I have been reading Mastery by the late George Leonard. Half way through 2020 I’ve read about 25 books, and Mastery is a contender for the best book of the year. Leonard describes what he calls the 5 Keys to Mastery. Key #1 is instruction—hiring a coach. He explains:
“The individual teacher or coach can serve as a standard for all forms of instruction, the first and brightest beacon on the journey to mastery.” When coach and student are working in harmony, it’s a “delicious conspiracy of excellence” as Leonard describes it.
All of this reminds me of chess and kettlebells. Over the past 10 years I’ve studied chess and played in chess tournaments. I’ve also worked out three to five times a week, learning to master the kettlebell swing and Turkish get-up.
Tournament chess uses a rating system. The best in the world, Magnus Carlsen, is rated over 2800. A beginner’s rating is often well below 1000. I’m in the 1900s. Ten years ago I was in the 1900s. I’ve not improved.
Fortunately, my workouts have proven more productive. Ten years ago I woke up every morning in agonizing back and hip pain. My back would go out on me a couple times a year. When it did, I couldn’t walk for days. I weighted 230 pounds.
Today, my back isn’t perfect. But it hasn’t gone out on me in a decade. I weigh 182 pounds. At the age of 53 I can do a dozen pull-ups and hold a plank for three minutes. Kettlebells line the wall of my garage.
What’s the difference? Why have I seen no improvement in my ability to play chess, yet significant improvement in my overall fitness?
Coaching. Ten years ago I hired a trainer. His name is Justin Case, and he owns Underground Athlete in Fairfax, VA. I’ve trained there for a decade. In just under two hours I’ll be at the gym lifting with a trainer.
With chess I’ve tried to do it on my own. No coaching. No trainer.
Hiring a coach offers several benefits.
Competence: The most obvious it seems to me is the coach’s experience. Justin and the other trainers have taught me a lot about strength training, mobility, endurance and nutrition. Before working with them I viewed the sit-up as the primary way to strengthen your core. Today I never do a sit-up, at least not the kind we did in middle school. And who knew that carrying around a 24k kettlebell in one hand could strengthen your core?
Consistency: There are plenty of times when I don’t feel like working out. But I’ve made an appointment, it’s on the calendar, and they are expecting me. I show up. Showing up is 90% of the battle, and a coach can help motivate you to show up.
Camaraderie: Working with a coach and other students is fun. At least it should be. Team training is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my training. One coach and 12 students swing bells and taking names. Sure there are times when I train by myself, and I enjoy those moments of solitude. But it’s also fun to train with others.
Yesterday I hired a chess coach. Our first training session is tomorrow. I can’t wait.