Because while the science of talent has made many advances in recent years, motivation remains an area of profound mystery. How does it start? Why does it vanish? How do we sustain it in our families, our teams, our organizations?
I’ve come to realize that part of the problem might lie in one word.
Words are signals, and the signal the word “practice” sends is “THIS WILL PROBABLY BE BORING.” “Practice” tells a story of dutifulness, obligation, of putting in required hours. It’s vague, devoid of spark or specificity, a slice of white bread and soggy peas slapped on a dinner plate.
Now go do your practice. I’ve gotta go to practice. We have practice all week.
That’s why I think many smart parents, teachers, and coaches are starting to avoid the word “practice” and replace it with words that tell a more precise, motivating story.
Many music teachers avoid the word “practice,” and recommend using the word “play” instead. So instead of saying, “It’s time for you to practice piano,” you say, “Time to play piano.” A small change, perhaps, but an important one, because it puts the focus on the action itself.
I recently learned of Jim McGuinness, coach of Ireland’s County Donegal’s absurdly overaccomplished Gaelic football team, who also avoids the P-word and who instead talks about his team’s “rehearsals.”
I love that. McGuinness’s team doesn’t aim to “practice” in some general way — they rehearse specific plays over and over, so that they can hit their marks with timing and precision, exactly as an actor or musician might. Exactness is the goal; so “rehearsal” is the right word.
I’ve heard some musicians refer to their practices as “workouts,” which I like because it implies a muscular specificity. “I need a couple more workouts on the new guitar solo,” is far better than, “I need to practice that new guitar solo.”
This high-school tennis team has outlawed the word “practice,” and replaced it with the word “training.” They say they like it, because “it has more of a work-ethic undertone,” and also because it implies a goal. You’re training toward a big event, not just practicing.
All these terms work because they refocus the soft, generality of “practice” on something more precise and useful.
They also underline a larger fact: motivation isn’t about handing out Attaboys, or telling people that they’re awesome. It’s about finding the right words to convey the harder, more precise truth about the process, the goal, and where to put the effort.
What other words work for you?
I love this video. It’s about a group of Thai kids who wanted to play soccer, but who didn’t have space in their coastal village — so they built a small, floating soccer field.
It’s a parable about an increasingly rare quality in our world: ownership. These kids succeeded not because they were provided with facilities, but because they seized the opportunity to build one. In doing so, they created their own micro-culture, their own rules, their own space.
It’s a recurring pattern. This summer, a Little League baseball team in San Clemente, CA had a problem when no adults volunteered to coach. So they found two kids (14 and 15 years old) to coach them — and won the league championship.
Or there’s Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, which started in 1970 when a teenage skier named Martha Coughlin wanted to train and study on the slopes. She found other kids who were interested, and, with guidance from a far-seeing educator named Warren Witherell, turned a farmhouse into a small school. When they needed a dormitory a few years later, students pounded the nails and put up the walls. Burke has gone on to produce more than 50 Olympians.
As coaches and parents, we instinctively think we need to provide great facilities, and to direct the action like an orchestra conductor. But often it’s exactly the opposite: the smartest thing we can do is to step back, in order to allow the learners the freedom and pleasure of solving problems and building something they truly own.
(Big thanks to Casey Wheel for sending this video.)
Big news! The Secret Race, which I wrote with Tyler Hamilton, just got nominated for the GoodReads Choice Award for Nonfiction Book of the Year. The voting is this week — so click here and have your vote counted. This is the semi-final round; voting goes through November 18th. If we make the final, there’s another round that ends on November 27th.
We are also fortunate enough to be nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the winner of which will be announced on November 26th in London. No reader voting for that one (at least, not by readers), but we’ll definitely have our fingers crossed.
I was chatting recently with Nate Sanderson, a top Iowa high school girls’ basketball coach. The subject turned to favorite pieces of advice. I expected to hear him start talking about lay-up drills and passing technique. But I didn’t. Instead, he said this:
Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be.
Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be.
Over the next day or so, I started to appreciate why this was his favorite. Basketball, soccer, algebra, comedy, skateboarding, spelling — it doesn’t matter. The advice applies in all cases:
Know where you are.
What move are you making, exactly, right now? Are you tuned into the precise knowledge of your performance as it unfolds?
Know where you’re supposed to be.
Where are you in relation to the ideal move? If you could superimpose yourself over the ideal performance, where would you match, and where would you fall short?
This advice fits with our scientific picture of skill acquisition. Psychologists say that learning new skills is like entering a dark room, feeling around for the furniture, and memorizing its location, so you can move through it – perform the action — ever more swiftly. In a word, it’s about cultivating awareness — awareness of ourselves, and of the path to our target performance.
The really interesting thing, though, is that we mostly take awareness for granted. We don’t instinctively train it, or devise ways to develop it. Maybe we should. Here are a few ideas:
- 1) Freeze. Develop the habit of stopping the action at unexpected times, to get a precise snapshot of where you’re at, and where you should be. An equally good technique is to drastically slow down the motion. Many musicians do this; so do athletes like Ben Hogan.
