Ask… no, wait… TELL Tim


Yes, there he is… our glorious thought-leader, riding a jet ski. But Tim needs your help… seriously. Here’s the problem:

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with Tim. He mentioned that he’d recently taken his first ride on a Jet Ski. Several torturous minutes later, he got off, still alive and capable of detecting faint signals. But his back was suffering… badly.

Tim, as Tim is prone to do, let the ski rental place know of his pains. The instructor/rental guy looked at Tim, and simply said, “Oh. You need to lean forward.”

At this point in our conversation, Tim rolled his eyes, gave a half-wave of his hand, and said, “Oh, thanks. That would have been nice to know before I got on the ski.” Obviously, if the instructor had told Tim to lean forward before he took on the Old Man of the Sea, Tim’s back would have been saved a lot of hardship.

Or would it?

Along with all the other instruction Tim would have received, he’d have been told, “Oh, and be sure and lean forward.” Would this have stuck with Tim? Would it have been held up in his brain as important as, say, “Keep a tight grip on the handlebars?” Would it have competed with, “Look here… this is the ignition key. Turn it to start, turn it again to stop.”

Would simply telling Tim ahead of time to lean forward been enough to save Tim’s back?

Better yet, how would you have prevented Tim’s back pain? Here’s the question, broken down for easy answering…

1. WHEN would you have told Tim, “Lean forward?”
2. HOW would you have told Tim?
3. Free response: what else would you have done/not done to ensure Tim got off the jet ski happy, healthy, and not hurting?

Come on… Tim’s back is counting on you figuring out how humans learn… how best to communicate… and what our brain does with information that is important, but maybe non-obvious in application or significance.

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  • I have trouble accepting instructions if I don’t understand the reasoning behind them. In this case, “remember to lean forward or you will hurt your back,” would be effective.

  • Gero Haug

    The instructor should give just basic information beforehand and then watch as Tim is learning by doing and provide context sensitive additional instructions as needed.
    Reducing information overhead by only providing instructions where they are needed. For someone who goes skiing the lean forward bit would probably be obvious and therefore boring information overhead.

    When writing a book about jet skiing coming up with an answer would be more difficult.

  • geek’s answer: build the seat so the rider has to lean forward

  • How about some kind of laminated FAQ card attached to the lifejacket or jet ski?

    “[Verbal Basic Instructions] and if you have any issues…feel like it’s not handling right, you’re not comfortable, take a look at the card and it can give you some pointers.”

    This allows Tim to get right to jet skiing but quickly find answers if he needs them along the way. (Depending on Tim’s personality he may just decide to read the card before he even gets started.)

    The key would be to keep it short and readable:

    Comfort: (or lack of)

    Back hurt? Try leaning forward more.
    Legs sore? Do something else


    Here’s to Tim’s pain being all our gain. :)

  • RK

    People usually don’t read signs. I like the better seat design idea above. However… a friendly conversation usually works best.

    Hi Tim.

    Have you ever ridden a jetski before? No? Well, Jetskis are really fun and easy, I’m sure you’re going to love it.

    As with any sport that you are trying for the first time, you will need to remember a few key things so that you don’t end up on your back for 2 weeks.

    #1 The Jetski wants to throw you off. So hold on tight.

    #2 Don’t hold on too tight! The problem with holding on too tight is that the muscles in your back get waaaaay over stressed.

    Right now you must be thinking to yourself… “how do I hold on tight… but not too tight?”

    The secret is… lean forward! Leaning forward puts enough of your body weight on the front of the ski so that you counteract the forced that are trying to pull you off. At the same time it saves you from having to stretch out your back muscles too far.

    #3 Listen to your body. If you start to feel too much strain anywhere – sit, slow down, and let your body de-stress for a few minutes. You don’t HAVE to stand up all the time.

    #4 Have fun. And be careful out there.

  • Greg Elin

    For guidance of how Tim should have been introduced to the proper jet ski riding and how humans learn in general, see the introductory chapter to any O’Reilly published Head First books or the Heads First Labs:

    The brain learns by repetition and believing something is important. It would have been very simple for a single jet ski to have dry docked for Tim to climb aboard and be introduced to basic riding position and skills.

  • Ben

    Preventing Tim’s back pain could have been accomplished through proper physical training ahead of time. If his core was strong, and if he’d learned to listen to his body, then perhaps he could have avoided the problem altogether.

