Tag: Practice

Why Are Olympic Athletes So Much Faster Today?

We all know that sports records keep getting broken, but we generally don’t appreciate just how dramatic the progress has been, or the reasons for it. For example, the Olympic records of a hundred years ago—representing the best performance of any human being on the planet—today in many cases equal ho-hum performance by high schoolers. The winner of the men’s 200-meter race in the 1908 Olympics ran it in 22.6 seconds; today’s high school record is faster by more than 2 seconds, a huge margin. Today’s best high school time in the marathon beats the 1908 Olympic gold medalist by more than 20 minutes. And if you’re thinking it’s because kids today are bigger, that’s not it. Recent research by Dr. Niels J. Secher of the University of Copenhagen and others shows that size is no advantage in running, since each stride requires you to lift yourself up. “The smaller you are, the better you are,” he says.

In any case, events in which size and power are irrelevant show the same patter of constantly rising standards. In diving, for example, the double somersault was almost prohibited as recently as the 1924 Olympics because it was considered too dangerous. Today, it’s boring.

This matters because of why it’s happening: Contemporary athletes are superior not because they’re somehow different but because they train themselves more effectively.

— Via Talent Is Overrated

What is Deliberate Practice?

You’ve probably been doing your job for a while. If you’re like most people, your performance has plateaued. Simply put, you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. This is because you don’t use deliberate practice to your advantage.

Deliberate Practice

Despite repetition, most people fail to become experts at what they do. It doesn’t matter how many years they spend they stop getting better.

Experience does not equate to expertise.

In Geoff Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated he writes:

In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.

Society has always recognized extraordinary individuals whose performance is truly superior. If I were to ask you why some people excel and others don’t, you’d probably say talent and effort. These responses are misleading.

Conveniently, claiming that talent is the basis for success means we can absolve ourselves of our own performance (or, as the case may be, lack thereof). The talent argument, despite its popularity, is wrong. Yet research tells a very different story on how people become experts (for a more detailed argument read Talent Is Overrated, the source of most of the quotes in this article).

Deliberate Practice

Research concludes that we need deliberate practice to improve performance. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.

Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.

When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Let’s take a look at each of those to better understand what’s meant.

Designed to Improve Performance

The word designed is key. While enjoyable, practice lacking design is play and doesn’t offer improvement.

“In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.”

But it’s more than just the teachers’ knowledge that helps — it’s their ability to see you in ways you can’t see yourself.

“A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”

In theory, with the right motivations and some expertise, you can design a practice yourself. It’s likely, however, that you wouldn’t know where to start or how to structure activities.

Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. *

Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.

With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Consider a chess tournament:

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much strong opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome.*

Repeat

Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal practice. Deliberate practice requires that you should be operating in the learning zone and you should be repeating the activity a lot with feedback.

Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. *

It’s no coincidence that Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would literally practice hitting until his hands bled.

Feedback on results is continuously available

Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do everyday without thinking.

“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”

Feedback gets a little tricky when someone must subjectively interpret the results. While you don’t need a coach, this can be an area they add value.

“These are the situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”

Mentally Demanding

Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.

“The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”

Ben Franklin, an interesting example

Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

“Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Even without a teacher, Ben Franklin grasped deliberate practice.

The Role of Solitude

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes:

Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

***

Still curious? Learn more about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated and this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.

Top Athletes And Singers Have Coaches. Should You?

Getting better at something you’re decent at, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Consider driving. A skill you likely learned as a teenager. Within a few hundred hours under the wheel, you went from a petrified know nothing to a competent and predictable driver.

Let’s say you’re mid-30s now and you want to get better at driving. How would you do it?

The easiest way is to hire a back seat driver — someone to tell you that you’re taking the turns too sharply, or not coming to a complete stop. Basically, their job would be to point out all the little things you do that keep you from getting better.

Isn’t not hard to find this person. The hard part is putting your pride and reputation on the line.

We can’t do this for everything but we can do it for some things. The things that matter the most.

With that in mind, here is a wonderful essay by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker on whether we need a personal coach.

…I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

…Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.

…Osteen watched, silent and blank-faced the entire time, taking notes. My cheeks burned; I was mortified. I wished I’d never asked him along. I tried to be rational about the situation—the patient did fine. But I had let Osteen see my judgment fail; I’d let him see that I may not be who I want to be.

This is why it will never be easy to submit to coaching, especially for those who are well along in their career. I’m ostensibly an expert. I’d finished long ago with the days of being tested and observed. I am supposed to be past needing such things. Why should I expose myself to scrutiny and fault-finding?

If you’re interested in learning more about effective coaching, check out Barbara Lourie Sand’s book “Teaching Genius,” which describes the methods of the legendary Juilliard violin instructor Dorothy DeLay. DeLay trained an amazing roster of late-twentieth-century virtuosos, including Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, and Sarah Chang.

What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Talent Is Overrated

Practice activities are worthless without useful feedback about the results.

Here is a wonderful excerpt from Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition – knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.

Metacognition is important because situations change as they play out. Apart from its role in finding opportunities for practice, it plays a valuable part in helping top performers adapt to changing conditions…[A]n excellent businessperson can pause mentally and observe his or her own mental processes as if from the outside:…Am I being hijacked by my emotions? Do I need a different strategy here? What should it be?

…Excellent performers judge themselves differently from the way other people do. They’re more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay. The best performers judge themselves against a standard that’s relevant for what they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare with the performance of competitors they’re facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare with the best known performance by anyone in the field…

…If you were pushing yourself appropriately and have evaluated yourself rigorously, then you will have identified errors that you made. A critical part of self-evaluation is deciding what caused those errors. Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired…

…Since excellent performers go through a sharply different process from the beginning, they can make good guesses about how to adapt. That is, their ideas for how to perform better next time are likely to work…They approach the job with more specific goals and strategies, since their previous experience was essentially a test of specific goals and strategies; and they’re more likely to believe in their own efficacy because their detailed analysis is more effective than the vague, unfocused analysis of average performers. Thus their own effectiveness can help give them the crucial motivation to press on, powering a self-reinforcing cycle.

***

Still curious? Read the book and understand the difference between practice and deliberate practice.

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