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?

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