    The obvious follow-up question might be “ok, but what sort of training would have been best?” My answer to that is: kettlebells. They’re highly practical, they work muscle groups much better than using machines, and they even hit muscles that traditional Olympic lifts don’t hit. They combined cardio with strength, which makes for an all-around winning combination.

    For a great reference on kettlebell training out on the West Coast, I recommend checking out Dr. Mark Cheng’s Kettlebells Los Angeles site.

  • Hi,
    I guess the best solution to guiding people about their posture while engaging in action sports would be an integrated human posture detection software.
    This could detect Tim’s incorrect posture (weight deplacement) and inform him.

    Telling people of how to position themselves before an activty is of little use, especially if they are beginners. It is when one is engaged in sport that the humain brain learns the most.

    I talk through experience of my first kayak journey.

  • I kind of turned the question “how do humans learn” on it’s head: how did the instructor learn what instructions to give, and how to give them? My guess would be that there’s a lot of information that he could convey, but he prioritized on what was most important based on past experience and feedback. So probably things like turning the thing on and steering, which everyone has to know, won out over leaning forward, or “dont tweet and drive at the same time.” Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the majority of folks either naturally lean forward, or don’t report back pain, and so this particular piece of advice fell “below the fold”.

    And hopefully, next time he sees a guy my age trying a jetski for the first time, he’ll draw on his newfound experience and tell me to lean forward.

  • I would use a graph:

    (Sorry about the rotation)

  • Todd

    First, get well soon, Tim!

    RK has the critical insight. It’s less about the method, and more about the communication.

    Before handing the keys over, the guy renting the jetski should ask, in a nice friendly way, if Tim’s ever done this before. Call it good human-ness, good service, or even cross-selling (“never? want a professional lesson?”), a simple question up front would have helped prevent Tim’s back problems.

    I’m really surprised that they didn’t at least try to see if they have a potential liability on their hands.

    Or, Tim might have said “hey, never done this before, got any tips?”

    Then again, i can buy a chain saw at Home Depot, and no one bats an eye.

  • Blaze

    Kick him in the ass, then say “that’s what happens if you don’t lean forward.” He’ll remember.

  • Ian Corbett

    I recently realized a similar problem boxing after 6 months with the sport. This seems to be a relatively common case of experienced people not remembering to inform people new to a particular activity.

    Of course informing Tim that if he did not lean forward and into the handlebars that he could consequentially injure his back would be useful. If instead the jet ski rental location had a sign to that effect which was referenced as policy every time a jet ski was rented, that would likely prevent the same problem for others in the future.

  • Tim, Watch what I do.

    Now remember, you’re going to hurt like a mother if you don’t lean forward.


  • * Be in decent shape in the first place, though he might very well be already.

    * Make sure to stretch out very well beforehand. A lot of folks think they can’t do stuff just because they’re older. While this is of course partially true, it’s also because unlike with our high school sports teams, we now show up to things late, having driven there, and just break out the skates or racquet or whatever. This makes poor outcomes more likely.

    * I’d tell him start slow and get used to feel.

    * Use your whole body on the watercraft. For exampole, like riding a horse, use your feet and legs actively. Make sure you’re whole body is inline as you act out on the ski. As with most any sport, the body follows the head. Pay attention to neck twisting in one direction while kinematics of other things go in other directions.

    * Perhaps take one NSAID before going out. And take another plus an aspirin or other pain killer immediately upon getting back.

    * Then ice the injury site 15 min. out of each of the first few hours. The next day, heat and light stretching. (And consider TENS electrical stim unit.)

    That about covers it.

    I owed him a really long answer. What I’ve typed so far accounts for maybe .0001 % of what I’ve read thanks to him!

  • Steve Ediger

    Since I’m an IT Director, I think about this a lot. Some days I seems that no matter how simple and spelled out I make the message, the users simply don’t get it. So here goes.

    Just as we’re getting started with the training, I’d say something like, “I’m going to show you a lot of things about this machine, but if you want to be happy and safe at the end of this adventure, take care of your back by leaning forward.”

    About halfway through the session, I’d make reference to leaning forward for better balance and repeat the comment about back safety.

    Finally, I’d repeat the warning at the end. Given Tim’s obvious success in this world, I think that he couldn’t ignore this type of message.

