at a plateau or stumbling block, perhaps the way to advance is to refocus on individual skills.

Taking running as another example, when did you last evaluate your running form? How are your knee drive and toe-off? What are your arms doing? What is your breathing pattern? Can these basic movements be improved to improve a complex operation such as half marathon endurance or 5K speed?

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

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