Teaching Juggling

I started to teach my five year old how to juggle. The first step, and most important, is to simply throw a ball from one hand to the other. It’s the exercise that you have to master. I’ve been juggling for almost 30 years and I still come back to it time and time again.

After 5 minutes she managed 3 throws and catches in a row. “I can do it! I can Juggle!” I was very proud. (It took me about 6 hours to get that far aged 13). But unfortunately I had to break the news that there was a little while longer for her to go until she mastered the one ball from one hand to another.

The reason this exercise is so fantastic is because it feels simple and achievable. Most people will give it a try; Some people are so convinced that they are rubbish, they just toss the ball up into the air and fail to catch it because they’re explaining how they knew they couldn’t do it. Some people are too scared to let the ball leave their hand, and cling to it, even though they make the tossing motion. Sometimes they cling and throw with such vigor that you can imagine there hand flying off at the wrist.

Most people can pull the exercise off if they persevere. You rest a ball in the palm of your hand, and then throw it up and across, so it arks up to about eye level, and lands splat in your other hand. Then back again. Simple.

The exercise is simple, but it has many nuances. So here now are the many complications that you never point out to someone who is learning…

  • When you’re finally juggling you can’t focus on a ball, you have to focus on all balls at once (which you can’t do), so instead you have to learn to focus on no balls. You learn to look straight past the ball and be aware of it, but not involved with it. (You can get a student to practice the throw while reading a poster on the wall, or watching birds out the window).
  • Your hands can’t be chasing around catching stray balls all the time, they need to be in certain places at certain times, so the throw must be accurate. Each ball must follow a similar path, so as to take the same amount of time to reach it’s destination, and so it makes the desired pattern in the air.
  • When you juggle you don’t so much catch, as much as cushion and accompany the object in flight, and then redirect it’s motion. Hands need to be palm up for beginner juggling.  This can be one of the hardest things to get a beginning juggler to do, their hands and wrists twist and turn to try and compensate for the probably inaccurate throws.
  • The juggling pattern relies on you balls running round a course. They mostly loop round an infinity sign, which means as one ball comes into your hand, the outbound ball needs to go round it, not collide with it. So you need to throw high on the outside, and catch low on the inside. This is a very slight adjustment, and overdoing it is as bad as under doing it.  (Best left until they master throwing one ball and are throwing two).
  • You need a rhythm, you can’t stop to think about it before each throw. This also means you don’t have time to reset your hands.

I’m sure there are others, but already that’s a decent list.

Now remember the first point in the list. You need all of these precise requirements to be happening simultaneously, but also happening automatically. You need to surrender control of the ball to your subconscious. That surrender is (as far as I’m concerned) the greatest thing you learn in juggling. It’s not a nicety, it’s a necessity.

Juggling success is learning to surrender your conscious control. I’d never experienced that at age 13. I never realised my body and mind could do that. I should have understood it, because it happened all the time; No adult really knows how they walk, or how they swallow. You take sitting down and standing up for granted, but only 4 years ago I was teaching my daughter how to do that for the first time. We learn to do all sorts of things and then surrender them to the back of our brain to take care of the details. It happens with practice, and with repeatition. Doing something time and time again. By 13 I’d forgotten all about that, and was deep of the mind set that I, the logical conscious part of my brain, had to do everything round here.

It was summer holidays, and I’d shut myself up with a juggling book (the complete juggler by Dave Finnigan) for 3 days. I don’t really know where the urge to make it happen had come from, my older sister had bought me all the stuff. I was determined, so I followed the steps in the book, and step one was throwing back and forth. Luckily Dave’s book was full of positivity, at a time in my life where very was little of that. I worked at it solidly. I can remember by arms and legs killing me at the end of the first night (less from throwing and more from picking the damn things up). I went from one to two balls, and then finally to three. I’ll never forget the feeling when it clicked. I stopped thinking. You can’t tell yourself to stop thinking, it just has to happen. Suddenly I was juggling and wasn’t putting in an ounce of cerebral effort. My science/math/paranoia cogs weren’t turning (which never happened) and yet I was doing something brilliant. I was never physically inclined. I am not in anyway in touch with my body (and to a none juggler this will maybe sound stupid), so this was a life changing moment for me.

Refinement matters. Reaching the unconscious state of flow, that means your unconscious does the work, matters. Both of these require repetition. Repetition requires perseverance, which requires desire (desire is a subject in it’s own right). Often the subject of desire is the end state. We’re really not interested in the steps on the way, they’re to be delegated to the montage. We don’t know that we’re going to pull the end state off, so sometimes the desire is beat down by the sense of doom. The feeling that we’ll never make it to that place we’re looking for. Occasionally we do hit walls that we can’t see a way round, sometimes those walls are real and sometimes in our heads, or a result of a lack of practice. Determination is the thing that gets us through.

When you’re teaching others it is hard to control their determination. If they have none you can push them yourself. Make them learn by repetition, and drill things into them. Force them to do it. Push them past there apathy. That might pay off if they come out with their own drive. But what if they don’t. What if you kill there drive, and extinguish any motivation.
Instead you can be positive, dress up the training in a way that helps them see their progress. Reward tiny steps, set small goals that are achievable. That makes the learner feel good as they constantly attain, and are always reassured that they can be successful. That’s what the one ball from hand to hand exercise is. A little step that you can achieve. But it’s a two edged sword: If you tell someone that by throwing from hand to hand they will be able to juggle, and then fail to help them learn the nuance, fail to add in all the other parts, the consistency of throw, or the shape of there hands, or the letting go of their attention – then you do them a great disservice. You rob them of the skill. You cheapen it too much. You can leave them stuck when they wanted to go further.

Simplicity is a beautiful motivator, and makes for an easy first step. But it’s for nothing if not accompanied with the second, third and forth steps that continue and continue into the full journey. Put another way, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but there are about 2,249,999 steps you’ll need to get there.

Epilogue (ohh dig me)… If you give someone a test and ask for the answers, it doesn’t mean they understand the subject. I did engineering for 4 years at university and still get nervous putting oil in the car. Recalling facts and understanding are as different as throwing and catching a ball, and being able to juggle. The same is true of measurements of success. Success measurement may have a place, but most goals can be achieved without any understanding of the nuance that made those goals worthwhile in the first place.

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