    Of course, I am only seeing this in hindsight and the real trick is to notice this sort of stuff before the training session.

  • bowerbird

    only about 5%-15% of people get a sore back the first time out.
    and telling everyone to “lean forward” will cause other problems,
    since the natural inclination there is usually to the right degree.
    (moreover, some people get pissed if you give ’em any “advice”.)

    people — like tim — smart enough to talk to the manager later
    get the information _they_ need. for tim, it was to lean forward…
    for someone else, it mighta been something completely different.

    you can’t learn it all in a briefing, especially before your first time.
    you shouldn’t even expect to… some things just take experience.
    even 10,000 hours worth. nothing to see here folks. move along.


  • Max

    I wouldn’t have told him beforehand just like the instructor did it. Doing something right needs practice.

    Now that his back will hurt for some days, will he ever forget to lean forward again? I say no!


  • Tracey

    I agree with Gnat’s answer! A second choice would be to watch Tim mount the jet ski. Then gently fix his posture.

  • Great discussion, but alas, inaccurate reporting. The event in question took place over twenty years ago, not recently, and it didn’t involve back pain.

    I was riding an early model stand-up jet ski. (The sit down ones are easy. My grandmother could ride one, and she’s been dead for 25 years.) The problem was that whenever I got up to a sufficiently exciting speed, the jet ski would start to buck and throw me off. Leaning the weight forward keeps the nose down and minimizes the bucking.

    It was basic information that would be useful to anyone. Akin to advice to someone hiking down a slippery slope: your natural tendency will be to lean backwards, but in fact, you’ll be more stable if you lean forwards, since your weight will go more directly through your feet, rather than helping them to slip out from under you.

    The point of the story (as I saw it) was that many people don’t reflect on their experiences enough to notice things like this, and thus become poor teachers.

    I had a similar experience when I learned to windsurf, many years ago. Someone spent about two hours getting me up for my first sail; after having done that, I was able to get someone else up and going in 15 minutes, because I was much better at passing along the critical information.

    A lot of what I always tried to do in O’Reilly books (back when I was an author and editor) was simply to tell the story in the right order. So many times, people have the right facts but the wrong emphasis or sequence. So much of my editing ended up being helping authors to put information in the right place, or to notice gaps where the writer was assuming something that the reader did not in fact know.

    This was my problem with the guy who rented me the Jet Ski back in the 80s. When I told him my problem, he knew right away what it was and how to solve it. But he didn’t think to tell me in advance.

    And yes, there are things that you learn better when you make your own mistakes, but I don’t think that this was one of them.

    The best way for me to learn would have been to observe someone who knew how to ride well, and to just copy them without thinking. I remember learning how to drive a horse during a canter by watching a horse trainer doing it – what you need to do became very obvious.

  • Monkey see, monkey do. You’re totally right, Tim. And you sound way more physical/athletic than the top-post made you sound.

    You should see the birds around here. They’re interesting socially, biologically, etc.


  • As a [snow] ski instructor we think of EDICT: ‘Explanation’, ‘Demonstration’, we then let the learner ‘Immitate’, If need be we ‘Correct’ them, (then we let the learner loose to) ‘Try’ by themselves. As few words as possible, in my experience giving people three specific bits of information at one time is the absolute maximum, for complete beginners one: “push your hips forward” is usually enough!

    In snow skiing posture is critical, the EDICT method exposes the learner to an aural description, gives them a visual picture in their mind, then allows them to experience the desired behaviour kinaesthetically. This exposes them to three predominant human modes of learning and human interaction.

    As an instructor an ‘I told you so’ afterwards is possibly the least helpful thing you can tell a learner – its the metaphorical equivalent of a cryptic software error message. My advice Ctrl-Alt-Delete and restart the process with a different instructor! :-)


  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > A lot of what I always tried to do in O’Reilly books
    > (back when I was an author and editor) was simply
    > to tell the story in the right order.
    > So many times,
    > people have the right facts
    > but the wrong emphasis or sequence.
    > So much of my editing ended up being
    > helping authors to put information in the right place,
    > or to notice gaps where the writer was
    > assuming something that the reader did not in fact know.

    this is very astute.


  • I have to agree with ben. People often cite one instance when they tweaked their back and blame that paticular isolate icident for causing their injury. The truth is, it’s probably a cumulative effect of inadequate physical training, leaning the way for bad postural habits [not pun intended].