What Hockey Lessons Are Teaching Me About Mastery

By Jeff Shore

Adult Learning Theory 101

Elete 142For adults, learning happens in progressive stages with varying degrees of consciousness. The first stage, unconscious incompetence, is when a person is horrible at something but they don’t know it. (Think: karaoke bar.) Next comes conscious incompetence – when someone is lousy at something and they are keenly (and often painfully) aware of their lack of skill. (Think: student drivers.) Conscious competence comes with practice and is the stage in which a person can do whatever it is they are working at, but doing so requires complete focus and concentration. (Think: me on hockey skates. I’ll explain later.) The highest level of performance is unconscious competence, when a person can do something well without having to think about it at all. The action has become “second nature.” We’ve all seen people who work like this: they make parallel parking a big rig, decorating a cake, or selling a house look easy.

I recently joined a “Learn to Play Hockey” program (it’s a long story) and it didn’t take long to notice that not was I the oldest guy on the ice, I was also the worst skater. The best I had going for me at the beginning was that I could, technically, skate forward. Stopping was another story. I could stop only by hitting a wall, the ice, or another human body. Not ideal, but it worked. Sort of.

Because I was so inept, I hired a private coach to do nothing but help me learn how to stop. For an hour, we worked an inch at a time. At first it was at a snail’s pace, with me turning one skate ever so slightly inward to slow myself down. I did this again and again…and again and again…and… times a hundred. Then the coach had me do the same move ever so slightly faster…times a hundred. Then I did it with my other foot…for what felt like another hundred times…then with both feet at the same time…about a million times…faster…another million times…faster…another million times…until I was skating at full speed and actually stopping! It felt like a miracle but really, it was process mastery. I became consciously competent at stopping. Yes, I could do it, but it took a high level of concentration for me to achieve it. Still, I was really happy to be able to stop without the use of a wall, a body, or the ice!

Four weeks into my hockey lessons something wonderful happened. I was skating at full speed toward a puck against the boards. At the last second, I applied a hard hockey stop and then skated off. Just like that, without thinking about it at all. Later, I realized that this was the first time I had done this unconsciously. I had reached the stage of unconscious competence. Mastery tastes great!

The process of learning to stop in my hockey skates can be easily applied to the mastery of sales skills. We want to think that we can show up at a training class or read a good technique book and suddenly find a dramatic improvement to our game. That’s fairy dust thinking. The problem is that too many sales professionals are not aiming to be great—they are content with “good enough.” Great takes work. Difficult, grueling, boring, repetitive, time-consuming, uncomfortable, gritty work. Great is about, “Do it again – do it again – do it again.”

How badly do you want to be great? Here’s an idea: show me, don’t tell me. Show me with your dedication. Show me with your work ethic. Show me with your embracing of discomfort. Show me with your repetition. Show me with your tenacity, and your grit, and your willingness to fight hard in the corners.

Then go out and change the world.