Why you are at your worst when your teacher is watching

Early in my Systema training the following exchange happened regularly:

1.  Vladimir demonstrated an idea.

2.  Then I grabbed a partner and began working on the lesson, with varying degrees of success.

3.  As I worked through the material things would start to click and I’d rattle off a few moves that worked seamlessly and felt great.

4.  At that moment, Vladimir would happen to be watching and offer a quick word of praise and a smile.  Oh, he would continue to watch.

5.  Without fail, I would fail miserably the next go-around.

It was like he cursed me with his praise.

After I experienced this several times I started to catch on.  I began to anticipate this chain of events.  Whenever Vladimir said something positive, I just knew I was going to look atrocious my next movement.  It was more than just being self-conscious, although being self-conscious is a big part of performing poorly.

The learning process is about making your moves automatic, without conscious thought.  When your teacher is watching you, and you know he iswatching you, you instantly become aware of every little move you make.  Trying to take conscious control of movements that are automatic — or on their way to becoming automatic — leads to the phenomenon commonly called “choking,” as illustrated by the following poem:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run

–Katherine Craster

When your teacher is watching, you also become aware that you are open to criticism and scrutiny.  You want to do every move 100% correct and proveyourself.  The thing is, scrutiny is not very fun for most people.  However, to excel you must seek scrutiny, you must ascribe scrutiny to your behavior, not toyour self.  When you shift your mindset to see scrutiny as good, as feedback that will help you improve, you will no longer fear it; you will feel badwhen you don’t get it.  No feedback means no improvement.

So what is really happening when you look like a master then, after your teacher praises you, you look like a novice?

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman discovered the answer while he was working with Israeli flight instructors.  The instructors told him that praising pilots didn’t work, and actually made them worse.  Yelling at them when they made mistakes, on the other other hand, did work and improved their performance. The flight instructors concluded, incorrectly, that praise lowered performance, vindicating their belief that being tough on pilots when they made errors worked.

This dynamic is normal and natural.  It has nothing to do with praise not working, it’s statistics. “Regression toward the mean” explains why praisedoesn’t seem to work.  Here’s what happens.  A student has a mean (average) skill level that he deviates from, both for the better and the worse.  Over timeand repetition, he falls back to his average performance level.  So when you are praised for performing above your current average skill level, like the fighterpilots and I were, the next few tries tend to fall back toward your average performance.  It’s not that praise doesn’t work, the meaning of the praise just needs to be reassigned.

I trained myself to see praise as a sign that comes when I am beginning to stretch my current capabilities.  I know I will fall back to my average, but withenough above-average attempts, my average skill level will rise — I will get better. I don’t expect every attempt to equal the previous “high” for which I waspraised, and I know with continued practice my skill will trend upward.

So praise doesn’t hinder performance, rather it’s a sign you are moving in the right direction, though you may not be there quite yet.  After awhile, theperformance you were praised for will become routine and you will not longer receive praise for it, nor will you notice your own improvement because youare looking for your next words of praise.

More on “being addicted to praise” next time…

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