- 2) Embrace video. It’s used all the time in sports, but for some reason it’s used less in disciplines like music or business or art. If video can help develop tennis technique, why not use it with a boardroom presentation? A piano recital?
- 3) Build in a pause before each rep. Adding a momentary stop just before the action helps increase awareness by letting you take time to focus on the two things that matter: your knowledge of where you are, and where you want to go.
We’re busy. Really busy. Maybe busier than any generation, ever. So naturally we tend to assume that, in order to improve our skills, we need to set aside a good-size chunk of time: an hour or so. To practice for merely five minutes feels like a silly waste of time.
There’s evidence to show that daily micropractices — five minutes or so — are effective and often superior to longer weekly practices.
One reason: on days you don’t practice, skills erode. You are forced to spend significant part of the next session re-learning what you’ve forgotten.
When you practice a little each day, skills don’t erode. In fact, they consolidate. It’s like a bank account earning compound interest: a virtuous spiral where skill accrues quickly.
The larger idea here is that deep practice is a construction process where you’re connecting and honing living wires in your brain. Spending daily bursts of time works, because it’s aligned with the ways our brains actually grow — a little bit every day.
“Inspirational” is a dangerously overused word. But it’s the only word to describe “Brooklyn Castle,” a new documentary that tells the story of a tiny, unlikely talent hotbed: a middle-school chess team from Brooklyn, NY.
What I love is that this film doesn’t settle for the easy, soft-focus portrait. It shows exactly how hard the the kids work, and how their work is driven by the powerful culture the coaches create. (Watching those coaches work is worth the ticket price.) What I love best, however, is how it shows lives and identities being utterly transformed through acquiring skill.
Go see it with your kids. You’ll love it.
Here’s a simple truth: if you want to develop your talent, nothing will help you faster than finding a great coach.
Trouble is, great coaches are tough to find. They’re rare as diamonds. Their skills are subtle. They don’t tend to stand out at first glance.
So how do you spot one?
In LBOT, I give a few pointers (page 32, if you’re curious). But here’s another answer, a quick shortcut: To find a good coach, look for someone who is comfortable not doing anything.
Not talking or yelling or waving their arms. Not making speeches or issuing praise or pacing the sidelines. Not doing anything except the most important thing: sitting back and letting the performance happen.
Somewhere along the line, our culture started believing the false idea that the coach was a hero, the center of the action, and that coaching ability was related to the sheer amount of brilliant instruction they could produce. You see this especially in soccer — you know, those coaches who spend the whole game shouting detailed instructions — Pass to Stevie! Go to the endline! Cross the ball!– as if they are joysticking a live-action videogame.
Those people catch our eye because they are showy and loud, but they are not necessarily effective. A good coach spends a lot of time — especially during games — sitting calmly with their arms folded and their eyes on the action. They are comfortable in their stillness, at peace. Because they know their job is not to direct the action like an orchestra conductor, but rather to create learners, to equip players to encounter problems and solve them. That means leaving them alone.
PS – Of course, this isn’t the only way to spot good coaches. What works for you? Feel free to share any other “tells” below.
Here is a post I recently wrote for Jenny Rosenstrach’s wonderful Dinner: A Love Story blog (which, if you haven’t checked it out, you should, right now, especially if you’re a parent. Also, here’s their new book, which is quickly becoming the go-to cookbook in our house).
I am not the first to point this out, but let me say it anyway: when it comes to nurturing our kids’ talents, today’s parents today have it tough. Not because we know too little, but because we know too much. Way, way too much.
Nurturing talent used to be a fairly simple process, because it was mostly passive. Parents sat back and waited for the talent to show itself.
Now, parental talent-nurturing is an official industry, like organic food. Soccer, violin, chess, math, art — they all provide us with nicely constructed funnels down which we can pour endless amounts of money and time as we try to help our kids become their best selves. Tiger Mothers and Fathers stalk the landscape, carrying their superstar cubs in their mouths. Science has given us terrifyingly concrete concepts, like Critical Learning Periods, where if your kid doesn’t learn something by age X, the door of opportunity slams shut — forever! Being a parent has gone from feeling like a laid-back observer to feeling like a frantic gardener, racing around, trying to find the best way to help talent grow.
All of which creates a question: what’s the best way to navigate this new world?
I’ve spent the last five years visiting and studying talent hotbeds, and also being the dad of four kids (10-17). So over the last few years my wife Jen and I have done our best to navigate this, and have come up with a simple list of rules that have helped us around your house, a few of which I’d like to share.
- Don’t: Praise kids for their abilities.
- Do: Praise kids for their efforts.
- Why: When you praise kids for their abilities, you diminish their willingness to take risk — after all, we’re status-oriented creatures, and why would anyone who’s been labeled “talented” risk their status?
When you praise kids for their efforts, on the other hand, you increase their willingness to take risk, to fail, and thus to learn. One useful phrase to use in praising kids is to say well done. It conveys appreciation, without calling anybody a genius.
- Don’t: Fall for the Prodigy Myth.
- Do: Reframe struggle as positive.
- Why: Yes, different kids learn at different rates. Yes, some kids take off like rockets; others linger in the belly of the bell curve. The thing to remember: this isn’t a sprint.The majority of prodigies flame out, and the majority of successful people come from the anonymous ranks of average Joes and Josephines.
What helps is to understand that the moments of intense struggle are really the moments when learning happens fastest. Those moments aren’t pretty — it’s when a kid is reaching toward something new and missing — but they’re fantastically productive because it’s when the brain is making and honing new connections. Your job is to find ways to celebrate those moments of struggle.
- Don’t: Pay attention to what you kid says
- Do: Pay attention to what your kid stares at.
- Why: Let’s do this one in the form of a scene, in which a kid returns from first soccer/piano/karate practice.
PARENT: So how was it? How did it go? Did you like your teacher? What did you do?
PARENT: Was it fun? Were you good at it? Do you think you’ll do it next week?
The point is, most kids are reliably inept at expressing their inner feelings. So don’t put pressure on them to express them, because it tends to speedily diminish whatever interest they might’ve felt.
Instead, pay attention to what they stare at. Staring is the most profound act of communication that kids perform. Staring is like a neon sign saying I LOVE THIS. Watch for the stare, and follow where it leads. One of our daughters got interested in violin because we went to a performance of a teenage bluegrass band. She stared. We didn’t say much. We bought her a violin, and took her to a lesson, and she was into it. That was five years ago; she’s still playing.
- Don’t: Seek a coach or teacher who’s like a courteous waiter.
- Do: Seek coaches and teachers who scare you a little.
- Why: It’s easy to confuse pleasure and comfort with actual learning. But truly good coaches and teachers are about challenging you to get to the edge of your abilities, time and time again.
Seek out coaches who are authoritative. Who know their stuff, and who take charge. A little scary is good.
- Don’t: Celebrate victories.
- Do: Celebrate repetition.
- Why: Too many kids (and parents) judge their progress by the scoreboard, instead of by the amount they’ve learned. Victories are their own reward. They do not need any extra emphasis.
Celebrating repetition, on the other hand, is not done often enough, because repetition has a bad reputation. We frequently connote it with drudgery. In fact, repetition is awesome. It’s the single most powerful way the brain builds new skill circuits. So make it cool. Doing a hard task ten times in a row is great. Doing it a hundred times in a row is freaking heroic. So treat it that way.
The school where I used to teach has a great facility for the young athletes. It fit the “crummy” description perfectly. They had no lodge, heat, bathrooms, they changed in their cars and kicked ass, the skiers from this time won four state competitions and went on to win multiple national championships.
Then some funding came up, new lodge, heat, bathrooms, outdoor electricity, timing hut, more trails, etc. Same coaches (one is an former Olympian, yes the psychology of being great was/is there too). The team has not won a state title since the new facility.
The school district has another “crummy” facility that has produced some really impressive results for the football team. It is in the basement of the school, everyone (varsity non-varsity, established/unestablished) trains in close proximity. It’s got everything it needs to be great and nothing more. Now there’s a move to build a “better” and “bigger” facility.
I emailed the head coach with my concern, and told him about your work and the power of crummy facilities. He wrote off what I had to say.
Can you help me in any way to possibly save the “crummy” facility?
Readers: anything you’d like to share? Stories? Strategies? Wisdom from your experience with similar dilemmas? Feel free to write them below.
Anticipation is the king of talents, because it’s so mysterious and powerful. How does Sidney Crosby know just where the puck is going to end up? How does Larry Ellison know just when to close the deal? How does Clapton know just when to make that chord change?
The usual answer is that it’s some kind of instinctive magic — a sixth sense.
The real answer is that it’s high-speed pattern recognition: a learned ability to look at telltale signs and accurately guess where the action is headed. It’s not about instincts. It’s about information processing.
Check out this video for a beautiful example. It’s one of those Science of Sport shows where they analyze the abilities of world-class athletes — in this case, Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s a pretty fair soccer player.
Scroll ahead to 6:20, and you’ll see a remarkably cool experiment that reveals the source of Ronaldo’s true ability — his eyes and his brain. By watching body language, arc, and speed, he can calculate where the ball is going to be, even in pitch-black darkness.
So the question becomes, how do we improve the speed of our information processing? A couple ideas:
- 1) Eyes-Only Practice - Set aside practice time where you focus just on absorbing information — sort of like an NFL player would view film. A baseball player could stand at the plate without a bat, tracking the flight of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. A musician could watch a concert, trying to sense the architecture of each solo (ears instead of eyes, but you get the idea).
- 2) Interrogate Top Performers – Seek out the best, and ask them to describe what’s going through their heads at key moments — what telltale signs they’re looking for. They won’t always be eloquent — as Ronaldo shows — but his words and body language are still helpful and revealing.
- 3) Do a Little Every Day – As the video shows, the anticipation is not something Ronaldo was born with, but rather a skill that he built over thousands of reps. Treat your observations the same. You won’t be good at the start, but each time you observe intensively and with a purpose, you’ll get better at figuring out what’s going to happen next.