Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, famously proposed what has come to be known as the 10,000 hour rule. In short, the rule states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. He highlights the unique situations that led to the development of figures such as Bill Gates and the Beatles, specifically the amount of hours that they were able to log in their discipline during their formative years. However, mindlessly logging hours of practice can be an extraordinary waste of time and energy, yet because of the examples set before us we believe the volume is the key to becoming elite. I would argue that the mindset and approach to your practice is a much bigger determinant in establishing sustainable progress.
Experts or elite level performers are not necessarily those with freakish natural abilities, but rather those who spend considerable time undergoing intense practice of their skill. The differences become less about what you were born with and more about your willingness and ability to practice your skill effectively. The ability to develop a new skill is a skill in and of itself, and the process must be constantly practiced as often as possible. My goal with this blog is to teach you how to properly perform skill work as it applies to the sport of fitness, so that your time invested in practice results in measurable improvements. I want to make you better at getting better.
So, what is a common approach for someone who wants to master a fancy new skill that they saw on Instagram or as performed by one of their sporting heroes? They go practice, right? Practice, practice, practice. Rep after rep after rep. If they’re a CrossFit athlete they might stay after class and do 15 to 20 min of double under work on their own. Maybe they take 5 to 6 extra attempts at that snatch PR during a workout. Or maybe they drop into an open gym session and spend 15 minutes trying to hit their first muscle up, fooling around on their phone in between attempts to distract themselves from their failings/frustrations.
This approach is flawed in three major ways.
Lack of focus/attention - While the time was logged and the volume was accumulated, there was never full investment on the part of the athlete. Working on a skill after a workout session means that you are operating on an energy deficit, and fiddling around on your phone in between reps breaks your mental focus, both of which make it almost impossible to give the task the full effort that is required to learn.
No immediate feedback - When learning something new, you will make mistakes. In fact, you should seek them out by operating right on the edges of your ability whenever possible. It’s the process of making a mistake, identifying what went wrong, and then immediately making the adjustment to fix it that is the foundation for effective learning. This is one reason why I never liked the ‘perfect practice’ description, because mistakes can be the most valuable learning tools we have! If you ingrain in someone the idea that they should never make a mistake, then they are never going to operate outside of their comfort zone, and thus never grow or improve!
Attempting full skill without attention to individual components - To try to perform a skill in its entirety or at an inappropriate intensity in a practice session is a common mistake that can be very costly. By trying to regularly perform at an intensity that is too high, inefficient movement patterns are repeated and thus reinforced over time. Ease of movements at intensities that are too low easily mask flaws and cause focus to be lost. Lastly, if you are constantly attacking the skill in its entirety only, then a lot of the subtle mistakes in the individual components can be easily overlooked or missed entirely.
Now that we know some of the mistakes from the current approaches, we can try to learn from them and employ what is referred to as deep or deliberate practice methods. With this new approach, we can make sure our time spent developing or refining skills sees a much deserved return on investment.
What is deep practice?
As defined by Thomas Sterner in his book The Practicing Mind, deep practice is ‘the deliberate repetition of the process with the intention of reaching a specific goal’. It requires extremely high levels of focus, and is dependent on continual mistakes and instant feedback. Anyone practicing in this manner must be deeply committed to the process of constant improvement, not solely focused on the end goal, as the required mistakes and extended timeline can easily become overwhelming with the wrong perspective.
Some basic tenets of deep practice include;
Structure - It’s vital for practice sessions to have a plan and a progression that are relative to the current skill level of the subject. They must be challenging enough to force deep levels of focus to keep performance levels high, but also at a level/intensity that does not overwhelm. In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle identifies two important aspects to consider when structuring deep practice sessions: chunking and time control. Chunking refers to the process of breaking a high-level skill down into its individual components and practicing them individually, allowing the subject to build mastery one step at a time before focusing on the full skill. Time control refers to the slowing or speeding up of the time scale during a practice session.
Focus - Outside of the structure of the session, the mindset of the subject might be the most important piece for a successful deep practice session. One must be completely focused in the moment, making themselves hyper-sensitive to the task at hand and their current performance of it. This is important not only for the session itself but also for the long term success of the training plan. When the expected result doesn’t immediately manifest itself, it’s all too easy for a struggling athlete to jump to the next thing, hoping the answer lies in some external factor that they haven’t found yet. Any success I’ve had as a coach has almost always been in getting people to follow ONE plan and put their all into it for an extended period of time, and allow the results to follow the effort.
Feedback - As we discussed, with deep practice comes mistakes. They are invaluable in the process, but only if they are dealt with appropriately. This means immediate identification and fixes before they are repeated, or else the faulty pattern becomes the ingrained habit, and not the sought after skill. An expert coach in the field would be the gold standard for feedback, someone with an eye good enough to spot the mistakes but also with the ability to effectively communicate how to fix it. If you’re on your own in the garage gym however, you can still get the necessary feedback from your phone. Video delay apps allow you to review your movements on a time delay, so you can pick apart what went wrong and then immediately try to fix it. These also help aid our focus during the session by occupying our phone so we don’t scroll around on social media during any breaks!
Visualization - Outside of the practice session itself, another practice that can help to reinforce the proper execution of a skill is to regularly watch experts perform it. But again, make this an active process, instead of just mindlessly clicking through YouTube links. Break things down, pause and rewind often, watch different angles from different subjects. Allow yourself to be encouraged and motivated by these high levels of proficiency, knowing that they didn’t achieve these levels overnight. Always keep in mind that they, like you, required years and years of practice to get to where they are. And more importantly, I can almost guarantee that they are still practicing regularly! The takeaway should be that in the pursuit of perfection, high level performers know that there is never an end point, that the process is forever ongoing and they can always get better, but what sets them apart is their investment in the process, not some end product that may or may not ever be achieved.
Passion - As has been discussed already, you have to be passionate in whatever you are pursuing to expect to make any real, sustainable progress. Have a purpose, and have the expectation that there will be considerable time and effort required to see return on your investment. You shouldn’t expect there to be a magic bullet solution to get you where you want to go, and you shouldn’t want one either. Top level performers are where they are because they have learned how to enjoy the process of improvement, while using their goal to direct their efforts, instead of as a gauge for success or failure.
In part 2 of this series, I’m going to take some of the examples from above (double unders, snatches, and muscle ups), and breakdown how we can apply this process of deep practice to each skill session to make the practice time invested much more productive.