The 3 Levels of Effective Practice


I’m always on the lookout for new ways to understand highly effective practice, and recently came across a keeper from Vern Gambetta, the well-known coach and athletic consultant. It’s called “winning the workout.” (Here’s a short video describing it.)

At its core is the idea that there are three essential ways of approaching a practice session.

  • Level 1) You show up. You do the job exactly as you’re told to do it; nothing more, nothing less. You get a little better.
  • Level 2) You show up. You do the job, and you target certain tasks that’ll help you toward your goal. You work the workout, push yourself, think about technique. You get a lot better.
  • Level 3) You show up, having thought about how today’s session fits into the larger goal. You work very hard, pushing yourself into the discomfort zone over and over, with full commitment. Later, you reflect/analyze/critique your performance with a cool, objective eye. You get a LOT better, creating what Gambetta calls “the quantum leap.”

Think of the three levels as bronze, silver, and gold. Level 3 is winning the workout.

Traditionally, when we talk about effective practice, we use the idea of focus — the amount of attention a person puts into their actions. After all, that’s the one word parents and coaches often yell from the sidelines — “Focus!” (And it usually works about as well as you’d expect.)

One reason I like Gambetta’s concept is that it takes us beyond the primitive idea of focus and into the more targeted idea of investment — sensing and measuring the total amount of time and energy put into the process of getting better. I also like it because it embraces the semi-revolutionary idea that some of the most vital work happens away from the practice space, in the time we use to reflect, strategize, plan, and figure out honest answers to those two simple but immensely difficult questions we face every day: where are we right now, really? Where we want to be tomorrow?

The more immediate question is, how do you increase investment and win the workout? Here are two ideas.

  • 1) Notebooks. Writing stuff down is a good way to increase planning, reflection, and understanding; it lets us think our way past obstacles and see ourselves clearly. Check out for some good ideas and tools.
  • 2) Make a habit of connecting every session, every drill, to the longterm goal. One way to think about this is to think like a movie camera, zooming in and out. Zoom in on the task, then zoom out to show where it fits in the bigger picture.

(Big thanks to sharp-eyed reader Gerald Murray for alerting me to Gambetta’s work.)

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14 Responses to “The 3 Levels of Effective Practice”

  1. abdulghaniy says:

    the gold option sounds more like the method of d late john wooden, he kept notes of his training sessions and made sure d ”journey was better than the inn”.

  2. Doc says:

    You may also want to check the The Exuberant Animal website. He has some interesting ideas as well about fitness.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Doc — appreciate that.

  4. Walter Stemberg says:

    Ya, Gambetta is a “God” when it comes to this kind of stuff. Tons of top athletes use him and he’s a “star” in the bodybuilding world too. Thanks for the link. Always nice to hear from someone well respected in the industry.

  5. Rich Kent says:

    Daniel, I appreciate the mention of my new book’s resource website ( Couldn’t agree more with your comment, “Writing stuff down is a good way to increase planning, reflection, and understanding….” For every elite athlete I know, from Serena Williams to Olympians to the 16-17 year old apprentices in England’s professional soccer league, writing is an investment toward that quantum leap.

  6. Rod Roth says:

    The term INVESTMENT resonates, Dan. Implies that each practice session is part of the larger process of getting better. Writingathletes: terrific resource! Thank you, sir.

  7. Rod Roth says:

    Thanks, Rich. Great article about Delgado. I’ve wish-listed your book

  8. kalyan says:

    This is amazing , and this can be applied in every aspect of life . Thank you for sharing such an amazing stuff .

  9. Sarah says:

    Another great post that I plan on sharing in my newsletter and passing along to my piano students. Can’t wait until your next book comes out.

  10. Amy Edwards says:

    Great blog post Daniel. I also want to reiterate the great ideas in Rich Kent’s book We use many of the tools in this book with our soccer team at Gonzaga. Great stuff!!!

  11. John Burns says:

    Daniel – l first learned about you through your Lance Armstrong book which I thoroughly enjoyed. Do I detect a dissonance betweent text and visuals in this post: Level three wins but 3 on the podium is bronze?



  12. djcoyle says:

    Hey John – You’re completely right. What was I thinking?

  13. Vern G always has been ‘spot on’ when it comes to incisive analysis of the essentials. In my swimming coaching I evaluate on a similar, three-part scale:

    1. Attendance
    2. Application
    3. Attitude

    Those three seem to fit very closely with Vern’s trio.

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