Start at the beginning…

...and where exactly is that?



I am frequently challenged to recall how it felt to not know what I know about training and behavioural science. I recall the frustration of knowing I didn’t know something about training but couldn’t figure out what it could be. I also recall knowing deep down that there wasn’t a mystery or a magic about training- the solution existed and it was out there somewhere and it would come to me! It did eventually come to me in the form of a magazine article by a former Sea World trainer, Shawna Korrin Karrasch.


What fascinated me about this article was its simplicity, and the awakening I experienced reading it. A light had been turned on for me, and I could see my way forward and overnight my head stopped spinning and my new found knowledge began to help me to answer so many unanswered questions I had had for years about training and learning.


To cut a long story short I often refer back to marine mammal training examples to help explain one key point in training or teaching that many people struggle with – what is the first step to train? How do I know where to start when I am teaching myself or someone else? You don’t need to be a behaviour analyst to make an informed assessment of where someone is in their current level of ability and understanding, however this is the key to building a successful training session. It also ensures successful outcomes AND explains why so many people “fail” in their efforts both as trainers or as learners.


Let’s consider a fairly obvious example before looking at more difficult tasks. If you were training someone to run a marathon (technique and nutrition aside!) – where would you start? First, I would ask 2 questions:

1. What are they currently doing in terms of exercise -that looks similar to running or exercise?

2. What do they enjoy or like and how could we use this to help them learn or change or increase their exercise routine?


(It is vital to know and discuss their why! However, for now we will assume this has been clarified with them and they are a willing partner in the process and don’t have any physical reason as to why they can’t run)


If they are not doing any exercise, our starting point will be very different to if they are already walking or running 2 kilometres a day.


Here is a starting 2-week plan for someone who is doing no exercise currently and who has a family and works full time.



Now this plan is a generic one, missing key contextual information, however the message is the starting behaviour looks nothing like the final goal of running a marathon! The other important factor is the person can easily achieve the goal in these first few weeks. Imagine if the trainer said go out and run 10k and then do 20 then 30 then 40 and you’re done! You would be well and truly done, and likely to never ever try it again! And yet we do this daily with others and ourselves, placing ridiculous expectations of an outcome that often isn’t feasible for the individual. If we consider the starting point of the individual, and their current capacity to perform the task we are more likely to start off right!


The dolphin spin never ceases to amaze me and is another example I give of a starting point for a more complex behaviour. The initial training of that incredible leap out of the water and the spin is all trained…underwater. The dolphin is taught to touch 4 targets with its flippers under water while keeping its nose on one target above its head - using target training principles (touch target get a piece of fish which the dolphin is already familiar with). The 4 targets are faded out as the dolphin gets the hang of the spin. The central target that it places its nose on is raised slowly until it is out of the water. The dolphin now has to reach up to touch the target and this is done very slowly so the dolphin doesn’t get confused! Soon you will see the leap action and now the dolphin is jumping out of the water and spinning without ever actually being taught to “jump” out of the water.


Flexible thinking around where to start is the key – keep it small and achievable – you want to feel successful quickly which creates momentum and perseverance (another blog topic to come). Apply this basic idea to ALL your teaching and learning for yourself and others and you will surprise yourself at the results!


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