Progress: what does it look like?

Progress is a funny beast. It typically comes up in my classes when one of my students feels a degree of despair over their apparent lack of improvement. They feel as though they aren’t improving as fast as they’d like, and are getting frustrated.

So I ask my student, “What does progress look like?” ¬†I start off by asking them to draw a graph of how they’d like progress over time to look. They draw one of these two graphs:

progress2 progress1

Then I ask them to draw something they think is more realistic. They draw this:


But is it more realistic?

Just recently I agreed, after some pestering by friends, to sign myself up for my first ever running event, the Bristol 10k. It’s my first ever experience of long distance running, and the first time I’ve trained for any kind of sporting event.

The first couple of weeks were fantastic. I mean, the training wasn’t exactly easy, but I felt I was making clear progress. Each time I went out to run, I was noticeably fitter than the last run, and could go further. So in week 4 I went out for the first training run of the week full of expectation, nay, certainty, that this trend would continue.

It didn’t. Every run that week was torture. My legs felt heavier. The fast run/slow jog splits were impossible. It was all I could do to drag myself around my circuit. Each time I’s set off thinking, this time it’ll be different. And it wasn’t. My Facebook contacts will remember seeing me post a status update full of pessimism at about this time.

So what happened in week 5? Things were suddenly easier again. Much easier. I had made a (smallish but) significant quantum leap in my fitness.

And that’s one of the secrets of progress. It isn’t linear at all. It goes something like this:


We experience a period of improvement, and think it’s great. But then it tails off. It feels like we’ve stalled. It can even feel like we’ve gone backwards! But what is really happening is that we are mentally and physically putting the final pieces in place so that we can enjoy the quantum leap to a new level of improvement.

The plateau period feels bad, there’s no doubt about it, and we can have no idea of how long it will last. But we can be certain of one thing. If we are doing the right things in the right way, we WILL improve. FM Alexander put it like this:

Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.*

Oh, by the way… Do you know what progress feels like? It feels like this:


* FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT Complete Edition, p.587.