When’s the Most Important Time to Practice? (Not When You Think.)

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Question: When’s the most important time to practice?

At first glance, the answer is easy: just before the big game or performance. After all, that’s when we can dial in our skills, tune up, fully prepare.

Second question: Then why do so many top performers do just the opposite? Why do they have their most intense and productive practice just after their performance?

Pro golfers are perhaps most well-known for using this method: after a competitive round, many make a beeline for the driving range. But entertainers do it, too: Beyonce has a habit of reviewing each night’s performance on DVD after the show, in order to spot things she needs to work on. Legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks was known for holding practice sessions after games as well. Same with a number of surgeons I’ve researched. I know a politician who, after going on television, immediately watches a tape of the interview and tries to improve his delivery.

They’re all doing the same thing, and it works for two simple reasons:

  • 1) Clarity: There’s no better time for knowing what works and what doesn’t than the first hour after a performance or game, when it’s still vivid in your memory. You can feel what you did right, and what you need to work on.
  • 2) Emotional content: games and performances hinge on the skill of navigating emotions and pressure. Postgame practice lets you relive pressurized situations with the kind of realism you can never match in cold practice.

As Nicklaus said, “I always achieve my most productive practice after an actual round. Then, the mistakes are fresh in my mind and I can go to the practice tee and work specifically on those mistakes.”

For most of us, the main barrier to using this technique is force of habit. After games and performances, we take a relieved breath and shift into relaxation mode. That’s not a bad thing. But carving out a few minutes to do a clear-eyed review — what exactly worked, and what exactly didn’t? —  is better.


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11 Responses to “When’s the Most Important Time to Practice? (Not When You Think.)”

  1. Ed Bielski says:

    hhmmmm, good thought

  2. doc says:

    I have read similar studies before and have even tried it but not long enough to draw any conclusions from my experience. My question though, do you think there could be a significant difference between the person who is essentially competing with himself, (golfer, politician, performer, etc.) and a team member or entire team. Would be interested in knowing more about this concept.

  3. Walter says:

    Have heard of Bobby Knight, Tark the Shark (Former UNLV coach) and a few others doing this as well. Acutally had my sons soccer coach do this after a game in which they got beat. He ordered a practice right then and there. Some of the parents weren’t impressed, some didn’t mind. I found the kids were beat tired from the game so the practice at that time didn’t really make sense for U13′s. Most had given it all on the field.
    I read a study recently that dealt with a FG kicker. Study went on to say that he could only practice so long because once he reached a point where he was tired, or overly tired, his form would suffer and he would then create bad habits in his form.

  4. If you do a physical sport, I wouldnt practice after the game, I would however hold a talk about the game what worked and what didnt work to some extent.
    Its the brain that does things not the body.

    Watching a video after a speech isnt that demanding.

    The table tennis team in sweden looked at games they lost and tried to improve what they did in around 90% of their after game evaluation early 1980´s, then 10 years later they had switch to watch their games which they won and played well 90% of the time, the reason for the change? worked better.
    The swedish team broke the dominance of the chinese, 1989.

    I would focus on what you did that worked, mistakes not so much.

    Manya athlets also need to learn better ways handling a game loss emotionally.

  5. Thanks for all the quality posts, Dan! In my jazz combo, we always sit and talk through the performance as soon after it happens as possible, preferably over a beer immediately following the gig. Tough to actually practice immediately after as a trumpet player, but the day after, for sure!

    Same with lessons. Immediately after a lesson–or a large group rehearsal–is the best time to practice, when all that feedback and great information from the teacher/director is still fresh.

    A good substitute or addition is to record the lesson/rehearsal/performance and revisit it later in the week for a refresher/reminder of what needs work and what went well. It’s one of the best ways to squeeze all the value you can out of those experiences. I’ve spoken with some Indian classical musicians who studied with their teachers for over 20 years, and began recording all their lessons so they could continue to learn from their guru after he passed away.

  6. The clarity of working on issues right after you have performed definitely makes sense.

  7. Adrian moll says:

    Practicing/training straight after a match IF not too tired very much helps to underline whether WIN or LOSE there is always an opportunity to get better.. By looking behind the RESULT straight away. Particularly if my player has WON it shows player and parent there is MORE to do !

  8. Paul Dale says:

    I agree with the assertion that the player could be too tired to really benefit from a practice session immediately after competition, however I like to “flesh out” the match from my point of view post match. If left til the following day the player may not be as clear about the key issues. Post match a coach can better have the player see things from his/her point of view, rather than a players contaminated view (distorted due to emotion and stress)

  9. Clark Campbell says:

    Totally agree. Unfortunately the NCAA banned this years ago after a few programs went over the top.

  10. t-bone says:

    If I haven’t done well, it’s all very fresh and very clear in my mind. The disappointment drives me to work on things afterwards. That’s for an individual sport. If a soccer coach had tried it, I think I’d have been too exhausted to process anything after a game.

  11. doc says:

    In the book “On Combat” I think much of the research said that military, police and eye witnesses were debriefed well after the incident because the recall was better. Of course their debriefing and “debriefing’ after a game are two different things. I can’t get to that book right now to verify what I just said. On another note, has anyone had those games where you would like to stop in the middle of the game and practice?

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