Don’t ‘just do it’

We often hear people say that the most effective way to learn to ride a bicycle is to ‘just do it’ – to simply get on and start pedaling.

When I learnt to cycle as an 8 year old, a couple of my friends and I put this to the test. My friends sat me on their bicycles on top of a gentle down slope and gave me a shove. Depending on how lucky I was, I would roll down for a few meters until I crashed to the ground. Unfazed, we would repeat this process all over again.

We played out this charade for a few days, but I still couldn’t balance the bike on my own. It is interesting how as an 8-year-old I had little fear for bodily harm and my generous friends had little concern for their mangled bicycles.

One afternoon, my mother came along and changed this setup. While I rode the bicycle, she supported it from behind to ensure that I didn’t fall down. Once I started rolling forward, she would let go and only intervene when my balance faltered. Initially, she had to intervene often. With time, I was able to sustain my balance for longer stretches. At one point, she let go of the cycle without telling me. I remember how I had ridden forward only to have her run up beside me, clapping her hands with a wide smile on her face.

I remember how I made more progress in one afternoon with my mother than in several sessions with my friends. If we break down cycling into its fundamental parts, there is starting, balancing and pedaling (with turning coming later). The approach my friends had adopted required me to build all those three skills simultaneously. My mother, a school teacher, perhaps understood how they need to be broken down and taught one at a time. First, I learnt how to start the bicycle without worrying about my balance. I then learnt to pedal along and finally, when my mother let go of the cycle, I learnt how to balance as well.

The best teachers, like my mother, break down a skill into its rudiments and teach them one at a time. The best guitar teachers spend the first class teaching you how to hold your guitar. The best swimming coaches spend the first session to get you comfortable with water. The best karate masters teach you to observe your own mind and your body before you spar with opponents or break bricks with bare hands

Learning is fastest when we break a skill down into its component parts and master them one at a time. It might be tempting to plunge in with both feet and do it all, but this approach is oftentimes counterproductive.

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