Fall Behind To Get Ahead

Fall Behind To Get Ahead

July 26, 2019

I’m pretty sure the other pros thought I was an idiot.

Here I was, on the same side of the net as my student, working on a forehand by dropping balls out of my hand from one foot away.

It was like something you’d do for a toddler.

Except my student was actually quite good. And this was not how you teach students who are quite good.

No, the way to teach advanced players is with a lot of action.

You might feed good players hard side-to-sides and do a lot of yelling.

Or you hit crosscourts with them at top speed, stopping every now and then to offer coaching tips.

Or you bring in another big hitter and let them go at it.

Teaching a great player is an impressive show. Passersby usually stop and watch.

For good reason. There’s a lot of physicality, grunting, and great hitting.

It’s a spectacle.

And then there was my lesson.

Dropping and hitting slow groundstrokes at 1 mile per hour.

What the heck was I doing?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing exactly the right thing.

Unbeknownst to me, deep learning–learning that lasts–isn’t easy on the eye.

It’s slow and ugly and a struggle. It makes the student and the teacher look like neophytes.

As author David Epstein said, “The most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”

We tend to think that impressive displays right in front of our eyes mean progress. If it’s impressive now, imagine what it will be like next week!

But studies show that the opposite is true.

The students who hit the ball with ease and are serenaded with oohs, ahhs, and encouraging validation from the coach actually will lose their training.

The easy, fun results today do not translate into long-term mastery.

We think that taking away the struggle will open the door to a student’s successful path upward. If they get the answer today, with the teacher’s help, they’ll definitely get it tomorrow.

We also think that the feeling of learning is actual learning.

It feels good when students get the right answers or a student easily succeeds in a drill rigged for their success

But, again, it’s not true.

The Air Force did a study on over 10,000 cadets. Know what they found?

“The Calculus teachers who were the best at promoting student achievement in their own class were somehow not great for their students in the long run.”

Or, as the economists who studied the Air Force cadet results said:

“Professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement, on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes.”

And you know what else?

The students of the most-liked professors were the ones that did the worst later on.

The students felt like they were learning, so they gave their professors glowing evaluations. And ended up giving “the best marks to professors who provided them with the least long-term benefit.”

It’s pleasing to yell, “Great shot!” to players who are hitting great shots. But only doing that doesn’t create mastery in the long run.

I didn’t know any of this while I was doing the ridiculous ball-drop drill with my student.

I just knew I wanted her to get it. And somehow I guessed that teaching her like a toddler would make her stroke work best later on. If we went slowly, she might get it.

Luckily, I had the right idea.

As Epstein said, “The feeling of learning, it turns out, is based on before-your-eyes progress, while deep learning is not.”

If you want to become an expert or teach someone to become an expert, the message is clear.

Go slowly (even as others seem to be going quickly). Break the subject down. Allow the student to struggle.

Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot.


My book is called The Inevitability of Becoming Rich, and you can find that here.