The Wetfoot Blog

Monday, April 22, 2013

Goals and Skill Acquisition

In the last article that I wrote for the Wetfoot I mentioned that we frontload intellectual skill acquisition but rarely frontload physical skill acquisition.  This might end up as a series about frontloading methods and skill evaluation.  It’s important to know these things when working with participants because our participants want to learn skills, they want to know how to go about learning, and they also want to track their improvement.  Anyone could relate to the frustration of not knowing how to go about improving a skill or to tell whether one is getting better at it.

This article is going to focus on one method of frontloading a skill, namely goals.  For an activity there is a set of goals that the learner should acknowledge and internalize to help guide them.  There are multiple criteria for choosing goals that make use of mnemonic devices to help us memorize them, here I will use SMART.
·         S stands for specific
·         M for measurable
·         A for attainable
·         R for relevant
·         T for timely or time-bound

 When picking goals make sure that they are accountable to these criteria, otherwise one might not get motivated for achievement.  For instance, if a goal is not time bound then it won’t matter whether one achieves it next week or seventy years from now even if all practical scenarios for its use are long gone.  Achievements can happen by chance but planned action will make the achievement come faster.
In the field of motor learning there are trio of goals that apply to skill acquisition, each of which can be made SMART.

There are outcome goals, which are goals built around the results of a given performance like winning a bulls eye contest.  Performance goals, that measure success against past achievements like increasing one’s percentage of bull’s eyes from 80% to 90%.   The final type of goal is a process goal which is where a particular aspect of a skill is emphasized to make the whole skill better, like exhaling slowly when taking a shot.  In general one should encourage participants to deemphasize outcome goals because they are often the most out of our control; someone might just be a better shot at competition even if the participant has done everything right.

Think of the three types of goals as Russian dolls; the biggest doll might be victory or some other outcome goal (dependant on the skill).  That outcome wouldn’t be possible without achieving the process goal, which in turn wouldn’t be possible without achieving process goals (unless someone is just lucky).  The goals help the learner conceptualize how minute details will contribute to performance and then realize what must be accomplished during performance.  Think of our archer, upon learning that she must breathe correctly when shooting she can now practice that part of the skill.  Using the SMART criteria she can see how breathe control is specific, measurable (length of breathe or number of breaths), attainable, relevant, and time bound (time spent practicing daily). 

Frontloading skill acquisition with goals is an excellent way to help someone learn.  Practices don’t have to be haphazard, progress can be measured, and the participant can be motivated using those goals.  So remember, the goals relevant to skill acquisition are outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals.  These in turn are determined using SMART criteria.  Now you, the reader, have a new tool and hopefully it’ll be used soon.

Arthur D'Amato is a fitness instructor at Valley Medical Center and staff member of Camp Manito-wish YMCA. If you are interested in writing for The Wetfoot, please email

Photo-Credit: Daniel Peters

Monday, April 15, 2013

Teenagers These Days

I’ve heard a lot of generally negative things about teenagers lately. It seems that every other generation is quick to grumble that today’s youth are self-centered, unaware, obsessed with technology, or—the saddest statement I’ve heard—that they are unable to form connections with others off the computer or phone screen. I suspect that, like most negative stereotypes, these generalizations are caused by a lack of understanding between age groups so I want to contradict them by sharing some things about my summer spent paddling through Northern waters with five teenage girls. I was, and still am, in awe of their actions, words and insight and feel honored to know such incredible young people.

Teenagers these days are the furthest thing from lazy. They have more energy and motivation than I could believe. On thirty-mile days when I would be falling asleep in the boat, the participants would be not only still paddling with energy but singing and yelling at the top of their lungs. There were a few days on our 26-day expedition when it took us 8, 9, even 10 hours to complete tricky portages and they never even thought about quitting. If we had any down time, they would usually spend it cleaning our gear and reorganizing our food. After seeing these girls in action I can understand how high school students pull off their impossible schedules.

Teenagers these days are open-minded and appreciate each others’ differences – more so now than ever before. The girls on my trip could not have been more different from one another, but it worked well that way: not only did they find common ground, but I think they spent more time talking, listening, and discussing what made them different from each other. They asked thoughtful questions about each others’ interests, experiences and lives and I believe they learned quite a bit from taking the time to enjoy what made their trip mates unique.

Teenagers these days are smart and competent. No matter what challenges we faced on trail, the girls were up for it and had a solution. We portaged over a cliff one day, a feat possible only because of impeccable teamwork, innovation, and a really cool lift system made out of our rescue kit. Reindeer Lake has hundreds of small islands and only the combined brain power of those skilled young women enabled us to navigate through them to find our route. They talked articulately about school and their passion for learning, even those who struggled in a traditional school setting – they have active brains and want to use them.

Teenagers these days are activists and allies. They believe fiercely that humans deserve to be treated with respect and equality, and they aren’t afraid to talk about why they think so. Teenagers these days are compassionate. My participants took care of each other, even on the days when everyone was exhausted and frustrated. They comforted one another during tough and homesick times, they were patient when someone had a slow day, and they were concerned about everyone in the group.

