The Power of High-Leverage Practice

Here is Odell Beckham Jr. last night, making what might be the greatest catch in NFL history.

That video is beautiful, but there’s something that’s even more beautiful:  Beckham Jr. before games, practicing exactly this type of catch.

This reveals the deeper truth behind his great catch: it was no accident. Watch how Beckham  keeps one hand at his side, as if  pinned by a defender; how he controls the nose of the ball with his index finger; how his eyes follow the ball into his palm. We normally think of this kind of catch as a feat of athleticism. This shows that it’s really a feat of preparation.

This is a very particular kind of preparation, systematically pre-creating the most difficult situations. You might call it High-Leverage Practice, because it shows how focusing relentlessly on pre-creating pressure conditions can set a performer apart from their peers.

It reminds me of a story about Steve Kerr, the former NBA guard who’s now coach of the Golden State Warriors. Early in his career, Kerr was having trouble coming in off the bench and performing his specialty, which was three-point shots. He tried to fix the problem by focusing on technique, shooting thousands of three-pointers in practice. It didn’t work.

Then one of his coaches, Chip Engelland, had an insight. The problem wasn’t the shooting. The problem was the pressure caused by Kerr’s coming into the game cold, without warming up. So Engelland and Kerr decided to try an experiment.

Here’s how it worked: Engelland and Kerr would sit on the bench together, chatting casually. Then, all of a sudden, without any warning, Engelland would yell NOW!, and Kerr would have to go shoot a single three-pointer, then return to the bench. Then a few more minutes would go by, with more casual chatting, then Engelland would suddenly yell “NOW!” an the process would repeat. For half and hour, they would do this, shooting only eight or ten times. And it worked. Kerr’s game performance vastly improved. Not because he was a better shooter, but because he and his coach had, like Beckham Jr., designed a smarter training space.

High-leverage practice shares a few common characteristics:

  • 1) It’s focused. You aren’t pre-creating the entire game, but only targeted situations.
  • 2) It’s often untraditional. It doesn’t tend to fall into the list of conventional practice techniques, and as such, is easy to marginalize or overlook.
  • 3) It’s habitual. High-leverage skills aren’t built in a few specialized sessions; they are built over time, through repetition and routine.