We’re talking about practice.

We’re talking about practice.

We ain’t talking about the game.

We’re talking about practice, man.

                                                                                                                                 – Allen IversoN

Dare I say, “Welcome Spring?”  Hopefully some warmer weather is in the forecast and we will soon be able to put away the snow shovels.  If you recall, two weeks ago my newsletter considered the idea of leadership development.  I wrote that the potential for leadership lies within each one of us, but it blossoms only when nurtured, cared for, given attention and cultivated.  So how do you cultivate leadership?  How do you become the best, or what some might say, an expert leader?  Simple, you practice!!!!!

For a number of months I have enjoyed the opportunity to exchange thoughts on teaching and learning with a new friend, Andy Miller.  Andy is the teaching professional at LedgeRock Golf Club and his approaches to instruction reflect what another colleague has referred to as “best” practices and “next” practices.  Andy makes learning an enjoyable, experiential activity that encourages his students, of all ages, to not only understand proper technique but to think about what they are doing and then apply what they have learned to a new situation.  Additionally, Andy subscribes to the belief that the only thing that limits the level to which we rise is how we commit to the task at hand.  Recently he introduced me to Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s book, Peak:  Secrets From the New Science of Expertise.  In their introduction they ask a question and provide us with an optimistic answer, “Why are some people so amazingly good at what they do?  Ericsson then explains that when we are confronted with such an exceptional person we naturally tend to conclude they were born with something a little extra, something many refer to as a “ gift”!  He shares, “ I’ve come to understand that, yes, these people do have an extraordinary gift, which lies at the heart of their capabilities.  But it is not the gift that people usually assume it too be, and its even more powerful that we imagine.  Most importantly it is a gift that everyone of us is born with and can, with the right approach, take advantage of!  What is it?  “Deliberate Practice”, a single set of general principles drawn from a relatively new area of psychology that can best be described as, “ The Science of Expertise”.  Over the next two weeks I want to consider Ericsson’s. ideas and how we can apply them to our own lives.  This week, let’s consider how we can begin to unlock the gift within each of us through “Purposeful Practice”.  Next week we will continue the discussion and look at “Deliberate Practice”

First some background, Anders Ericsson is a professor of psychology at Florida State.  He specializes in the science of peak performance.  His work is not original; it builds and expands upon that of Benjamin Bloom whose research was published (1985) in the landmark book, Developing Talent in Young People, which examined the critical factors that contribute to talent.  One thing emerged very clearly from Bloom’s work:  All superb performers had practiced intensively, studied with devoted teachers/coaches, and been enthusiastically supported by caring families through their developing years.  Ericsson’s subsequent research reveals that the amount and quality of practice (What he refers to as “ Deliberate Practice”) are the key factors in the level of expertise people achieve. 

Shana Lebowitz’s Business Insider Post from last month, “A Top Psychologist Says There’s Only One Way to Become the Best in Your Field – But Not Everyone Agrees”, provides a 360 consideration of Ericsson’s ideas.  Lebowitz’s shares, “In general, according to Ericsson, deliberate practice involves stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities. While repeating a skill you’ve already mastered might be satisfying, it’s not enough to help you get better. Moreover, simply wanting to improve isn’t enough — people also need well-defined goals and the help of a teacher who makes a plan for achieving them.”  She shares that Ericsson’s work is not without its critics who maintain that while deliberate practice did indeed account for some of the differences between more and less skilled athletes, it couldn’t account for all of them. They propose that genetically influenced physical traits such as how easily you build muscle mass, and even psychological traits like confidence, play a role.  All critics agree however that practice is essential to the development of expertise in any field.  So what does Ericsson mean by “Practice”?

Ericsson proposes that there are three forms of practice; Naive, Purposeful and Deliberate.  This week, let’s consider two forms of practice 

Naive Practice – is the most common form of practice   Essentially naive practice is simply doing something repeatedly and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance. This approach embraces the idea, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you already have.”  The research is clear that once a person has reached a level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional practice does not lead to improvement.  In fact, in some cases it can lead to reinforcement of poor technique and unacceptable performance. To improve we need to consider:

Purposeful Practice – This is our first step toward improved performance.  As the term implies it is more purposeful, thoughtful and focused.  It has the following characteristics:

Goals:  Purposeful practice means having well-defined specific goals.  Without goals there is no way to judge if a practice session has been successful.  What is the long-term goal and what are the short term goals that will lead you there?  Create a plan and then practice with purpose to achieve each goal.  The key thing is to take that general goal and break it down into something realistic that you can worked on with an expectation of achievement.

Focus – Purposeful practice is focused.  The task at hand needs your full attention.  In essence you are “all-in” during the practice session.  No distractions.  You and the task at hand are mentally and physically together. Sometimes this focus will be evidenced by self-discussions and motivational comments to self (“Yes!”, “You can do this!” “FOCUS!”)

Feedback – Purposeful practice involves feedback.  You have to know whether you are doing something right, and if not, what you are doing wrong.  Often that feedback will come from a teacher or coach.  It can also come from a colleague, mentor or supervisor.  Meaningful positive feedback is one of the crucial factors in maintaining motivation.  It can be external or internal, and sometimes the most important feedback is the internal critique that come from the individual.  Their self focus often permits them to identify problem areas.  By recognizing our own areas of weakness or areas in which we need to improve, we can often identify ways to address the issue and move forward.  As we all know, the best learning often occurs through self-discovery.

Comfort – Purposeful practice involves getting out of one’s comfort zone – This is the most important part of purposeful practice.  If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.  What does it mean?  Doing something you have never done before.  It means finding ways around or through the barriers that have stopped you before.

In a nutshell Ericsson encourages us to get outside our comfort zone in a focused way with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor our progress.  Equally important figure we must figure out a way to stay motivated. 

We have a start, a plan that begins our journey to improve, but it is only a beginning.  Next week we consider what it takes to make that practice deliberate.  Try some purposeful practice this week and see how it feels. Have a great week and Embrace the Challenge.  Anybody have Allen’s email?