10 Ways To Deal With Plateaus

We all know the feeling.

Even though you’ve been training your butt off you suddenly hit a wall. It feels like your progress has come to a grinding halt. All the while everyone else seems to be improving at a rapid speed and overtaking you.

You feel left behind. Frustrated. Maybe even like you’ve actually gotten worse. You might even imagine that the rest of the team is annoyed at you for being the weak link.

Plateaus happen at any level – from the freshest of Freshie right up to the world class Hydra winning superstar. But, whoever you are, it really sucks when you hit a plateau.

So how do we deal with them?

1. Plateaus Are Part Of The Process

The first thing to realise is that plateaus are part of the learning process. You will hit flat spots along the road and, even occasionally, a dip where you seem to get worse before getting better. So rule number one of dealing with plateaus is to accept that they are inevitable and an essential part of progress.

This doesn’t necessarily make plateaus any less frustrating but anticipating plateaus means you’re prepared for when they happen. You won’t think it’s the end of the world if you know that you will come out the other side. You won’t think you have reached as far as you can go if you know that everyone who wants to be great experiences plateaus. You will also have strategies in place to conquer and drive through plateaus.

2. Marginal Gains

If you tracked learning a new skill on a graph, a line would, more or less, rise up diagonally across the sheet. But this can’t continue indefinitely.

At the beginning you will improve rapidly but will eventually reach a level where progress will slow. It will feel like you aren’t improving at all but, if you are practicing deliberately, you will always be improving.

The difference is, because you are already competent, the increments of improvement become smaller, you may only improve by 5 or 1%. But a 1% improvement is still an improvement and the higher up in skill level and competition you go, the more important those tiny improvements matter.

Think about the likes of Gotham and Rose City – two behemoths at the pinnacle of their skill level. What separates them will be infinitesimally small but that tiny % will be what means they win. 

Now, you might not be Mutch or Bonnie Thunders yet, but tiny, imperceptible improvements in many areas leads to a massive improvement overall. So maybe you haven’t actually stopped progressing; the improvements are just no longer huge leaps and so they become unnoticeable until, one day, you realise you’re whole game has improved.

3. Embrace The Grind

When you hit a plateau, this is when your grit is really tested. It’s hard to stay motivated when you aren’t nailing a new skill each session and feeling all hyped on those reward hormones. Plateaus aren’t fun. At best, they’re boring and and worst they’re extremely frustrating. Humans like instant gratification, we like to see the fruits of our labour straight away and, when we don’t, it feels sucky.

This is probably the most painful stage of progress but ultimately the most rewarding as this is where you learn how to push through difficulties (kinda like jamming huh). The grind is where you develop toughness and character. The grind is where you discover hidden strengths. And the grind is what makes the eventual success taste even sweeter!

The grind is also where the wheat is sorted from the chaff – those who can’t stick it, give up, leave or at least stop trying to improve. So if you can persist through the grind, you’ll be lapping all the people that quit.

 4. Track Everything

You might feel like you aren’t progressing but how do you really know that unless you’re measuring and tracking everything? If you don’t already track your lap times, stopping distances, how much weight you can lift, how many press ups you can do, or whatever metrics are really important to your game, start now! That way you can see whether you are actually getting better, even if it’s by a tiny amount. An improvement is an improvement, no matter how small. Remember that!

Tracking, recording and measuring means you can not only see whats happening right now, you can also look back and see how much you’ve improved over the long run. Seeing that can really boost your confidence and show that you’ve had plateaus before and you got past them and you can do it again.

If writing things down isn’t your bag, grab your phone and film yourself! Watch the footage and see what you need to work on and then compare older videos of the same skill to new ones. You might be surprised at how much better you’ve gotten.

5. Be Honest

Are you really giving it 100%? Are you really pushing yourself or sticking to easy stuff? How much time are you actually spending working on the skills you struggle with? If the answer is “Actually, not much”, sorry to break it to you, but you won’t get better at stuff you don’t practice.

We are really good at lying to ourselves and pretending we’re working harder than we actually are, so step back and take a look at yourself.

Could you be more focussed? Could you be more urgent? Could you listen more to your coaches? Could you ask for more critical feedback?

Probably.

The best way to keep yourself honest is to track everything (see above) and log what you worked on, how successful it was, how much you improved, how much you’ve deteriorated(Don’t let your ego make you avoid confronting the bad stuff, you have to acknowledge your mistakes to learn from them!) Having it written down in front of you helps prevent you from lying to yourself about how much effort you’re really putting in.

If you struggle really being honest with yourself, ask for frank, critical feedback from your coaches or other teammates. (Be prepared for the truth cus it might hurt!) Choose the person carefully though and don’t just pick someone you know will give you an ego boost. You need someone with a critical eye who isn’t afraid to lay the truth on you, but who also won’t use it as an opportunity to tear you down. You need someone that wants you to get better.

6. Practice Deliberately

Do you turn up to practice and just phone it in, mindlessly working on drills not really thinking about what you’re doing? You might be putting the hours in but unless you’re practicing deliberately, you’ll never push past that plateau.

