Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect
“Practice makes perfect,” right? Well, maybe not. What if I told you that this well-known adage is actually a quasi-fallacy, a half-truth that leaves out a very important part of the path to perfection?
Many think that mastering a skill is solely dependent on how many hours and how much effort we put into it. So, we toil, spending valuable time and effort and we often see little to no progress. When we don’t see a change, we question: “Is something wrong with me? Am I just not meant to learn this skill?” Sometimes we even give up, convinced that we are stupid or incapable.
“Is it true?” you may be wondering, “Am I stupid? Am I incapable?” OF COURSE NOT! You can learn just about anything. But learning requires more than just time and energy. It requires precision and engagement. Likely, our error occurs in THE WAY we practice.
The Low Down
See, practice doesn’t really make perfect. Practice doesn’t even make permanent. PRACTICE MAKES HABITS.
The more times you repeat an action the more likely you are to take that action without thinking. And while this can be an indicator of mastery, it’s only a positive one if you’ve formed the right habits.
My son Braxton is obsessed with soccer. While he was living at home, we often woke to him cheering loudly at five in the morning as he watched a game broadcast from another country. His passion for soccer has led him both to play and to study the game. He’s become one very knowledgeable soccer nut. One morning, he and I were discussing this principle of “practice makes habit” Braxton gave the perfect soccer related example:
The U.S. lags behind most of the world in soccer. The difference in technical ability between British and American players is astounding. But why is this? Much of it comes down to technical training. In England, technical training starts at age 4 or 5. Young children, barely older than toddlers, are taught the proper way to strike a ball. As they grow older they practice this motion repeatedly.
In the United States, competitive soccer doesn’t begin until age 10 or 12. Until then, most children participate in recreational soccer. While playing rec, these children develop awful habits. Many learn to strike the ball with their toe, an improper “technique” that affords little to no accuracy. Others learn to lock their ankles, a practice that can lead to painful injuries. No matter how hard these young players practice, their game doesn’t improve. Why? Because they’re not employing the right techniques. All that practice (no matter how much heart is put into it) leads to bad habits. When these kids begin to play competitively coaches have to break down these tendencies and teach new ones, a far more difficult task than simply teaching good habits in the first place.
So how do we ensure that our practice will lead to improvement and, ultimately, success? According to Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, we “PRACTICE DEEPLY”. Instead of practicing the wrong motions over and over again quickly, we slow down. We analyze our own practice. When we make a mistake, we go back and evaluate what went wrong and then we do it again even slower, until we get it right.
The key to good practice is making and recognizing mistakes. According to Coyle, deep practice sessions “take events that we normally strive to avoid- namely mistakes- and turn[s] them into skill.” “Effective practice, he says, is “purposely operating at the edge of [our] ability.” I would suggest that we practice just beyond that point for improvement and profitable mistake-making. As this process is repeated our skill improve. We eliminate the mistakes and the result is fluid, effortless-looking performance.
This does not happen overnight. According to Malcolm Gladwell it takes approximately ten thousand hours to become an expert at any one skill. But we can do things to expedite this process. Researchers have found that Brazil produces a disproportionate amount of world class soccer players. Why? Studies show it’s because Brazil is one of the only countries that consistently plays futsal.
Futsal is played almost exactly like soccer, but on a smaller field and with a heavier ball. When playing futsal, players must think quickly and pass precisely. They are forced to make mistakes by the lack of time, and forced to fix them if they want to be effective. This pattern, found naturally in futsal, is the key to expediting our improvement.
Yes, it requires much time and effort to become an expert. But if we can force ourselves to operate at the edge of our abilities in real life-like situations, self-analyzing and correcting as we go, we can improve quickly and effectively (The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle).