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Deflections: Strings Attached

The world tour began on a balmy October Sunday afternoon. A newly minted guitarist with barely two years of lessons to show for it, I sputtered through five songs at my daughter’s wedding.

One went passably well, till I forgot a few chords. On another, the song miraculously sped up from charming country ballad to near-rock anthem speed.

A third was just a train wreck, as my teacher later smirked. It was not lost on me that the three mirrored a hockey player’s performance anxiety over a full game. Or a coach’s through three sections of a practice gone horribly to seed.

And that’s about when I first realized just how much I’d forgotten about the nuances of performing new skills, especially in an emotionally charged environment.

For instance, it took me three months of constant practice to sort of nail the transition from a C chord to a B minor. I could do it slowly and even with a steady metronome-paced beat. But incorporating it into the final product was another matter. There were similar issues with barre chords. Those are the ones where you contort your fingers and wrist into Cirque du Soleil-like positions and still need to strike each string perfectly.

It’s equivalent to getting your kids (your fingers) to each know what they must do and where to go on a breakout (the chord) in order to mount an attack (the riff) and score (the song).

But I’d forgotten. Forty years of coaching at so many levels had taught me plenty about, well, coaching. I’d long since surpassed journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s magic number of 10,000 hours to master a skill. Yet, though well past the number, mastering the skill of coaching had clearly eluded me. How could I spend so much time teaching, instructing, mentoring and coaching at some fairly elite levels and still not really understand what the learner feels like?

Learning guitar - I still take lessons, thanks for asking - has re-introduced me to what new learners require to grasp the complexities of a skill or tactic. My struggles with barre chords, riffs, and linking off-beat lyrics to tunes have forced me to go back to where I was when I started coaching and was still playing. It’s not that I lost patience with how the players learn; indeed, I lost touch.

The artistry of playing an instrument and creating music has remarkable parallels to how hockey coaches try to teach players to make nearly instantaneous game decisions. Too often this is without establishing the proper skill base. No novice guitarist began with Stairway to Heaven.

My world tour has stalled in the upstairs spare bedroom where I pluck away, oblivious to the world. But, with every new chord, riff, or tune, I remind myself what good coaching needs.

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