In the Presence of a Master

Posted by on Jan 25, 2019

Ann Gribbons teaching Mette Larsen and “Stedinger’s Hit”

Her eye sees things most of us can’t even imagine. But how? It didn’t even exist to me until she talked about it and then, only then, could I even begin to conceptualize it through her description. Even watching her takes more vision than available yet there is some solace in this simple fact: she is a master. How does she do it, see it, know it? The answers are woven deeply between the decades of experiencing, learning, teaching, succeeding, failing, studying, and listening. I have been lucky enough to witness a handful of masters at their craft over the years. The first was Mark Spitz in 1991 when he made a come-back attempt for the 1992 Olympics. Awestruck and dizzy the first time meeting him, all I could think about were the posters of him on my childhood bedroom wall. But watching him swim was incredible. I was coaching at UCLA and lucky enough to be on the deck for that summer of training. There was something about the way he grabbed the water. It was mesmerizing. I would watch and try to figure out just what he did with his hands to move through, on, and over the water the way he did. It was impossible to understand no matter how hard I watched or studied. For me it was mind boggling, for him it was effortless, thoughtless, obvious. It was like watching a metronome; tick, tock, woosh, swoosh. His hand sliced through the water upon entry as if it were air meeting no impedance, grabbed it like a giant canoe paddle surging his body past it, and sliced back into the air without a splash or sound. The harmony was incredible and left me humbled every time.

 Mastery is a funny concept. Ask a beginner and they say “of course” and “someday,” and their belief in it is complete. Ask a master and they will hesitate, maybe even wince at the thought as they mutter it doesn’t exist. I have thought about mastery over the years and found the better one becomes at something, the more desire to learn and to improve surfaces. Perhaps that is the gift of mastery: upon arrival, it disappears.

In 1993, Anders Ericsson (et al.) published an article about expert practice. For years it sat around, not really stirring a fuss. He said talent is not the deciding factor in expert performance (gasp!). “Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain,” (p.400). Life-long effort, really? In 2007, Malcolm Gladwell set Ericsson’s research on a crazy path in Blink and all of a sudden, everyone needed 10,000 hours to be an expert. I’m pretty sure I have walked over 10,000 hours’ worth and I still trip more frequently than I care to admit. Then, in 2009, The Talent Code took it a step further, disputing “talent,” and praising deliberate practice, (what Ericsson concluded), along with inspiration and great coaching. Upon finishing that book, as I set it down, I remember thinking, “I could be great at anything.” Being freed from the nagging, “Am I talented enough?” was life-changing.

A few years ago, luck was again granted as I watched Lindsay Davenport coach tennis. She, like Spitz, was effortless in her vision and subsequent direction. Her accuracy was frightening. “Put the ball in the corner like this,” and it was as if there was a giant magnet, pulling the ball exactly into the corner, exactly how she saw it. And not just once, but over, and over, and over, and each and every time. Fantastic accuracy without any consideration of a miss, as if misses really happened. Another sort of metronome with the racket, obviously on auto-pilot, the same swing each time, the same accuracy each time, with a blip here and an “oops” there followed by a laugh. Watching her watch tennis was an even greater marvel. Her face told the tale of a thousand stories buried deeply in her brain and muscle memory, all waiting to be called up to assist in creating excellence. As I watched her watch, her eyes moved quickly, too quickly to track, and impossible to imagine the speed of the thoughts accompanying them. What she saw was completely different from what the rest of us mere mortals saw. Same match, but not really. Her however-many-hours, for sure more than ten thousand, gave her a vision and depth that I not only couldn’t see, but couldn’t imagine. Mine was the surface match, hers was the entire ocean. She could see the spin, the correctness, the footwork, the grip, the angle of the racket head as it connected with the ball, the follow through. She would call a ball in mid-air and without fail, predict its landing spot while I would have to wait for it to land. “Do it like this,” she would suggest without ever making them feel less than, even though that might have been impossible. This mastery allowed her to act immeasurably faster than even her student, who had already thousands of hours. Because she knows so much, she can intervene immediately, even before, either creating a better shot or preventing a bad one. It’s her level of know, her mastery, that creates this capacity for production of excellence. Born normal with maybe an un-normal level of try and desire, she made herself extraordinary. Being witness was not only an education but a gift.

As luck would have it again, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Ann Gribbons teach a few dressage lessons last month and again last week. Ann is truly a master, not only based on her resumé but on her feel and her “eye.” In equestrian, the “eyes on the ground” are everything. When a teacher can see it, feel it, and communicate about it in a way that causes the rider to also see it and feel it, that is mastery. Trying to capture what this was like is giving me a headache. It was so visceral and purely feeling that I don’t know how to put it into words. Ann would ask for a movement and when the horse and rider could not do it, you could just see her reach into her library of a lifetime and retrieve an exercise especially designed to free up or strengthen a muscle or joint. Then came the most amazing part: the struggle. As the words of instruction streamed into the air for the rider and the witness, the expectation of execution was immediate. But that is not how it works. Try and fail is the pattern that must be withstood and survived at this point in the training…deliberate practice. Try and fail, and then try again and fail again, and then try and fail, for what seemed like an eternal ten minutes. The most miraculous part was Ann. Her patience and support were like a high-wire acrobat’s safety net. She held the space for learning by allowing, encouraging, disregarding the failure part as important but transient, knowing the rider could move through the stages into success. Ann would say, “Yes, almost there! Now you’ve got it,” moments before the actual breakthrough occurred. Incredible, her connection to it was incredible. She just knew exactly how it would go and so it did. No posters on a childhood bedroom wall of Ann but the same Spitz-like experience of awestruck happened to me watching her glide with the rider and horse into excellence.

Do we ever find mastery? Who knows, but the quest is worthy of the chalice if only for the way it makes us feel.