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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