Lean Thinking

07 March 2017

When to remove the training wheels

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We were having a discussion about coaching teams at work a few weeks ago, in particular how deeply embedded a coach should be, so I naturally got to thinking about teaching kids to ride bikes. I know that sounds like a stretch but stick with me. Back quite a few years ago when I was teaching my kids how to ride, I did a lot of observing of other parents and, being a geek, did a bunch of reading online about how to go about it. There are generally two accepted ways to teach kid to ride and the difference is on how long to leave the training wheels on.

Method one leaves the training wheels on for a long time - until the child is "fully confident" and the second leaves the training wheels on for the shortest possible time (there is a third radical method that rejects the training wheel altogether but we shall leave such heresy out of this discussion for now). I was, for the record, a method two parent but I observed a lot of parents using both methods. Method one is the intuitive one - leave the training wheels on until the kids knows how to ride then take them off and away they go. Easy. Trouble is, it quite often doesn't work out that way because training wheels have some significant disadvantages.

Let's look at a method one child. There they are, on their bike, training wheels on, riding away happily. Confident in their ability. Where's the problem? Well, there are a couple hidden under the surface. The first is that while the kid is riding, if you look at them compared to kids riding without training wheels, they are riding a lot slower. Training wheels slow you down. A lot. They also limit where you can ride. Too close to a tree or over ground that is too bumpy and the training wheel snags resulting in a nasty tangled mess of child and bike that you have to untangle to straighten the handlebars on one part and put band aids on the other part.

So that's problem one - while kids with training wheels look like they can ride well on a nice smooth surface, any potholes leave them open to spectacular crashes.

The second problem comes when the parent decides that the child is riding well enough and they remove the training wheels. Down to the park they go with the newly training wheel free bike. On the kid gets. Off they go and immediately crash into a twisted mess of bike and child. Why? Because training wheels don't teach you the single most important skill you need for riding a bike - how to balance. In fact they actively prevent you from learning that skill because they do the balancing for you. One of two things can happen at this point - either the parent hurriedly whacks the training wheels back on (presumably the child wasn't fully confident after all) or they revert to method two.

So that's the second problem - training wheels actually stop you from learning some important skills that you need to ride without them.

So, that's method one. What's method two? It starts in the same place - a child and a bike with training wheels on. Unlike method one though, this training wheels come off as soon as the child has learned two things - how to steer and how to brake. They need those two skills for the next step. As soon as those basic skills are obtained, off come the training wheels and step two begins.

Step two involves the child riding with one unlucky parent running behind the bike holding them up. Yes, this is as exhausting as it sounds. As soon as they start to overbalance (which is within about a nanosecond at first), you nudge them back on balance. If your attention wavers for a split second you end up with a tangled mess of bike, child and parent. But what you rapidly find is that you need to intervene less and less. The child is able to hold their balance or longer and longer. They will also naturally ride faster and faster at this point so it becomes more and more exhausting for you. I recommend putting their bike in its lowest gear (if it has gears) and teaching them how to change into higher gears only once this step is complete. This step usually only takes a few hours BTW so the pain, while intense, is short term.

By now you are jogging (or sprinting) behind the bike with just a hand on the child's shoulder to steady them a little. What you do at this point is gradually start removing your hand. Just for a second at first but then for longer and longer. Still staying close so you can reach in and steady things if they start to wobble too badly.

Within a few hours, you will just be running alongside the bike not holding on at all. This is where you need to do the hardest, most challenging part of the method - stop running. Let the child ride on their own. They don't need you any more. You are just slowing them down now. Let them go. They will wobble. They will fall. They will need picking up. They will need some words of encouragement. They may need some band aids,  But it is up to them to get better now.

So, you are thinking, that was a lovely reminiscence but what does it have to do with coaching? I'll give you a hint - think of a coach as the team's training wheels. Now, are you a method one coach or a method two coach?

Teams that have a coach who deeply embeds and does a bunch of stuff for them tend to be like kids riding with training wheels. They are able to make progress but they will be slower than teams riding on their own, and will be prone to spectacular crashes when the terrain gets rough. They will also tend to crash badly when the coach leaves because, like training wheels on a bike, having a coach doing a bunch of things things for the team prevents them from learning a crucial skill - how to solve problems for themselves.

I am very much a method two coach. Embed with the team till they can do the basics then progressively withdraw so they can learn to solve problems for themselves. Yes, they will wobble. They will fall. They will need some words of encouragement. Hopefully they won't need band aids. But it is up to them to improve now. 

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