Old Dog, New Tricks

ActivitySnackI was never very good at “trick sports” as a kid. I was a decent basketball player, but could never spin the basketball on my finger as well as some others could, especially considering how many hours I spent trying to perfect the skill. I think I only tried juggling once or twice, then promptly gave up, because I obviously had no natural talent for it. Similarly, games like jacks and even four square, with its combination of both physical skill and quick decision making, were not my forte.

Looking back now, I realize a couple of important things. First, I wasn’t bad at any of these things, I just wasn’t immediately good at them, so I quickly abandoned them for the more familiar sports and games that I had a natural talent for. I realize now that I really shortchanged my younger self, because skipping these opportunities to practice and learn a skill I wasn’t great at made me miss out on some really cool, fun stuff. What’s much worse, though, is that that habit stayed with me throughout my life: I had learned not to try things I might fail at, opting instead for the easier, more familiar skills, activities, classes and jobs. Talk about missing out on opportunities!

The second thing I realize now is that I had been practicing all wrong. My approach was always the same: try a new skill for 30 minutes or an hour or even longer, and if I hadn’t mastered it, or at least made progress suggestive of future mastery, then I abandoned it forever. Even shooting baskets – something I loved and stuck with for years – was the same: I took the same shots from the same, predictable spots on the court, the same way day after day, never really improving much.

A couple of months ago, all of that changed for me when I watched a video of a man in his 70’s walk on a slack rope, hop over a three-foot high fence post, juggle while standing on top of a twenty-foot ladder, and do other amazing feats. I watched with amazement as he “played” in his backyard, moving from one activity to the next. At the end of the video, he tells people that anyone can do what he can, but they have to start small. Later that day, I found a package of tennis balls in the closet and tried juggling. It was ridiculous. My brain couldn’t even begin to comprehend how to throw and catch two balls at the same time, never mind three. I practiced at it for about five minutes, then put the balls away. But the next day I got them out again. Here’s a video of me trying to juggle (and also trying to use a child’s paddle ball toy) about a week into my juggling endeavor:

As you can see, not very impressive. But I had read something that same week about how practicing a thing wrong is actually worse than not practicing at all, so I adjusted my strategy and continued practicing. My new strategy involved juggling for anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes per day, and no more. Once I had done better than the day before (as judged by how many catches and throws I’d made), I put the balls away until the next day. At first, my best was six. A few days later it was 10. When Laura got in on the action and it became a competition, that’s when I noticed my progress really improved. I was more focused when I practiced, and I looked for little ways to subtly improve my technique. Often, these changes did not have immediate positive results – sometimes, they even made my performance worse for a short time. But within a few days, I could see that discipline pay off in a big way. Six weeks after starting my juggling experiment, I juggled for 200 consecutive catches and throws. This video doesn’t show that particular achievement, but my level of improvement is evident:

You might be wondering why, with all of life’s pressing matters, I’m taking the time to learn to juggle. I guess I started it on a whim, but it’s been an incredible learning tool for me, and I’m so glad I did. It’s also a way to stand up and get a little activity in the middle of the day. I feel it’s keeping my brain sharp, too. And it’s a great way to relieve stress. Most of all, it’s just fun. I’m far from great at juggling now, but I’ve learned that I don’t have to be in order to enjoy all of these other little benefits, and it makes me wonder what else I could be doing to improve my life in small but significant ways.

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