How To Learn A New Sport Without Sucking

How To Learn A New Sport Without Sucking

Want to do the stuff you read about us doing? There’s a practical approach to learning any new sport, one which breaks down the barriers, reduces risk and speeds the learning curve. It’s what we do, and it should work for you too.

This year I’ve decided to pick up shotgun shooting, I need to figure out how to use a bow for an upcoming hunt in August, I’m getting back into mountain biking and I also want to start fly fishing (finally). All of those are sports with major barriers to entry in terms of cost, travel and risk. Well, standing in a stream wearing rubber pants may not be the most life-threatening thing, but still, you get the point — this stuff is hard to do.

But, applying some experience to your inexperience can help break down those barriers. I’m still going to miss a lot of clay pigeons, fall off my bike a bunch and probably get a fly to the face, but by looking at how I’ve gained expertise in other sports, I think I can make these experiences a little easier. And hopefully you can benefit from that experience too.

One Universal Skill

There is one thing you can practice every day that will make you better at everything you try: physical fitness. Being fit makes doing anything that involves moving your body tangibly easier. It also improves your endurance, your balance, your mental focus, prevents fatigue and soreness and injury proofs your body.

When I visited Jackson Hole to ski for the first tim in16 years, I spent two full days on blues, blacks and in the backcountry and my legs didn’t get sore once. Why? I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve done weighted squats at the gym once every week for the last two years. (I didn’t start there, I just had a little reset following some major injuries.)

Everyone always gets mad at me when I say this, but the single most effective way to improve your physical fitness is to lift weights. They’re the proven method to achieving the greatest fitness changes from the least time and effort. Lifting improves not only the strength of your muscles, but also your bone mineral density, the size and function of organs like your heart and lungs and massively aids your flexibility too. You’d be lucky to achieve a single one of those benefits from other forms of exercise; weight lifting gives you all four. And, it does so with the minimum possible time commitment — just an hour a day, three days a week for the best possible results. You can even get away with less time once you’ve figured all weights and movements out.

Trying to pursue multiple sports or activities and ones that require you to leave town or devote large blocks of time can be really challenging. Lifting weights allows you to improve your ability to do anything with one small, flexible time commitment.

Get Educated

Before plunging into an expensive new bike or a dangerous new hobby, take the time to learn as much about it and its culture as you can. This helps with everything from learning the specific lingo and not sounding like a idiot to gaining a realistic idea of what you should be biting off as a beginner.

Depending on the sport and your relative knowledge of it, you can start with anything from a WikiHow introduction to magazines, books and forums. Magazines tend to target existing enthusiasts over beginners, but you can still gain an idea of what it looks like to excel and the kinds of experiences you can hope to have. Honestly, I just enjoy drawing context from the feature articles, even if I don’t totally understand them. Think of it as a general introduction to the culture and the terminology.

Books are often specifically devoted to instructing beginners, but obviously take a long time to read and may, in 2015, be very, very out of date. Sports like cycling have changed immensely in the last decade.

Forums are also great places simply to immerse yourself and gain context. Obviously they’re about 50 per cent crazyperson talk and 49 per cent ill-informed political screeds, but that one per cent of useful info can be the absolute best out there. Plus, by trawling through old threads, you get the ability to learn from other people’s mistakes without making them yourself. If you don’t have friends that you can practice your new sport with, you’ll be able to find some local crackpots willing to hang out with you through forums too. I’ve made some of my best friends that way.

Questions you should be looking to answer in your research:

  • What equipment do I need?
  • What are the major brands serving the space?
  • What’s the stuff most people use?
  • How is it supposed to fit me?
  • Where will I be able to practice?
  • What are the legalities, licenses or regulations I need to follow? i.e. bikes on trails near your house.
  • Where can I take lessons?
  • How do I quickly integrate into the culture?
  • Do I need any specific technical knowledge? i.e. What’s the site picture on a shotgun supposed to look like?
  • What specific safety measures should I be taking?
  • Are there good businesses near me that won’t just take advantage?

Rent, Borrow Or Buy?

Entry-level equipment can often be a false economy. Either because you outgrow it too quickly or because it just doesn’t work. Before committing to a huge spend, it’s a great idea to actually get out and try the new sport you’re interested in. Or, if it’s something you’re returning too after a decade or more, try it in its modern incarnation with your current body. Bike parks will rent you bicycles, ranges will rent you guns and bows, REI will rent you general outdoors equipment.

