Slow Dancing With Mistakes

Parc del Segre, La Seu d’Urgell, Catalunya (Joe Jacobi photo)

“More pasta? Lecky asks me.

“Of course!” I reply.

On a cold, late winter evening in northwestern Connecticut, in a rustic house next the training site on the Housatonic River, we stand up from our places in the living room and make our way towards the kitchen.

Plates in hand, this is not an ordinary walk to the kitchen.

Throughout the house, there are “slalom poles” hanging from the ceiling that extend down to about a foot from the floor.

These are the same sets of slalom poles that hang from the wires that extend across rivers which form our training sites.

These are the same slalom poles that we train to “not touch” during our practice sessions. In the competitions, officials add penalty seconds to our elapsed time if we touch the poles with our boat, body, or paddle.

In other words, to make contact with a pole is a mistake we do not want to make.

In Lecky’s house, a walk to the kitchen for more pasta is not a straight line. We shift our bodies into various positions to avoid touching the poles.

A simple walk to the kitchen is an exercise in course correction.

My relationship with Lecky Haller dates back to the first time we met during a training session with his brother, Fritz. That was on the Potomac River in 1983.

Five years later and now a full year into training together with my doubles canoe partner, Scott Strausbaugh, my relationship with Lecky is evolving through our roles as “sternmen.”

To be clear, we are not two angry men. In our respective doubles canoes, Lecky and I both paddle in the stern position, or the back position, of the boat.

As if navigating a singles canoe or kayak around and through slalom poles in continuously changing, non-stop whitewater river rapids is not hard enough, imagine trying to do this with two people in the same boat.

The goal of such a two-person collaboration is absolute flow and synchronization. As the river never stops, when mistakes happen, the pair must seamlessly correct mistakes together on the move. In this sport, when things are not going well, you can not just call, “timeout.”

Preparing for our second season as part of the U.S. National Team, Scott and I had left our home base on the Potomac River in the Washington, DC area for a a short training camp with Lecky and his canoe partner, Jamie McEwan.

I always found it easy to connect with Lecky but our bond deepened through our commonality with “the back of the boat.”

Our normal conversations would build around words like, “slithery” and “snaky” — words that captured a spirit of contorting our bodies into awkward positions and performing stretchy movements from the stern position of the canoe that often felt like hanging on to the edge of a cliff… by your pinky finger.

“I was just trying to hang on for dear life,” is something Lecky might commonly say moments after a race run down the river.

Lecky often strategically instructed his front-positioned canoe partners, “Just do what you need to pass through the gate… I’ll figure out a way to get through too.” When Lecky did this, his athleticism became a hybrid of a world class acrobat and magician.

During our training sessions, as we watch each other’s technique, after a particularly good run, we signal non-verbal support to one another with a single arm-moving gesture in a horizontal wave-like motion to convey excellent snaky and slithery body contortions and course corrections that got the job done.

I am quickly learning that the job in the back of the canoe is to learn how to dance slowly and closely with the prospect of big mistakes by….

Course correcting small mistakes…

All The Time.

Nobody likes to make mistakes.

We commonly talk about the great lessons that can be learned from mistakes. Yet, few are willing to creatively design an environment that significantly increases the probability of more mistakes.

Here, I am curious about someone who not only navigates slalom poles for a second plate of pasta, but, someone who is willing to hang slalom poles all over their home in the first place.

We course correct as well as we practice course correction.

We practice course correction as well as we create experiences that foster the opportunity to make more mistakes.

Within four months after our New England training camp with Lecky and Jamie, Scott and I would stand on our first World Cup podium. Before receiving that bronze medal, I remember feeling like the result was as much, if not more, about correcting mistakes as it was about paddling well.

A week after our first podium, we take the bronze medal again at the next World Cup race. This time, the podium handshakes with the gold medalists are with Lecky and Jamie…

Included with a snaky and slithery horizontal arm-waving gesture with Lecky.

With gratitude, — Joe

Slow Dancing With Mistakes is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.

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5 With Joe Performance Coaching

I coach seasoned professionals, who feel stuck in place, to thrive in transition and bring focus to what matters most without compromising their lives.

My personal experiences winning an Olympic Gold Medal, serving as CEO of a national sports organization, and my current “Simple, Slower, and Less” lifestyle in the Catalan Pyrenees help to form accountable and transformative collaborations that see my clients create their next and most impactful chapter.