3 Rules of Stupidly Great Practice

»

Chalkboard-Line-GraphI love practice calendars.

I love the clean, organized, hopeful look of them. I love the sense of steady progress and accomplishment that they radiate.

I love calendars even though I know they’re lying.

Because despite what calendars imply, progress is never steady or predictable. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s uneven. You go from struggling with a particular thing and then, bang, you find yourself standing on a new threshold of ability. It’s not a staircase so much as jagged and unpredictable climb.

I find myself increasingly fascinated by those unpredictable leaps in ability. What are they made of? And, how do you make them happen more often?

We get an answer, I think, from the two videos below. They capture practice sessions from vastly different domains. But they’re really about something far more important and powerful: smart practice design. Which means being willing to be stupid.

Case Study #1: Timeflies Tuesday’s Lottery-Style Freestyle

Freestyling requires you to do write poetry on the fly, to the beat of a song. The keystone skills are to 1) generate phrases and 2) link them up into something bigger. The goal is nimbleless of mind, the ability to weave a series of ideas into a series of phrase-stories and make them rhyme in real time. This is not easy.

Rob Resnick and Cal Shapiro, a.k.a. Timeflies Tuesday, have come up with an ingenious design that is centered on slips of paper and a hat.

  • Step 1: Write down random topics on slips of paper (Kardashians, Anthony Weiner, Red Sox).
  • Step 2: Place slips of paper in a Celtics baseball cap
  • Step 3: Have Cal pick the topics one by one and try to work them into a freestyle.

Here’s what it looks like (Tip: fast-forward to 1:15 — and if you are offended by explicit language, you probably don’t want to click):

 

Case Study #2: Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech

Cech is one of the planet’s best goalkeepers, in part because he’s trained himself to detect and deflect the ball from every conceivable velocity and angle. His keystone skill is reading and reaction — which is what this practice is designed to build.

It’s completely fantastic: different-size balls, shots from three different angles and velocities, from feet and tennis racquets, layered with unique twists (I especially like how he has to throw one ball straight up in the air, catch a second ball and dispose of it, and then catch the original ball before it hits the ground).

 

Here’s the point: beneath the surface, both Timeflies and Cech are engaging in exactly same form of compressive practice, which has three elements:

  • 1) Isolate the key skill: You put one central skill under the magnifying glass. You aren’t working on the entire set of moves, but just the most important parts — which usually have to do with pattern recognition and reaction.
  • 2) Pressurize: Make it harder than normal. In games, Cech will never have to deflect three balls. Cal will never have to react to random lyric ideas from slips of paper. But practicing in this way — forcing nimbleness — will make performance under normal conditions far easier.
  • 3) Make it Fun and a Little Stupid: These are not “serious-minded drills” — they’re the opposite. They’re funny little games, loaded with emotion, engagement and the opportunity to fail productively. You feel goofy doing them — and that’s the point. This willingness to feel stupid is not a downside: it’s a design feature.

It’s no accident that Timeflies performs their sessions in front of friends and posts them on YouTube — it adds to the sense of fun, connection, and risk. Same with the people on Giveit100.com, who post their practice sessions as they improve over the span of 100 days. I think this is a worthwhile trend. The more we get to glimpse the nitty-gritty preparation beneath performance, the more we can steal and learn from them.

Speaking of which, what’s your favorite practice design, technique, or method?  Are there any useful ones that might be worth sharing and/or stealing?


Rate This

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

Share This

Bookmark and Share

10 Responses to “3 Rules of Stupidly Great Practice”

  1. John says:

    Daniel,

    Great post I love the idea of getting a “glimpse the nitty-gritty preparation beneath performance”. Often we just call world-class performers geniuses or gifted and dismiss all the practice that goes into making them world-class.

    I just finished reading a book I think you are going to love. It was released a couple of months ago and it is called “Make it Stick”. This books is essentially a summary of everything that is known about learning and the brain. If your book “The talent Code” was the bible of developing skill, “Make it Stick” is the bible of how the brain learns optimally.

    The books was written by two cognitive psychology professors at University of Washington at St. Louis.

    Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/Make-Stick-Peter-C-Brown-ebook/dp/B00JQ3FN7M/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1398970296&sr=8-1&keywords=make+it+stick

  2. Dai Ellis says:

    Dan — in Practice Perfect, Doug Lemov talks about ensuring that practice ‘encodes success’ — which seems to be in tension with your ‘Pressurize’ principle above. On the surface, Doug’s principle pushes for simpler practice that makes a sub-skill very tractable and automates it in muscle / long-term memory. Meanwhile, on its surface Pressurize seems to push for more complex / challenging practice that the participant might not be repeatedly succeeding at.

    Wonder how to think about that tension / mix in setting up a broader program of practice

  3. Scottie says:

    I also view pressure differently.

    Pressure comes from a thought (I need to make this serve). Ahhh…muscles tighten & neuroscience takes over. Remove the thought and pressure can disappear. Alter the thought and it can turn into excitement.

    Run towards the scary thought (the struggle). This might even affect those learning chart: dipping at first but then making a quantum leap in improvement. I seem to get worse at something before i get better at it…

    My dad always used to say, “the first step to change is awareness” (Ref: Restaurant Impossible with Robert Irvine)

  4. Ryan Hockman says:

    @Dai – you’re right about the contrast, but what Lemov is talking about are closed-chain skills (or a series of closed-chain skills) vs. open-chained skills. The pressurize idea is to take skills that are in the automatic stage and adding near-chaos to challenge the athlete to perform faster or under more stress. It’s the same as over-speed training.

  5. Ryan Hockman says:

    “Unlock Creativity…with Repetition: You can’t do higher level work if you are wasting brain power on the basics. Drill the fundamentals to free your mind to be creative when it matters most.” Lemov

  6. Wash U Alum says:

    It’s Washington University NOT the University of Washington

  7. R. Gomez says:

    Greetings and Salutations I just want to share with everyone about Chelsea’s Petr Cech, unfortunately (part of the job I guess)he was injured few days ago playing in the European Champion League’s semifinals against Atletico Madrid, I am pulling for him for quick return, but that is not the reason of my comment, notice the safety hat wore by Cech, he has a brain condition since an accident suffered while playing in 2006, doctors have advice the man that the smallest hit in the head could damage his skull and would be fatal for him, does this stops the guy? well you can see that it doesn’t, I really admire that kind of passion. excellent goal keeper no doubt, incredible fortitude unbelievable.

    Raf

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/bolton-wanderers/9154330/Chelsea-goalkeeper-Petr-Cech-claims-his-head-inury-gave-Boltons-Fabrice-Muamba-chance-of-survival.html

  8. R. Gomez says:

    Greetings and Salutations I just want to share something about Chelsea’s Petr Cech, unfortunately (part of the job I guess)he was injured few days ago playing in the European Champion League’s semifinals against Atletico Madrid, I am pulling for him for quick return, but that is not the reason of my comment, notice the safety hat wore by Cech, he has a brain condition since an accident suffered while playing in 2006, doctors have advice the man that the smallest hit in the head could damage his skull and would be fatal for him, does this stops the guy from playing? well you can see that it doesn’t, I really admire that kind of passion. excellent goal keeper no doubt, incredible fortitude unbelievable.

    Raf

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/bolton-wanderers/9154330/Chelsea-goalkeeper-Petr-Cech-claims-his-head-inury-gave-Boltons-Fabrice-Muamba-chance-of-survival.html

  9. Mauricio says:

    Daniel, this goes a bit out of topic, but I’m sure you will find it interesting.

    I feel like one of the best sensations in the world is to apply and even improve a skill you have been mastering for a long time: It feels great to play/do something you are very good at.

    You can learn new skills throughout your life, BUT, the feeling of doing what you are BEST AT, it seems to me right now, like it’s unbeatable. Particularly the skills you learned as a kid.

    On the other hand, I always say that we can change the course of our lives from one day to another and, that itself is a great skill: adaptation. If I’m good at racing motorcycles through riverbeds and suddenly I find that motorcycles destroy a whole lot of living beings I didn’t know they lived in riverbeds, I would usually say something like “ok, that’s it, let’s forget about racing riverbeds and let’s find something else to do, another skill to hone”.

    Thing is… if you learned and trained from young age to race your bike there, and maybe you are very very very good at that… the feeling from executing that ability has no comparison for you!… OR DOES IT???

    Can we quit from what we are best at? Can we find that same powerful feeling by learning a new skill??

  10. RedNed says:

    My practice sessions are all involved with hockey. Though it’s all about ice hockey, ultimately, I do a lot of training on inline skates due where I live (Australia). I skate down the local primary school for my sessions and practice on an ashphalt surfaced netball court.

    I’ll be out there between one and two hours. In that time I’ll do drills I’ve learned and adapted, probably a maximum of ten minutes on each skill region. If I’m feeling ‘free’, I do much more dynamic and freestyling drills. If my mood is more ‘rational’ I’ll concentrate on technical details.

    As the repetitions happen I speed it up or add chaotic elements. At the end of a set of drills in a skill region I’m usually doing things much more complex and quickly than I could have at the start of the set. Once I’ve got to that point I usually stop for a minute or two, have a drink and and a think, and then move onto the next set of exercises.

    I make it up as I go, not going with a ‘lesson plan’ but going with how I am feeling. I had completed quite a few hours of group training under skilled teachers before I took my first strides on my own in a serious fashion. This was of great use to my improvisational style of ‘planning’ as it gave me a whole heap of drills, exercises and concepts from which to plunder and adapt for my own individual purpose.

    At the end of the session, I write down what I’ve done.

Comment On This