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Life Lessons from the Trail #1: To realise what's possible, learn to see what isn't in front of you

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

Truthfully this particular life lesson didn't crystallise for me on two wheels. Instead it happened while I was doing something a little bit different, and for me completely unexpected.

In a different time and place I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work people that had a variety of disabilities. I not only gained a much better appreciation of what people are capable of, but also of my own potential as a person.

You see, at the beginning of 2019 someone I had recently met thought I would be good at doing disability support work. Now, for background, I studied aeronautical engineering at uni, thought I'd want to fly planes for a living until I decided IT was much more exciting (yes, that's weird), accidentally fell into project management before being asked to help work in supply and logistics, customer support and operations, and then finally thought I'd help my wife turn her hobby into a business. At no point in my working career did my resume have anything remotely related to working with people who had disabilities.

So when a friend asked me if I would be interested in a job in the disability industry, I told her no. After all, I had no idea about what the work would entail. And with no experience at it I was pretty sure that I would fail miserably at any job related to helping people with disabilities. A few weeks later, she asked me again, citing some half truth about being good with people as a reason why I'd be fine. At the time, in between jobs, attempting to start up the coaching business and still wondering about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I figured the extra cash might not hurt and so I reluctantly agreed.

Incidentally, when I interviewed for the job, the manager of the facility was equally confused as to what I was doing there. But for some odd reason, after looking at my resume which proved I was completely unqualified, she hired me anyway. Suffice to say that I was completely out of my depth when I started and had no idea about what I was doing. Paper airplanes were my saviour on the first day and I just persisted from there, somehow managing to stay gainfully employed, mostly through learning from others.

Cliff who has his own unique way of communicating and who could often be found dismantling things with a large hammer watched me a few times trying to make a tower as tall as possible with jenga blocks. One day he knocked my work of art down and promptly built a tower that surpassed the height of mine, demonstrating fine motor skills that none of us were aware he had.

One of the main things I had noticed was that most of my peers, trained in working with and supporting disabled people were always trying to make sure the people in their charge were comfortable, happy and aways safe. They operated within the boundaries of programs that more experienced carers had developed, which made perfect sense. However as is my nature, the more I worked with these unique individuals, the more I began to wonder what some of them were really capable of achieving, beyond the rules of set programs and the limitations that other people's beliefs set upon them.

And then, one day, I was asked to take a group on an excursion to Mt Coot-Tha, a large forest reserve in Brisbane comprised of a number of areas. Not being from Brisbane, I wasn't sure exactly where to take them and on asking if it was around the mountain bike area, I was told yes. And so it was a rather unsuspecting group of people supporting various physical and mental disabilities along with one volunteer that were led on what most most of my peers at the time would have considered a very challenging and arduous walk on some trails. I just didn't know any better, but I assumed because I had been sent to Mt Coot-Tha, others did.

Because I didn't know any better (and neither did anyone else on our group for that matter) I didn't really understand the limitations of the group that I was with. We journeyed onto some trails that required some endurance to climb, and some coordination and balance to negotiate a few rutted out descents. At times some of the group didn't really believe that they could do some of the walk some of the trail. But with a little but of support and encouragement, everyone managed to complete the three kilometer trail walk. And when we had finished and returned back to the bus, every single person that had conquered the trail was ecstatic about what they had accomplished.

In a different time and place Bridget would have had a normal life. Circumstances beyond her control resulted in her having physical and mental impairments. It didn't stop her from completing the trail walk with me at Mt Coot-Tha, nor getting better at putting or even outshooting me at hoops.

To say that some of the supervisors along with the manager were a little bit concerned about the trail walk we had completed when we all returned was perhaps a little bit of an understatement. Too far, too exhausting, beyond their capabilities - those were the thoughts that a number of the staff had. But it was clear from everyone that had come on the trip, in however way they communicated, that their excitement about what they had done was undeniable. While they had done something that had been a challenge for all of them, they had managed to do something that no one, themselves included, had previously thought they could do. It was only through the... let's call it ignorance of any potential limitations that we discovered something that the group was actually capable of.

From that day forward, I found myself becoming blind to whatever disabilities people were supposed to have. Instead, I began to search for what they might be capable of instead, challenging them as individuals to see what they could really do. To a degree I stopped seeing any of their disabilities as limitations, instead finding opportunities to help them learn something that others had not bothered to teach them because of preconceived notions of what they thought people with certain conditions were capable of.

I left that world behind when I went back to a role that my skills and experience were better suited to (on paper at least). But I came away from the experience with an attitude, actually I'd go so far to say a skill, that has become invaluable in so may parts of my life - the ability to see possibilities, rather than just what is visible and is presented on front of me.

Kayla turned up to her first less on a bike that actually had on it "Not intended for off-road use". One could have been mistaken that she was less serious about learning to mountain bike than the person behind her on the "proper" dual suspension mountain bike. Despite not having on the trails before, it was clear to me that not only did she have the potential to become a great rider, she would do so quickly that she would probably break the bike she was on in short order from pushing it too hard. Two weeks later, I believe she did just that.

When it comes to coaching, the skills in seeing what's possible is obviously pretty important. In fact, that's the job. Focusing on 'the facts', what can be obviously seen from watching people's current abilities, listening to what people say they can or can't do, understanding the history of what someone has been able to do to date - it's easy to fall into the trap of judging someone's capabilities based on this information alone. The obvious stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.

Don't get me wrong. What you see in front of you is still important, but not for defining who one is. Instead, it helps to define the boundaries that a person operates within that helps them feel safe, the limitations that might be holding someone back. It defines the starting point from which new possibilities are developed by focusing on overcoming the existing constraints. Because to help someone reach what is possible, you do need to get a realistic understanding of where someone is currently at. From there, you can put a plan together to help them take the necessary steps from where they are currently at, to where they could actually be.

How to see what's possible is probably a Life Lesson of it's own. But if possibilities aren't seen in the obvious, then obviously they must exist in what isn't obvious. When coaching, what is possible is hidden in the sparkle of an eye, the excitement of a smile, the relaxing of a grip, a shift in balance with the tilt of a foot, the release of a breath, the proximity of someone listening to you speak, the energy you sense in a person's movements and actions, and your own intuition gained from your own life experiences and who you intrinsically are. Only by seeing what isn't immediately in front can you really understand what is actually possible and how you can help others get there.

After attending one of my entry level mountain biking courses, I received a kind message from Digby's mother, thanking me for having Digby because he couldn't "wipe the smale off his face" and that he didn't "listen to many teachers" but during the course he had "learnt heaps of stuff". I found that funny because Diby's abilities were well beyond what I was teaching in the class. I was just able to add a few very small extra bits to challenge Digby a little - and that made all the difference.

All too often in life I hear about why something isn't possible, both in my personal and professional life. A particular person has always been a certain way, something has always only ever been able to perform at a certain level, we can only rely on history because that is the only source of truth that exists. But in actual fact, when it comes to change, to improving and becoming better, historical data that shows you that it isn't possible to grow is likely to be misleading. And that's because it only shows you a very small part of a picture for growth.

Like an iceberg, the majority of what you need to focus on to become better is not at the obvious tip, but the large mass underwater that you don't see but know is there. So if you're ever in a position of needing or wanting something to change for the better, start looking at things differently. Search for possibilities, and learn to not focus on what's apparently obvious.

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