Deep Practice: The Secret Weapon the Caterpillar Teaches

Everyone who has ever played the game well remembers the day it felt effortless. Smooth on the club, crisp in the hands, the timing is perfect, the loft just right, the backspin just so: swoosh, woosh, bam, pop. Even the sound confirms you’ve found the sweet spot. You’re in the zone.

It’s a deceptive thing, this sweet spot, because it entices. It looks so easy to perform this feat of amazing brilliance so perfectly, so accurately, so adeptly. But it’s not. Behind it are hours and hours of training and preparation and probably a good bit of skill, bolstered perhaps by a mentor or two who came by just at the right time in an environment conducive to growing this gift.

What if we could take a shortcut to the sweet spot?

This, broadly proposed by Dan Coyle in the Talent Code, is what we do when we engage in deep practice, at anything. Not mindless repetitions, but diligent efforts to get it just right. We try and fail and try again harder. We make attempt after attempt, each time rounding an edge, shaping an angle, cutting a word, or striking a phrase. Especially when we’re new to something, it may help to have on observer or coach offer a suggestion or small help or correction. But with careful work to get it right – rather than just to get to done or get it over with –  deep practice happens. That speeds us to the sweet spot…slowly.

If, however, we’re given too much help – just to speed things up or maybe if they feel sorry we’re falling behind – it actually may impede our progress. Yes, this absolutely goes against the parenting instinct. Letting them struggle when it would be so easy to help, or just do it for them, is the hardest thing to do.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the butterfly’s struggle.

Deep practice ingrains, grows and lasts. Somehow, the circuits are solidified and stick around. (Coyle suggest this myelinates the pathways, facilitating information flow and hard-wiring things in the process.)

This doesn’t just work with kids trying a new skill. How are you at remembering the names of new people you meet? Ok, maybe you’re a natural, but the rest of us have to work at it to make it stick. We rehearse the name, come up with a mnemonic, repeat it as we look at their face, or make an association with something that will help us recall it. If we really don’t want to forget it, we have to work at it.

And what’s the one thing that inhibits our memory? Someone “helping us out” by telling us. If we’re given the name rather than forced to retrieve it, we don’t bother with all the protocol and simply rely on their assistance. Next time, we’re sure to be clueless. Without a moment of active and focused effort to commit this name and face to our long term memory, we’re done.

boy jugglingThis is the same with physical skill. We can practice things 100 or 1,000 times mindlessly and get nowhere, OR we can deep-practice them 10 times, then another 10, and then another, each time getting closer to performance-perfect. In the deep practice, we are active participants in forming the mind and body connection, and that lasts.

Clearly, learning is not effortless. Performance looks and, ultimately may feel, effortless, but it’s a terrible way to learn. Trying to learn while performing is nearly impossible. The more there is at stake at the field, court or event, the more we feel pressured to perform, but the less we learn.

The best way to learn is deep practice. As a coach or parent, our role is to set up an environment that creates the opportunity for this. By setting clear expectations, with brief, targeted training, that rewards small progress toward improved technique and performance, we speed athletes toward their goals. What we don’t need is rote practice over extended time with rewards only to the kids who finish first.This does require patience because we have to nip our instinct to assist the strugglers.

As kids get older I see them subjected to longer and longer practices on more and more days, apparently, without specific objectives and targeted goals. Kids only participate grudgingly or not at all, and we pretty much insure failure. We would do well to remember that ‘muscle memory’ is not a storage receptacle which, when full, will spill over into perfect execution, it’s a dynamic, living structure, shaped and re-shaped by trial and error, effort and failure, re-calculation and renewed effort.

When we organize training with short, targeted drills which, by performing them correctly, create the technique which leads to success, we will keep everyone interested, engaged and working hard, even ourselves. And we will encourage deep practice by those motivated to achieve, as well as those who want to keep up – which is most of our athletes.

We’ve got to stop extending time, watering down expectations and promoting kids who show up but don’t achieve. That’s injuring kids’ bodies, minds and souls and failing the talent that’s right in front of us. They want to be challenged. But we’ve got to allow them to struggle like the caterpillar so they can fly like the butterfly.

*Here is a text version of the caterpillar-to-butterfly story.

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