Thursday 17 October 2019

Seaworld, San Diego: How to train a killer whale

Young children get a close-up view of an Orca killer whale during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California.
Young children get a close-up view of an Orca killer whale during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California.

Declan Coyle

What's right with you? Have you ever been asked that question? Shamu is the largest killer whale in the world and that's the question that has turned him into a peak performer.

While there is a lot of controversy over SeaWorld at the moment, Dave Yardely, Shamu's trainer has learned a huge amount about peak performance at any level from working closely with Shamu.

A huge gasp goes through the crowd of over 3,000 spectators, as they are thrilled and astonished by the performance of the leaping killer whales. It is another show in SeaWorld, San Diego. Shamu is the star. Dave has trained Shamu to jump, do summersaults and all kinds of tricks. How does he get a killer whale to hit peak performance so consistently?

"The secret is to catch him doing things right," he says.

"It's also very important to catch him doing things better," said Dave, "to praise progress immediately and specifically."

This incredible show didn't happen overnight. Shamu taught Dave patience. First of all, he wouldn't do anything until he trusted Dave. Trust was the most important factor to in cementing this amazing relationship of success.

At the beginning, Dave would jump into the pool and play with him and convince him he meant no harm. Shamu had to be convinced of Dave's intentions. Once he was convinced, he trusted Dave.

At SeaWorld the trainers make every effort to persuade the animals to see them as friends. Then they make everything in training into a game. Just like great education, learning and laughter go together. Dave kept injecting easy lessons into the routines so that the whales could learn almost without effort.

Whales are no different to people. They will show the trainers when they don't like how they are being treated and they will show you when they like what you are doing.

To build and keep the trust and friendship, Dave and the trainers keep accentuating the positive and eliminating anything that is remotely negative.

What about when he does something wrong? Then it's about ignoring the wrong thing and redirecting or re-channelling his energy to doing some thing right. They reward right behaviour with a fish or a pat on the snout.

It's all about energy management. "If you don't want to encourage poor behaviour, don't spend a lot of time on it," he says. Performance follow focus.

He insists that the most harmful habit in animal education is the human habit of mentally limiting animals.

Animals can sense expectations with astonishing accuracy. They can 'live down' or 'live up' to expectations just like humans do. The killer whales have taught Dave always to expect the impossible.

Great managers see athletes' brilliance long before they see it themselves. Then they draw it out of them. We learn to walk by remembering how we walked. Not remembering how we fell. No more "What's wrong with you?"

Start asking "What's right?" And then shine a light on what is right. You will see an incredible difference in both the mood and performance of those around you.

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