If you can, try and get access to decent stuff though. Paddling a quality, lightweight sea kayak is not anything like paddling one of those piece of shit plastic sit-ons they will rent you at the beach. Picking up a new sport is going to be hard enough; good equipment can make it easier.

When it comes time to acquiring your own gun/bow/boat/bike/whatever, you’re going to want to benefit from modern materials innovations. With most items of equipment, it’s not just marketing guff when you hear how they have improved with modern components or materials like carbon fibre; often the equipment of today is so much better than what was available even 10 years ago that it might as well be part of an entirely different sport. That’s definitely something I’m finding on mountain bikes!

Having said that, you don’t need to purchase a current flagship product just to participate. Whatever you’re buying, there’s often a happy middle ground of cost-to-quality in a manufacturer’s middle range. Read online reviews, search the forums and figure out where that point is; the most of the performance for the minimum spend level.

Quality stuff will make your life easier, safer, or less arduous. One of the things that I’ve found as I’ve progressed in various disciplines is that, from the perspective of an expert, I can perform just fine using less able equipment. But, I did relatively better starting out on nicer stuff where I didn’t have to ride or shoot around flaws and limitations. Tires, for instance, were make or break (bones) for me when I first started riding dirt bikes. But now, I can manage on just about anything, even road tires. Bear that in mind when you’re talking to people who maybe don’t need every advantage they can get.

But, don’t buy brand new stuff. You can likely get most (if not all) of a brand new piece of sporting equipment’s function from a used item just a year or two old, available on Craigslist or a forum for half the price or less. Again, do your research, figure out what changed year to year and make a smart, deliberate purchase decision. And, if for some reason you decide to give the sport up, you’ll be able to sell that equipment on with very little depreciation.

Lessons And Practice

I’m starting bow lessons this week. At $US75/hour, they’re expensive and I’d rather not dump that amount every week between now and August, in addition to the bow and other equipment I’ll need. Depending on how bad I am, I’ll likely take this first lesson with the aim of gaining a general introduction, finding a bow that fits me and getting a basic idea of stuff I can practice on my own. Then, I’ll really do that practice on my own, checking back in with the instructor for a lesson here and there (maybe once a month), to assess my progress and speed my learning curve.

Lessons can also be difficult to schedule or inflexible when you do. I find it much easier to commit to doing something twice a week, then doing it where it fits, rather than try to schedule ahead of time around more important commitments like my girlfriend, my dog, my job, my house and my friends. As long as you’ve got the level of commitment necessary and approach professional tuition from the perspective of learning how to learn, then this approach should work for you too.

The Importance Of Competition

As adults, we’re probably doing this stuff for purposes of fun, not to win prizes. But, competition can still play an important role in anyone’s progress. It’s a great measuring stick for your progress and absolutely killer motivation.

There’s clubs and contests around pretty much any sport, but you can achieve competition without participating in an organised event. With shotguns, for instance, my girlfriend is learning too. And she’s better than me, damn it. So that’s my motivation right now; shooting better than her. With bows, that competition is going to be a bear. I need to be able to confidently strike him in the heart while he’s moving; if I can’t, I won’t hunt him. With mountain bikes, I think I’ll be in a race with my friend Ty to see who can ride best this summer. He’s recovering from a five week-long, nearly fatal staph infection following a routine ACL replacement, so maybe that competition is too easy. But hey, at least I’m setting myself up for success.

The Established Wisdom

Both Tim Ferriss and Josh Kaufman have written extensively about the art of learning new skills. Lifehacker distills their advice best:

Deconstruct the skill: Break down the parts and find the most important things to practice first. If you were learning to play a musical instrument, for example, knowing just a few chords gives you access to tons of songs. If you want to learn a new language, learn the most common 2,000 words and you’ll have 80% text coverage.

Self-correct: Use reference materials to learn enough that you know when you make a mistake so you can correct yourself.

Remove barriers to learning: Identify and remove anything that distracts you from focusing on the skill you want to learn.

Practice at least 20 hours.

How does that stuff apply here? Well, we can deconstruct the skill through eduction ahead of time and with lessons. Self-correction is a function of that eduction too, along with practice; you have to know what you need to learn. You remove barriers to learning by practicing on adequate equipment and through preexistent fitness. Then you just put in the time. See? Anyone can do it, even me.

Picture: Corey Hass

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