Teaching Mastery with Michel Thomas

There's No Such Thing as a Poor Student. Only a Poor Teacher. - Michel Thomas

Can teaching a squat be similar to teaching a foreign language?

Could there be similarities between mastering a business concept and the performance of a deadlift? I would argue there are more similarities than one would think behind executing a physical movement and the ability to speak a foreign language.

Enter Michel Thomas

I have recently been taking a foray into the world of language learning and was recommended to learn the Michel Thomas Method; a world class language teacher who has taught the likes of Raquel Welch, Barbra Streisand, Emma Thompson, Woody Allen and Grace Kelly. The moment I was five minutes into his first French tape, I was hooked.

Michel is one of the best teacher's I've ever known.

Michel passed away in 2005, yet his audio tapes remain one of the best resources to date in language learning. How can this be so? Surely in the last ten years, with all of the technological advancements, there has to be a better way to learn. Sure there are apps like Duolingo that connects crowd sourcing with a language delivery system. Despite the advancements in both technology and access to information, the tapes still hold their weight.

The Reason?

The beauty in Michel Thomas' Method is not in the content in which he teaches but in the construct and style in which he instructs. Michel is a masterful teacher. There are numerous reasons why his teaching method has been able to produce fluency in his students within a week.

  1. Simplification
    Michel has a way of breaking down the most complex task into a bite-size piece of itself. Does this sound any different than what the best coaches do in the world? When we are teaching a difficult movement like an olympic lift, the ability to break it down into it's segmental parts for teaching is crucial. It gives the student a way to conceptually see the various moving parts of a complex system.

  2. Progression
    Michel builds progression into his courses by teaching simple foundational units in the beginning and over time layers more and more on the earlier concepts. As with foreign language, this is similar to the approach we take within the weight room. We might first program a kneeling scapular push-up in order to have the athlete learn scapular control before we perform a kneeling push-up. After mastery of the kneeling push-up, we'd add more difficult movements in. This creates an environment where the athlete (student) is always learning and achieving rather than setting them up for a failure.

  3. Comfort
    Students need to feel comfortable in failing. It's so easy to be detered from trying anything new or learning a new skill or language if the stakes are high. Michel brilliantly lowers them by making failure safe. He's a proponent of having his students never write anything, never study his materials, or try rote memorization of his concepts. He believes the best way to learn is to become relaxed and do everything possible to get out of your own way. Students must release their own psychological tension and be easy on themselves when they are learning something new. World class teachers don't make students feel miserable about mistakes, they go back to the last step the student was successful at and begin from there.

  4. Mastery
    Masterful teachers creates patience for the learning process. In order to keep the students engaged, many teachers attempt to try to connect the subject material to those that capture the interests of the students. This is a wrong approach. A better approach is creating an educational construct that allows for the students to feel levels of mastery in a progressive format. This is no different than any progressive strength and conditioning program. In order to achieve the next level of physical movement, the athlete must be able to demonstrate mastery and complete progressive overloading of the current movement.

"it's the learning process itself that motivates these kids", not the material used.

Michel typically introduces short words and phrases in the language learning environment. He then translates the world from the foreign language into the mother tongue. Students are then asked how they would say a phrase in the foreign language, starting with simple sentences and gradually building up to more advanced constructions.

As a coach, we do the very same aspect of demonstrating a physical movement, something than might look pretty foreign to a lot of athletes, and we ask them to repeat it back. We start with very simple progressions that allow them to be very successful early on and then once they master the physical movement, we progress them to a more difficult and complete version of the movement.

The worlds and phrases Michel chooses are common building blocks of the language's structure. When a student gives a correct answer, Michel repeats the entire sentence with the correct pronunciation. When the student's answer is incorrect, Michel helps the student to understand their mistake and offers guidance in correcting it; allowing the student to correct their own mistake.

With movement, there are only so many basic architypes of physical expression. As it relates to advanced sport performance, athletes need to be able to express full and basic fundamental human movements. Within these movements, it's the coaches responsibility to ensure the athletes are mastering each of them. The coach needs to understand where and why the athletes are compensating and offer corrective strategies to allow the athlete to perform the movement. The overall goal is to get the athlete to be able to self-correct, as the coach won't always be there with the athlete offering coaching cues during a rebound or throwing a fastball. The athlete must be able to internalize the correctives and be able to develop their own abilities to perform the movements.

Like any great teaching system, important words and phrases are reviewed repeatedly during the course. Michel's method does not insist on perfect pronunciation from the beginning, but instead, provides progressive feedback and continual improvement by the shaping the student's responses over the course of these repetitions.

As a coach, it's important to stress the fundamentals. No matter what we may be coaching, there are elements of basic human movement that needs addressed. We must understand that movement may not look perfect from day one but we must insist that progression is occurring. it's the role of the coach to provide progressive feedback to the athlete in order to shape the athlete's ability to perform the movement task.