Expertise Induced Amnesia

Over my Christmas break, I was roped into going to watch an ice hockey match.  The thought of sitting in a large open, airy warehouse, with no heating and an enormous sheet of ice in the centre isn’t really my idea of a fun evening out, but it was an entertaining few hours.

Ice Hockey Arena
Ice Hockey Arena

As I sat and watched, there were more and more parallels with the riding industry.  For starters, there are few better sights than that freshly raked dressage arena at the beginning of a day’s teaching or riding.  As you see the hoof prints and flattened areas disappear, replaced by the neat ridge and furrows left from the plough, all that is wrong in my OCD world is fixed….  And, on the ice, it is exactly the same thing.  As the skaters have moved back and forth across the ice, they cut up slices in it, chipping out fine ice shavings.  Between periods, on comes a Zamboni to smooth and flatten the ice again, and you can so clearly see the dull worn areas become smooth and shiny again.

Zamboni flattening the ice
Zamboni flattening the ice

And then, on come the players.  You should see me on skates.  Or wheels.  They don’t work.  Really.  You know the learner skater who is trying to stay vertical, clinging onto the railing around the edge of the ice rink, holding their upper body in place by sheer brute force in the arms, but legs like Bambi, going in all directions?  Yes, that’s me.  Recently I bought myself a pair of roller blades, thinking of course I could learn to do this…  I strapped them on, did up all the straps, laces and buckles…  And…  couldn’t stand up.  Truly, I couldn’t go from sitting in my chair to vertical.  Both legs went out in different directions and my butt stayed firmly in the chair seat…  Give me two feet to stand on, or four legs and a solid back to sit on, but don’t give me blades or wheels.

Skaters illustrating perfectly expertise induced amnesia.
Skaters illustrating perfectly expertise induced amnesia.

So, these skaters coming flying on, and go whizzing at speed around the ice.  As you watch them, its clear that these guys are in no way thinking about their feet.  There is not a moment of them looking down and wondering if they are keeping their balance, how hard they need to strike off to move their feet forwards, or how to go about getting around the corners.   It’s second nature, just the way that things work.  They are as safe on their skates as they are on their feet.  When they go to hit the puk, they are looking to where their team mates are, where their opponents are, and where they want the puk to go, but they aren’t thinking of how they are holding their hockey stick or how to strike the puk.  They fall often, but even then, as they are sliding across the ice on their knees, backs or noses, they are getting their balance again, getting their knees bent, feet under them and getting upright.

The guys who I was so impressed with though, were the refs.  There were three of them on the ice, and like the players, they were totally unaware of what their feet were doing.  The amazing thing was when the puk would come flying towards them at about knee height.  As the puk was a couple of metres away, they would leap in the air, let the puk pass under their skates and land again without ever looking at the puk, their feet or the ice.  At the same time that they were leaping in the air gazelle style, they were watching the players come towards them, watching the other refs, watching the players the puk was going towards and staying out of the way, avoiding being squashed by puk chasers.

Fancy Dress on Ice
Fancy Dress on Ice

Now, when I am sitting on a horse, I am not thinking much about how I am riding.  I am thinking of what my horse is doing; are all four legs equally under him or is one limb drifting in or out; is he using his back correctly; is he offering up impulsion, rhythm, balance; how is the contact…  And as I am thinking through these questions, I am making adjustments, but not having to consciously think of how I am riding or how I am sitting.  I’m thinking, I need to straighten his spine – and there it is.

Recently, I spent a few days teaching, where I was sitting on a horse, teaching other riders.  Some of the owners watching, offered their horses as the moving teaching platform.  When I asked why, they laughed, saying their horses would be schooled by accident.  As I was sitting on a horse explaining how to do things like lateral work, leg yielding, or working with more bend, the horse who I was sitting on automatically offered up what we were discussing.  In the same way that the refs don’t think about how they are landing on their feet when they jump over the puk, so an experienced rider doesn’t think of how they are applying the aids to ask their horse for a movement.  In my lessons where I was sitting on a horse to teach, as I was explaining one movement, my body automatically went into position and my moveable chair automatically offered up what he or she thought I was asking.

Expertise Induced Amnesia in action.
Expertise Induced Amnesia in action.

And this is? Expertise Induced amnesia.  When you know something so well, when it is second nature, when it is as automatic as breathing, then your body automatically carries out the task.  Think of learning something new – imagine trying to learn to juggle, or my trying to learn to stand on roller blades.  It takes a huge amount of brain space.  The more you practice, the less you have to think about it.  If I passed you a pen and dictated something to write down, would you take time to work out how to hold the pen, which end you need to hold over the paper, how to form letters on the page, or would you just write?  As soon as a movement or habit is something that doesn’t require extra thinking, there you go – you could well end up with Expertise Induced Amnesia…

So, now, what is going to become your new habit?

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