Speed Secrets: How The Monkey Learns

By Ross Bentley

March 07, 2017

Something I love to do is find connections. For example, how coaching drivers is similar to managing people in the workplace; the approach a basketball player takes to learning to rebound is the same as how drivers learn to drive a race track.

Ingrid Steffensen shares an experience like that this week, connecting her experience skiing with monkeys and driving and learning styles (oh, my!). Most of you know Ingrid - the author of Fast Girl - Don't Brake Until You See the Face of God, as well as articles in various publications. She's also an accomplished track day driver and HPDE instructor. And she has a knack for connecting one thing to another, giving it more meaning.

Enjoy! - Ross

I’m a late bloomer when it comes to physical adventure. All of my driving was decidedly low performance until I hit the ripe old age of 41, and I’d never even remotely considered downhill skiing until after I’d tackled Watkins Glen in my Mini Cooper S. Once I’d conquered The Glen, though, skiing didn’t seem so intimidating anymore and I decided to give it a go. I’ve spent what remains of my fifth decade learning high performance driving in the warmer months and downhill skiing in the colder ones. I could say a lot more about the similarities between downhill skiing and driving: weight-shift management; looking where you want to go; sheer, unadulterated terror—but my subject today is about learning processes themselves. 

Last month found the Mister and me at a beautiful but unfamiliar ski resort, much larger in scope than the petite hills of the Poconos where we can most readily enjoy the sport on a day trip from our home. Every slope was a new slope, they were much longer than I am used to, and the learning curve for the terrain was steep. We found a series that we liked a lot, and three or four repeats in, we’re back at the top, strategizing which lift to end up at, down at the bottom.

“Remember,” says the mister, “you have to make a left turn when you see the lodge. I’m telling you because I know you don’t always remember things after seeing them once.”

“Okay,” I say, a bit irked. “Got it. Left at the lodge.”

Many moons ago, fresh out of grad school, I taught high school English at a summer program and we fresh new teaching recruits were given a little pre-session training. The only thing that has stuck with me from that long-ago indoctrination is the not excessively complicated notion that there are different learning styles. They were divided into three basic types:

There’s the visual learner: Monkey see, Monkey do.

There’s the audial learner: Monkey hear, Monkey do.

And there’s the haptic learner: Monkey do, Monkey do.

Most of us use a combination of seeing, hearing, and doing, of course, but any of us may lean more strongly one way or another, favoring information received visually, verbally, or physically. Combine those very basic categories with such additional variables as diagrams and maps, written versus verbalized vocabulary, and you have a nearly infinite number of learning styles for any given task.

My mister is a better driver than I am ever likely to be. One reason is that he has an innate gift for directions and topography. Show him the way once, and he has it down pat. He is, in other words, an extremely adept haptic learner. Me, I need a lot of repeats, visual signposts, and words and images I can hook up to the course (the Esses, the Pistol Grip, the Samsonite gorilla signboard) before I am able to process and internalize it.

It’s a little discouraging at times to compare myself to him within the parameters of a ski resort or a driving circuit. It’s true: I can’t see it once and then know where I am, and he can. It can lead occasionally to tension. “Where are we going?” “Why didn’t you turn there?” And so forth.

I was a little nonplussed by the way he’d phrased the situational difficulty of the left hand turn; the implication—totally true—was that I could not do what he could do on a ski slope (or a driving circuit). I gave it a little grouchy thought and the next time we were ascending the lift, I articulated it to him the way I saw it.

“Look,” I said to the mister, “your wondering why I can’t imprint the terrain after exactly one trip down the slopes is like my asking you why you can’t spell a word after reading it just once. It’s the way we process things. You are really, really good at understanding topography, and I am really, really good at words and language.”

The mister is disgustingly good at many things—it’s why I married him, after all—but despite a very keen intelligence and excellence at giving foot rubs, he cannot spell worth a tinker’s damn. Our brains just work differently. He can visit a place once and know how to get around, while I am completely in a fog. This makes him very useful when on vacation, so I bring him everywhere I go. I, on the other hand, can see a word just once and know how to spell it. Grammatical errors, misplaced commas, and typos jump out at me as if they were printed in bright purple, bold-faced font. This is how I am wired.

At the racetrack, I simply have to accept that the way I tackle a circuit—new or old—is going to be different from the way that someone like my better half does. There’s no real point to beating myself up about my monkey’s particular process. This is true for all of us: you can’t really alter the way you learn, but what you can do is be aware of the ways that you learn best, and feed the monkey that way. If you are a highly visual learner, for example, then train yourself to look for the kinds of signposts that will create a mental map. If words are your thing, by all means read all about it (as I do). If you like diagrams, draw them yourself. If feel is your thing, stick your thumb out and get lots of rides.

This is also food for thought for those of us who are instructors—as well as those of us who are students. Instructors would be well advised to consider that students absorb things in different ways, and it can’t hurt to ask your student how they learn best. Tailoring sessions to individual learning styles can only help a student learn faster. Some students like to hear a lot of verbal input through the mic, whereas others will be distracted by that audio input and may prefer hand gestures. Some students will get a lot out of classroom sessions—some, the highly haptic learners, not so much. And students—don’t be afraid to verbalize this to your instructor. “I respond really well to hand gestures,” or “Take me for a ride so I can see (or feel) what you do in this sequence,” are ways to get the most out of your instructor and your particular learning style.

Be good to your monkey, and it will be good back to you.

- Ingrid Steffensen

Web: www.ingridsteffensen.com

Facebook: facebook.com/ingridsteffensenauthor