How to Practice Effectively
With the help of some recent books like Outliers, Talent Code and Talent is Overrated, it has been popular to describe the path of mastery in sport as consisting of 10 000 hours of deliberate practice. According to this theory, brought to the mainstream by Anders Ericksson in the early 90’s, any “expert” is the product of 10 000 hours of deliberate training. Ericksson had studied violinists, chess players, and athletes, and concluded that in all cases those who performed at the very highest levels had simply spent more hours training deliberately. It’s a compelling theory, and it stands for the belief that we are not born with extraordinary talent, but rather that talent is a product of hard work – ten thousand hours of hard work. And while this theory has come under some heat in recent years*, I believe that it offers us a nice template for what it takes to get to the highest levels of any skill.
It may be that some genetically unique individuals can achieve mastery in a much more accelerated manner – perhaps as little as one thousand hours in some cases, but the reality is that for 99.9 percent of the population our level of skill will be largely correlated to the amount of time we train effectively. Simply put, we become very good at what we repeatedly do. So if we accept the assumption that it takes many hours of deliberate practice to be great at something – the most pressing question becomes: “what is deliberate practice”?
There is no doubt that any definition of deliberate practice should use terms like “focus”, “perseverance”, “hard work”, and any of the many cliches we attach to our classical narratives about how special athletes achieve great things. But too often these definitions over-romanticize the efforts of a given athlete and imbue those who excel with some special innate talents that have allowed them to rise above the competition. And while I do believe that there is a small degree of innate abilities that is necessary for excellence, I prefer to view the process of Mastery as one which is almost entirely dependent on the quantity of quality practice that you put in. We are all born with the potential to be great, but this greatness is only ever uncovered when we spend lots of hours of high quality training.
So when I work with athletes I always make sure to distinguish what characterizes effective practice. I believe that there is no greater influence on performance than the quality of one’s practice, and as such the majority of my coaching is spent coaching athletes how to make their practice most efficient and effective. Of course there are some genetic factors which influence performance as well, but over time an average athlete who practices well will always outperform an exceptional athlete who practices poorly.
After a few years of searching for the essentials of deliberate training, I have developed a nice simple approach which I share with all of the athletes I encounter. Essentially, my suggestion is that great practice entails three key variables that must be found in every training session:
1) The Awareness stage of training involves you being “fascinated”. Spend this time with great focus and don’t be afraid to roll a few putts with eyes closed, or ear plugs, or one handed, etc… By shutting off one of your senses, you heighten the others, so often you will be more in tune with a sensory experience when you try to deepen your experience by changing variables.
2) The Measurement stage is your testing component, and this is where confidence will grow from. It is a reality check at first – a true gauge of where your skills are at – but gradually this reality is what will breed confidence and trust. The more you measure when you practice, the more you apply some of the pressure you’ll encounter in the game, and the more you will learn about whether your skills are holding up at the percentages you need.
3) The Consequence stage is where you really try to bridge the gap between practice and play. This is where you try to simulate the psychological space of golf by “competing” while you train. Set a target and don’t leave until you achieve it. And design this stage so that it’s as close to the golf experience as possible – i.e mark your ball, pull the flag, take your normal amount of time, etc… To anyone who has ever muttered “but I was doing so well when I warmed up” you must accept that you bridge the gap between practice and play by adding consequence to your practice.
And so according to this, a classic example of an efficient training module for putting might look as follows:
- Spend a few minutes searching out a feeling/sensation that you can be fascinated with while you putt with one ball. Examples of sensory experiences that can be fascinating include: focusing on tempo of stroke, tension in hands, balance in feet, focus of your gaze, etc…(Awareness)
- Run through the Par/Birdie drill to test out this sensation you’ve committed to (Measurement)
- Go through a 9 hole course on the practice green, where again your intention is to commit fully to that fascinating sensation, and keep at it until you achieve a score that you’ve set (could be 18 strokes for 9 holes, or something similar). (Consequence)
So for your next practice session be sure to incorporate Awareness, Measurement, and Consequence. Ten thousand hours of this type of training – training that incorporates fascination, testing and simulation – and you will certainly be an extraordinary talent at whatever it is that you train. And for anyone who can’t quite spare the ten thousand hours, then I would suggest that your skills will improve with every hour of deliberate training that you put in, so start with one hour and see where it goes…