I met Kevin Riley a month ago and had the opportunity to attend one of his speaking engagements last Friday. Kevin authored “Guiding Your Child from Pee Wee to Pro.” The book is designed to help parents nurture their child’s athletic development, but I found his information to also be applicable to business, filmmaking and spiritual growth.
Kevin, after years of speaking engagements to parent groups, parks and recreational organizations, and state and national conferences, realized the repetitiveness of one comment, “I wish I had known all this information years before.” This moment of enlightenment drove him to research what turns a good performer into a great one.
“One thing that really surprised me as I was going through and doing all this research, and doing interviews, et cetera, was that 97 percent of the population has the chance to excel,” says Kevin. “To get in that one percent. 97 percent of all of us have the opportunity, have the capability, to excel. And that’s because, and I’m sorry to say, we’re all essentially the same.”
The Elite Use Long-Term Memory
Kevin went on to share the things we have to do to excel and get into the top one percent, which are not hard to do. He started with a simple question, “Where does expertise come from?” Kevin adds, “It comes from your memory. And more specific, it comes from your long-term memory.”
I was fascinated to learn how experiences move into our working memory or short-term memory. Most of those things that are important to us and memorable, then move into our long-term memory. But the key is turning long-term memory into a tool to be used as an expert.
“Now you are already a near-expert,” says Kevin. “A near-expert is very close to an expert, but not quite. Raise your hand if you can remember any detail of getting here today. How many of you drove? Okay. Do you remember accelerating? Do you remember putting on the brakes? Do you remember turning the steering wheel right or left, whichever way you had to go? Do you remember with any detail doing those things?”
“More than likely, no. You may remember, ‘Okay, this is the route that I took. And there’s a stoplight over on Indian Trail and 31.’ But do you remember actually going through it? Your driving was automated. That’s why you can hold a conversation with someone in the car and still drive.”
The Elite Automate Their Motor Skills
“What you want to do, and what athletes do, is they automate their motor skills. They have a lot of information, a lot of experiences in their long-term memory. Another benefit of having a lot of stuff in their long-term memory, for athletes and you also, is that you can chunk information. When you’re presented with a situation, your brain will pull up past memories to assist you in accomplishing what you’re trying to do.”
Kevin used tennis as an example to explain how memory chunking works. Research has shown that human beings have an extremely hard time reacting to a tennis ball hit at 100 miles per hour. Yet pros return Roger Federer’s 130 mile per hour serve. This is done by the chunking of information.
The athlete anticipates the shot based on the server’s stance, foot position, body angle, the loft of the ball into the air, the hand position on the racket, the air temperature, and the condition of the court. The array of information based on remembered experiences allows the player to reduce the number of possibilities of where the ball will land to a small area on the court that he can respond to.
“The other thing is, if you have a lot of information in your long-term memory,” Kevin says, “is that the connections, the electrical signals within your brain actually move faster than someone who doesn’t have a lot of information in their long-term memory.”
The Elite Practice with Variation
Kevin shared that when he coached, he’d have the kids repeat things over and over again in the same way at every practice. The activities lost its importance and was no longer memorable, causing the players to plateau. Once he shifted to variable practices that kept things important and memorable, the players saw increases in their skill levels.
“A shortstop will never throw a ball to right field or centerfield or even left field. There’s no reason for that,” says Kevin. “But what it does, (in a variable practice), it disengages the brain from what he normally does, throwing to first, so then when he throws back to first base he has to rethink. It starts to become memorable to him—Again.”
The best thing to do during practice is random activities. The coach could call out an action to a player and they have to immediately do it, something different every time. It’s a slower way to practice, but its more memorable and will stay in the players long-term memory for immediate action at another time. It also builds the player’s ability to make quick decisions under pressure.
Kevin says, “Every time an athlete goes out they need to challenge themselves. They just can’t keep doing the same thing. Even if it’s just a half a percent, a quarter of a percent more in something. Either make something a little faster, reverse the order, it has to be a challenge every single time.”
When people begin to get comfortable their skills plateau. The only way to continue growing one’s expertise is to challenge the mind in new ways. Getting feedback from a coach or someone knowledgeable about the technique can help pinpoint what skill area needs work and then by using short, intensive focused segments of practice can stimulate the mind with a level of importance, while being memorable.
“For an athlete, and on average, it takes about 7,000 hours of practicing this way,” says Kevin. “Okay that’s two, two-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, for 50 weeks a year. We don’t have time to do that. We have other things going on. But I would challenge you… Practice using these techniques in your domain for 30 minutes a day, four to five days a week. Try it for a month. Research shows that if you can do that your performance and your knowledge, your availability to chunk information will remarkably increase over a period of a month.”
The Elite Use Kevin’s Information
“Everyone is relying on traditional, out-of-date exercises, practice methods, and there’s a new way to do things,” says Kevin. “Science is evolving on how the brain works and how people learn. To improve, you need to learn how to improve.”
Kevin’s new methods have been well proven by athletes, business executives, and many in the field of entertainment. The key is recognizing that we are all pretty much the same, not having that exceptional talent, yet able to become experts by using a process. To demonstrate our sameness and how processes can change our outcomes, Kevin had us play a game.
We played the harder version of Flippy Cup within a two-minute time constraint. The game’s conditions included only one person going at a time, the next person not being able to start until the previous person succeeded, and the cup starting upside down on its wide mouth and being flipped upright onto its narrow base. All the teams righted one or two cups.
We were then given two minutes to create a strategy or process that could change our few flipping opportunities based on ordinary skills into three to five times more opportunities. One person was to clear the table of fallen cups. Another fed the cups into an ideal starting position. And, the other person focused solely on their finger-flipping abilities. During the next round, our table of average guys became experts in our process and we won with a score of five flipped cups.
“It’s really true that the vast majority of the population is average. We all have average IQs, and as far as our physical abilities we’re all born pretty much the same. And its practice, and how we practice, that can improve.” Kevin says, “In the two minutes that we did it, people started to use their chunking ability, their long-term memory, and a method to improve. And they’re the team that won. Improvement is about process.”
Kevin’s message was easy to understand and his demonstration clearly supported his point that the most successful, the ones that reach the top, have a process. Everyone else seem to use a shotgun approach, hitting and missing arbitrarily, with no way to replicate a specific successful outcome again and again.