Four Quick Cures for Poor Practice


The biggest enemy of talent isn’t genes, or opportunity, or luck. It’s poor practice. Because poor practice wastes time, creates bad habits, and, worst of all, gives us the deceptive feeling we’ve accomplished something when, in fact, we haven’t.

Trouble is, poor practice is tough to identify. Perhaps in the future, some genius will invent a Practice-o-Meter that flashes bright red lights and sounds a horn when it detects ineffective, time-wasting practice.  Until then, however, we have to make do with simpler methods.

So here, based on interviews with teachers/coaches and a sampling of scientific studies, are some warning signs that your practice is shallow — along with a few suggested cures.

  • 1) Symptom: Robotic sameness of performance. If you are doing the same thing over and over with no variation, you are not practicing deeply.
  • Cure: Make it tougher. Change one or more factors to stretch yourself. For example, if you’re shooting basketball free throws, try them from a variety of distances. If you’re doing algebra, set ever-shorter time limits. Constantly switch it up so that you’re always making and fixing mistakes.


  • 2) Symptom: The lack of “dammit” moments. Learning something new is like walking into a darkened room and figuring out where the furniture is located — when you make a mistake, you should feel it. Effective practice contains lots of “dammit” moments. Making mistakes should carry an emotional burn that helps you do better next time.
  • Cure: Keep score. Turn it into a game, so that each mistake carries a larger consequence.


  • 3) Symptom: Failing too much. The “sweet spot” of practice is when you make mistakes 20-40 percent of the time — not so seldom that you’re comfortable, not so often that you’re thrashing. Randomness does not make for good practice.
  • Cure: Make it easier. Eliminate some variables; simplify the task so that you are chunking one thing at a time, until you get back to the sweet spot.


  • 4) Symptom: Total boredom
  • Cure: Quit and do something else. Come back when you’re fresh.


Overall, aim for quality over quantity. It’s far better to achieve 10 minutes of deep practice — which is really tough to do — than practice shallowly for an hour.

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10 Responses to “Four Quick Cures for Poor Practice”

  1. WalterStemberg says:

    Really love these points and i can relate to all of them. Being a youth soccer coach for years ive gone through all of these steps. Even on our team, which is a top 25 youth team in our area, we have kids that vary in talent. It’s tough to have a generic drill for example that will challenge the better third so you need to be creative to make practice effect for them too or they will turn off quickly. I go through a variation of this very list every time we hit the field. Nice, Thanks

  2. David says:

    Just a quick post to let you know I really enjoy reading your blog. This post is especially useful. The only two observations I would add are: create an environment which promotes rapid learning and surround yourself with people who keep your initial spark of motivation burning e.g. the following link is a video review showing one year in the life of a development athlete Enjoy.

    I look forward to your next post.
    Best regards

  3. Richard Campbell says:

    I found analysis to be correctly insightful, except in the FT shooting case. That “cure” is so wrong it’s scary.

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hi Richard, Could you explain why? There’s a fair amount of research (by Dr. Robert Bjork, among others) that shows the effectiveness of this method. The reason why: it helps improve the ability to modulate and adjust, and thus have more control over the shot. Bjork says that if Shaq had practiced FTs from 14 and 16 feet, he would have improved.

  5. donr says:

    “The biggest enemy of talent isn’t genes, or opportunity, or luck. It’s poor practice.”

    No it’s not. The biggest enemy of talent is the combination of procrastination, fear and apathy.

  6. djcoyle says:

    I love that. Ultimately, the poorest practice is the kind that never starts, for exactly those reasons.

  7. Mark Upton says:


    on the basketball FT shooting, another way of doing it would be to intersperse different shots in between free throw attempts (which is really the same as Daniel is saying). This is called “variable practice” in skill acquisition.

    There are a couple of theories why it works, but basically it forces the brain to work harder in producing the motor pattern for each FT rep, resulting in greater learning. When many FT’s are practiced one after the other (“constant practice”) the brain flicks the “auto-pilot” switch and less learning occurs (although more baskets can be made, fooling the player/coach into thinking things are going great!)

    A bit simplified but hopefully provides some insight…

  8. Tyree says:

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  9. […] focused attention is the very thing that’s going to advance your performance. The qualities of deliberate practice include presence, challenge and repetition. Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance, […]

  10. djcoyle says:

    Paul, That’s fantastic — and a great point about how language is situational. Having a radar for those “hot-button words” — the ones that cause the positive, effort-giving response in the learner — seems like an essential tool for any coach or teacher. It’s also one of the easiest things to share.

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