How you practice is just as, if not more important, than how often you practice.

According to K. Anders Ericsson, there are four main elements of deliberate practice:

  1. You need to be motivated to exert significant effort into whatever you’re practicing: Deliberate practice isn’t inherently fun. It’s hard work and not instantly rewarding. It involves lots of failures, falls and misses. It can be painful and it should be intense and tiring.
  2. Your objectives should be clear relevant to your skill level and understanding: 
  3. You should be able to receive immediate, informative feedback: In other words, you should be able to know instantly whether you were successful or not. For example, a basketball player practicing shots will get immediate feedback when the ball does or doesn’t go in. If she misses, she makes minor adjustments and tries again. For someone practicing plow stops from speed, you could have a two lines to stop between. If you shoot past the finish line, that’s immediate feedback telling you to change something.
  4. You need to repeat the same or similar tasks: Just because you did it right once does not mean you are done with the practice. That could have been a fluke. And you won’t know what exactly it was you did to get it right. To be an expert at that particular thing, you need to repeat it perfectly over and over and over again.

Every minute of practice is precious, make the most of it!

Iron Octopus wrote a great post about how coaches can help their students practice more deliberately and offer them a ‘blueprint’ to work from so they know whats a hit or a miss.

7. Perfectionism Kills Progress

Perfectionism is the devil. It isn’t just wanting to get something right and it’s not about having high standards. Instead, perfectionists have a narrow and unrealistic definition of success, they punish themselves harshly for not being instantly good at something, believe that things that are hard for other people should be easy for them and are too obsessed with the “final outcome” and its external rewards.

Perfectionists also polarise success and failure, there is go grey area. They either win or lose. They overlook and diminish their own achievements because they don’t fit with their view of what “winning” is and can see other people as competition and make comparisons to others which result in negative feelings.

Not only do perfectionists not enjoy the process of learning (because learning involves failing), they will also do anything to avoid being in a position where they might mess up. In other words, they will avoid trying new things, procrastinate at practice, turn up late, talk whilst a drill is being explained… Whatever it takes to protect their ego.

Don’t be ashamed if you’re a perfectionist! Many of us are. We all have egos that can be easily bruised. But you can change this way of thinking once you’re aware of it. I don’t think there’s a better place to start than reading Mindset by Carol Dweck.

8. Speaking Of Mindset…

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They don’t believe that skill, talents or intelligence can be improved upon and developed. They believe that they don’t have to put effort into anything because, if they aren’t “naturally” good at it from the get-go, they will never be able to do it.

And as such, a plateau feels like a ceiling to someone in a fixed mindset. This is as far as their talents go because, getting through a plateau means effort and effort means you aren’t talented.

People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe just the opposite. They believe their intelligence, skills and talents can always be developed, all it takes is practice and effort. They don’t see failure or effort as a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact.

When people with a fixed mindset hit a plateau, they see it as a hill to climb rather than an insurmountable peak. Yeah sure, it’s gonna take a lot of effort but it’s possible.

So when you next hit a plateau, listen to your thoughts and see whether you’re hearing a fixed or a growth mindset talking. Grab Mindset now and get to work!

9. Stop Overthinking

If you’re stalled in your progress, it could be because you are overthinking it. When you are just learning a skill for the first time, you don’t need to know the intricacies of the exact angle of your foot, the precise amount of pressure to put on each wheel and the perfect position of all of your limbs.

Looking at things on a micro scale is only needed when you’re already an expert at something and you want to fine tune a skill and make micro-adjustments to give you that extra 1% improvement. But if you aren’t already already really good at something, you can’t fine tune it.

Instead, just try it. Learn how it feels. Get the gist of it. Get used to feeling where you body is in space. Then start trying to fine-tune and tweak it.

10. Look At Other Areas

Are you getting enough sleep? Are you anxious and stressed? Are you eating enough? Are you unfocussed at practice? All of these things can drastically effect progress.

If you’ve been training hard in the gym, you have to give your muscles time to rest so they can repair and grow. You need plenty of sleep to produce enough testosterone and to reduce cortisone. Sleep is also essential for assimilating new skills and information in your brain. And turning up to practice tired means you won’t be able to focus. And if you’re not fuelling your body enough, how can you expect it to perform well.

If you’re coming to practice stressed or worried about work or outside life, it’ll affect how much you can focus on learning. Perhaps you need to create some routines which switch your work brain off and your practice brain on – a moment’s meditation, some mindfulness, writing down goals for the practice etc… 

If you’re anxious about practice itself, try finding out why exactly and develop strategies to deal with it. This can be goal setting, reframing, talking it through with teammates etc…

 

These are just a few tips for overcoming plateaus so next time you hit one, try them out and see if they help.

Further Reading

Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance

Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

3 Reasons Why You Might Be Stuck on A Plateau

3 Tips on Overcoming Learning Plateaus from David Foster Wallace

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