Teenagers these days are truly connected and communicative. I can’t keep track of how many times I hear adults grumbling about how teenagers are so absorbed in technology that they can no longer make personal connections. At camp, this has never been my experience – my participants didn’t have a moment’s hesitation about tossing their cell phones into brown bags or handing them over to parents as soon as they arrived, and they were thrilled to have the time to sit down and have conversations with participants in other trip groups. I think one of the things they appreciate the most about camp and trail is the chance to be really connected with each other without the distractions of texting and Facebook.

And yes, I know what you’re all thinking – that it’s a special experience to lead this kind of trip, and only a unique group of participants would sign-up for a 26-day canoe expedition. That’s true, but the point is that we give them the chance to grow and they take it. It seems that if teens feel supported and listened to, if we take the time to ask them what they think and what they care about, we can always learn from them. I suspect that anyone who’s gotten the chance to spend quality time with this age group, whether at a camp or anywhere else, would have unique examples to illustrate the same idea.

So maybe if we create more opportunities and chances for our teenagers to connect with others without technology, they will take advantage of that and form the strong and supportive relationships they need to have with their peers. Maybe if we give them more chances to make decisions, they’ll grow into confident and thoughtful adults. Maybe if we ask them what they think more often, they’ll be more open and we’ll be able to learn more. Maybe if we as a society provide more opportunities like Camp—safe, with high expectations and challenges, but loving and nurturing with a healthy dose of goofy—we will see this age group rise to their full potential. 

Suzanne Taylor has been a trip leader at Camp Manito-wish YMCA. If you are interested in writing for the Wetfoot, contact

Photo-credit: Suzanne Taylor. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Turning In: The Power of Self-Reflection and Silence

Dinner is over, camp is set, and the dishes are done. Only the fire and the enveloping silence—magnified by the crackling, setting in thickly—heavily compete for attention. The silence calls to mind all the noises and distractions that wait for the inevitable return from evenings around the fire. The weight in this situation hangs not on the silence, but on the questions unasked, waiting at the edge of the shadows, behind the proverbial window-eyes. Their presence is known, they have only to be beckoned forth.  Scatter the shadows, open the windows, let the wonder sweep in. 

Each day we collect and observe and make sense of the world around us. We slowly gather together our own library of experiences and lessons, and every once in a while, in a great feat of daring, we draw connections between those disparate experiences and we call it knowledge. Unfortunately though, far more often we look to teachers—in the classroom and out—to guide us to knowledge. Sometimes, though, we have only the silence to teach us. To teach us to be still, aware, and curious. To teach us to look within for a moment and grapple, or dance with those loose ends and catalogues of experiences. What is it about?

Most of the time we turn away from the silence that, in its patience, waits on; willing to invite us to see ourselves as creators of the very knowledge we are looking for from every external thing we can find. Perhaps we turn away hoping to be relieved of the burden of becoming autonomous, of becoming a person capable of creating knowledge. No longer abiding in the role of recipient.  

It is such a popular and pervasive belief, that we are meant to be taught by those who know. Of course this is a natural and healthy way to relate to each other, but here: a thought from the exceedingly timely Peter Block who wrote that “It is difficult to live another’s answer, regardless of the amount of goodwill with which it is offered.” And besides, the belief quite neglects the question of how we ought to relate to ourselves!
What happens when, in the presence of that silence, and with a proper amount of courage, we come to ourselves as the source of knowledge that will guide us towards a better question than “what is it about?” Rather, “what am I to contribute to it?”

I feel the calling to be as the silence, a steadfast and gentle reminder that knowledge resides within. And we must become accustomed to turning our minds inwards as often and with such daring as we turn our physical selves loose into the outward, the out-of-doors.  The silence invites us to be curious about all the languages and motions of our often spoken-over or ignored inner voice, that intrepid explorer crossing the terrain of the inner self, the ever unfolding and as yet uncharted wilderness. What a delight to be allowed to explore the vastness of the only unmapped territory left! And who can know what discoveries, what knowledge lies in wait, but that person courageous enough to turn in.

When, in the natural turn of seasons, we happen upon a new bit of knowledge, connecting innumerable experiences into a bit of fresh understanding about ourselves or our community, who will be gentle and bold enough to invite it into the world?

It seems that we tend to carry about as much knowledge as our narrative—which in this case means the story we tell ourselves about ourselves—allows us. It is so wonderful that we all have our own narrative, and that the natural way we gather and think together is in conversation, story-telling, and silence. How much we have to share with and receive from each other! So the fire crackles on, the conversations wane and wax, and we have the rest of our lives to get to know ourselves. Let the silence settle in and join the fellowship.
On a day like today, where do you turn to your crackling fire, your silence, and what will today’s silence teach you about navigating tomorrow? 

Justin VerMeer works for the National Youth Leadership Council and has led wilderness trips for Camp Manito-wish YMCA.

If you would like to write for the Wetfoot, please email