The Velocity of Skill Development: Quickly Closing the Gap

We are remarkably inefficient at skill development. Understanding the nuances of how repetitions, situations, and feedback interconnect offers us a few small changes that lead to remarkable improvements in skill acquisition. 

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We think that skill development is a function of repetitions. The more the better. Bruce Lee summed this up when he said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” What Bruce didn’t tell us is that not all repetitions are the same.

Repetitions that matter for development are a function of quantity, variety, and feedback. You need a lot of reps, you need them in a variety of situations, and you need both internal and external feedback.

But there is a problem for most of us: Time.

Let’s use football (soccer) as an example.

You can show up at the football pitch for practice and while you’re there an hour or two, you might only get five minutes of focused repetitions. The use of time is remarkably inefficient. The variety of situations in which repetitions occur is limited. The feedback is often poor. And to top it off, you’re often unwilling to look like an idiot in front of your peers, so you take few risks in practice (which further limits the variety of repetitions).

Traditionally coaches practice two things: techniques and the most common situations. You can’t practice every possible scenario that you might face in a game because time is limited. So, it makes sense that coaches focus on the most common situations that a player will face. Coaches offer feedback and we get better. Or so we think.

It’s not true that more feedback is better. It’s also not true that coaches provide the best feedback.

There are two main types of feedback. There is feedback that’s internally generated and feedback that’s externally generated. Internal is what you feel, see, observe. You hit a ball a certain way and don’t get the result you want, so you try it another way. External feedback, often from coaches, is harder in some ways. Most coaches can give reasonably accurate feedback on a particular technique.

What separates coaches is ego involvement. Most coaches want to give you feedback that confirms their view of the world. They’re quick to tell you what they would do, which isn’t necessarily what you should do. They want to feel like they’re making you better. The best coaches coach you without you even being aware that you’re being coached. This takes time. You have to develop a relationship with the player. You have to put them in situations that stretch them. This requires a lot of focused observation.

While practices with coaches can be helpful, it’s easy to see how they can work against you too. Practices often focus on individual techniques not a principle. The number of repetitions per unit of time is low. The variety of situations under which those repetitions occur is low. And external feedback is noisier than it might seem.

Luckily, we know the three variables that matter the most: (1) The number of repetitions.; (2) The variety of situations in which those repetitions occur; and (3) The quality of both the internal and external feedback.

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Long known for their development of football players, Brazil figured out how to rapidly increase the velocity of development of its players. They found a way to increase the frequency of repetitions, the variety of situations, and improve the quality of feedback.

Brazil is the home of many of the world’s most skilled soccer players. So you might wonder how it develops its players? Brazil uses a game called futebol de salão (From: The Little Book of Talent):

This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”

Brazil focused on learning the principles as opposed to specific techniques. For example, the principle is getting comfortable in tight spaces with the ball. The technique, on the other hand, might focus on how to get by a defender.

If you’re comfortable in tight spaces, you won’t make a mistake trying to resolve the tension. For instance, you have a defender approaching you and your nerves take over. You pass the ball, not because you should but because you’re uncomfortable. If you don’t get enough repetitions in practice with a defender approaching you rapidly, you’ll focus on resolving that tension in a game rather than doing what’s best in the situation.

Lionel Messi, an Argentine football star, can’t plan where everyone on the field will be and how they will all react — he has to improvise by recognizing patterns and responding. The best way to develop those skills is to increase the speed of the game. More reps. More situations. More internal feedback.

Three Variables That Matter

These lessons apply in the workplace too.

You can increase the velocity of development with three variables: (1) The quantity of focused repetitions; (2) The situations under which they occur; and (3) The quality of feedback.

While these variables need to be tailored to your environment, they carry the weight. The mistake we often make in the workplace is the same one that we often make at practice. We offer limited reps under tightly controlled situations with ego driven feedback.

Adapting these to your environment means:

  • Focus on the meta skill not the specific skill
  • Focus on increasing the number of focused repetitions and the variety of situations under which they occur
  • Setting up the environment to help generate both rapid and high-quality internal feedback. What information do people need to know they should have done something different. How fast can you make that information available?
  • External feedback (from a boss/coach) needs to be based on a relationship, focused on the person not what you think, and based on thinking not actions (e.g., what did they miss – why is there a need for external feedback).

Focused repetitions give you feedback. Feedback makes you better. Each repetition builds upon the ones you’ve already done. This is how greatness happens. A series of tiny gains, imperceptible in moment, aggregate into massive differences in the end.

You almost can’t help but get better if you apply these four things to your situation.

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