The Most Important Moment of Practice


keystoneQuestion: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

  • A) Start
  • B) Finish
  • C) Middle

Before you answer, consider the following story:

A few years ago, students at New Dorp School of Staten Island, NY, were struggling. Test scores were down, dropouts were up. School leaders tried a variety of methods — new technology, new teachers, new programs, you name it. Nothing worked.

Then, in 2008, New Dorp’s leaders came to a realization: students were not failing because they lacked intelligence. They were failing because they lacked the ability to construct arguments, build ideas, and distinguish essential information from nonessential information.

So New Dorp embarked on a bold experiment — they targeted these skills by building the school curriculum around analytic writing, using a proven technique called the Hochman Program. As Peg Tyre reports in The Atlantic:

The Hochman Program would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children…are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.  

When speaking, [students] were required to use specific prompts outlined on a poster at the front of each class.

  • “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”
  • “I have a different opinion …”
  • “I have something to add …”
  • “Can you explain your answer?”

It worked incredibly well. The kids at New Dorp not only got better at writing, they got better at every subject, to the point that New Dorp is now a model for what some are calling the Writing Revolution. (Read Peg’s story here.)

Here’s why: analytic writing is a keystone skill. It is the foundation on which other skills can be built — literally, inside the brain. Improving at analytic writing allowed the New Dorp students to improve at math, science, and social studies because it supports those skills in the same way that a keystone supports a foundation.

Every talent has its keystone skills. Think of a baseball hitter’s ability to identify the speed and location of a pitch. Or a violinist’s ability to precisely match pitch. Or a salesperson’s ability to connect quickly on an emotional level. Or a soccer player’s ability to swiftly “read” a game.

All of these are keystone skills on which larger skills are built. They are exponentially more important to performance than any other skill. After all, it doesn’t matter how beautiful a baseball swing you have, if you can’t tell where the ball is located. It doesn’t matter how great a salesperson you are, if you can’t connect to people.

The strange thing is, keystone skills are easily overlooked and under-practiced. Most of us approach performance the same way New Dorp did in the early days — we try lots of things, in random order, and hope we get better

Instead of merely hoping, you should be highly strategic about planning practice sessions around keystone skills. Spend time analyzing the skill you want to build. What’s the single most important element? What is the move on which all your other moves depend? Then structure your practice around the keystone.

To return to our original question: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

The answer is D) None of the above.

Because the most important time of a practice session is before it begins, when you take time to figure out the answer to a simple question: what’s your keystone skill?

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10 Responses to “The Most Important Moment of Practice”

  1. Keith Stone says:

    Hi Dan,
    I have just read both of your books and hugely enjoyed them. One thing that I would love to know is, how many repetitions does it take until a hard skill becomes fully automatic? I realize it will be depend on the complexity of the skill, but any sort of answer would be great.
    Many thanks,

  2. Ryan Hockman says:

    It drives me crazy when I see a receivers coach who works all practice on route drills with players who can’t catch well.

  3. Craig says:

    Always comes down to good sound FUNdaMentals!! Golf = grip, posture, alignment, ball position 🙂

  4. Rich Kent says:

    Terrific post, Daniel. For World Cup athletes or high schoolers, one pathway to identifying those keystone athletic skills is through writing. Writing in Team Notebooks, Training Logs, or Journals promotes organization and helps athletes, as you say above, to become more strategic about training sessions and competitions. Over the course of my research studies at the University of Maine, athletes and coaches have explained how writing has supported their performances. Here are two examples:

    “Writing… is a way to process what is buzzing around in my head. When I put my thoughts on paper I begin to see things more clearly.” –Samuel Morse, U.S. Ski Racer

    “I like to have my student-athletes write about their experiences, be it about practice, a game, or even an injury. Writing helps them to analyze their play, thought processes, and feelings. It brings more meaning to what they are experiencing. Writing … is a reminder of what we all are playing for and working towards.” –Coach Nicole Moore, Stetson University Lacrosse

  5. Heike Larson says:

    Very interesting! This reminds me of young children learning to write in Montessori programs. Parents regularly demand that we have children write letters as soon as possible; they ask for worksheets; they want to see pencil work on paper.

    But learning to write isn’t best done by writing. It results from learning the prerequisite keystone skills.

    Writing letters happens naturally once children master the underlying keystone skills, once they acquire the hand strength and dexterity to hold a pencil by engaging in activities such as the Knobbed Cylinder puzzle or sewing, once they automatize the movements needed to form letters by working with the Sandpaper Letters, once they learn that words are made up of sounds, and that they can make words by putting together wooden letters.

    When children have mastered these keystone skills over months and months of practice, they suddenly begin to write entire words and quickly sentences, in amazingly neat, flowing handwriting, no boring worksheets required.

    That is the power of a deliberately designed practice program that teaches keystone skills. That is the power of the Montessori preschool classroom!

  6. Sarah says:

    Another excellent piece! This year I have really focused on why students don’t make progress with piano lessons. My students and my son are very familiar with your blog and books because I quote them all of the time. One of the big keystone skills that piano students need to play well is the ability to count aloud. Counting can be broken down into Hard Skills (the actual counting 1+2+3+ requires facial muscles and vocal chords) and Soft Skills (how to count for a particular piece, early or late, error recognition etc.). My students are learning how to break pieces into tiny sections and get them 100% correct repeatedly. When they are learning new things the sweet spot for learning can be easily identified, so the process is incredibly effective, when it is practiced. As a teacher I have proof that this all works. (I am recording my students on video in 3 month intervals) my next step is getting my students to value this and apply it when they are working independently. I feel like my whole approach to teaching was changed when I started reading your blog and applying it directly to how my students learn.


  7. Lukas says:

    As a guitar teacher I focus with my students to always work on solid foundations:
    – rhythm
    – aural development
    – tone
    – fretboard orientation
    – understanding of music
    – for more advanced students: composing/improvisation

    Thanks for a great post, Daniel.

  8. John says:

    Thanks so much for the information and summary of the story in the Atlantic. Every week I visit your blog and I always come away inspired and eager “to do” by putting into practice what I learn. Thanks for putting the work in and bringing these wonderful truths into my life. You are the MAN!

  9. Tom says:

    I find myself facing what is not an uncommon problem,but difficult nonetheless. I coach club and HS (private) where the players all come from wealth. Ages are 12 to 14, all girls. How can I use this info to find the first, and to most important element as a coach…..connecting. If I can’t get past that hurdle I find that all are frustrated. This microculture plays volleyball for reasons that don’t necessarily entail a real love of the game. Nothing seems to be at stake for them. College is paid already, so that doesn’t drive them,they just expect success to handed to them (some ,not all have this attitude). It effects negatively ,those who do love the game. One of the skills you cite in successful coaching is tailoring to the individual. I always have but have never faced this microculture and “individualization” of the coaching approach seems to be interpreted as furtherance of the”entitlement” attitude. Don’t misunderstand, I truly care for each of them, and only wish I could somehow foster even a tiny piece of ” mindfullness” in them, to somehow help them discover that “TEAM” means more than having their own needs met. Writing may serve as a means of self reflection ? Is that the thought process I should pursue.
    Thank you for your insight and books. I reread them routinely,especially the Talent Code.

  10. silver price says:

    Every talent has its keystone skills. Think of a baseball hitter’s ability to identify the speed and location of a pitch. Or a violinist’s ability to precisely match pitch. Or a salesperson’s ability to connect quickly on an emotional level. Or a soccer player’s ability to swiftly “read” a game.

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