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Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. – Vince Lombardi
It’s admittedly hypocritical of me to use the word ‘perfect’ in the title of this post when I’ve written in the past about perfection being overrated. But the word perfect does actually have a place in personal growth so long as you don’t take it too literally.
True perfection isn’t really the point though. The big idea is that practicing your craft has to be done with a level of respect for how you’ll perform in reality at all times. No ifs, ands, or buts.
The only way to achieve your maximum performance potential is to train your body and mind to do so over and over… and over.
Let’s assume for a moment that talent is overrated (just like perfection). Sure, there are people who are naturally better at certain things than others – they have talent, that’s indisputable – but no one can achieve great heights without lots and lots of practice. As Malcolm Gladwell said in Outliers, you need 10,000 hours of practice to be great. Or, really, to even have a chance at being great.
Peter Norvig recognized this pattern as well in “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years”:
Researchers (Bloom (1985), Bryan & Harter (1899), Hayes (1989), Simmon & Chase (1973)) have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, telegraph operation, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again.
What does this mean? Simple. It means just because you were born with a golden arm doesn’t make you Roger Clemens. Bad example, I know… but despite his pretty obvious use of performance enhancing drugs, the guy was also a workhorse on the baseball field. His workouts would mimic the intensity of the game and when on the mound, his movements were like a machine. He put in his 10,000 hours and then some.
Kobe Bryant is probably somewhere right now shooting free throws. Derek Jeter is taking batting practice on his off-day. Steve Ballmer is rehearsing his next keynote. Tiger Woods… well let’s not go there. We’ll assume he’s practicing his golf swing or something. Chefs are cooking, athletes are training, executives are rehearsing, gymnasts are bouncing, and dancers are dancing the world over.
That’s what they need to do to be the best.
Chances are, they’re not dragging their feet either – they’re really doing it. Pretending it’s the real thing all the way. They’re practicing “perfectly”. That doesn’t mean without flaw, it just means they’re not letting themselves off the hook mentally “just because it’s practice”.
Which brings me back to the core message. Practice may not actually make perfect, but if you aren’t practicing perfectly, you have no shot. The more you practice the right way, the more you’re creating routine – or “muscle memory” as the coaches call it. Your brain understands sequence and your nervous system reacts more quickly as the pathways are grooved. The more this happens, the better you become at the task at hand and the more natural it all becomes to you.
So what happens if your practice becomes lazy? If you start training yourself to be sloppy, what do you think is going to happen when the time comes to perform under real pressure? Sloppiness. Failure. Failure you could have prevented just by putting forth more effort during practice. Your brain and body are just reacting how they’ve been trained to. They way you’ve trained them.
I learned this stuff firsthand during intense martial arts training with some of the best instructors in the world a few years back. If you drop your hands or turn your back during drills, you’ll drop your hands or turn your back during sparring. We were very deliberate during all of our training to make sure our practice was as realistic as we could make it. So now, even if I’m just hitting the heavy bag at the local gym, I never drop my hands anymore.
We also ran all sorts of stress drills (lights off, eyes closed, unpredictable situations) to make our training feel real. If you didn’t get scared, we weren’t doing it right. This way the "real thing” was just another practice session.
I’ve since applied this “perfect practice” approach to just about everything in my life that requires rehearsal. If I’m giving a talk, I rehearse it like it’s the real thing. Start to finish. I try and get on the actual stage ahead of time and run through it 10 times, forcing myself to continue if I flub something so I can get used to rebounding from it. It’s going to happen, I might as well be ready for it.
When rehearsing a presentation you can’t just:
- Start over just because you messed something up
- Skip sections because you think you know them
- Rehearse alone if a partner will actually be speaking with you
- Use acronyms or lingo you wouldn’t use for real
- Rehearse things out of order
Make it real! Imagine if when you learned how to drive you first learned to steer, then a week later you practiced the brake, and the following week you practiced the accelerator. Ridiculous, right? That’s how a lot of people practice stuff. Section by section.
Here are some specific tactics as they apply to ‘perfect’ practice, whether it’s for athletics, public speaking, or basket weaving:
- Simulate real events. Get the environment as close to the real thing as possible, down to the smallest detail if you need to. Even if you’re just doing a dry run of a talk while driving your car, try and simulate your cadence and rhythm.
- Make your training harder than the real thing. Know deep down inside that you’re ready with all the confidence in the world. You’ve been there already.
- Never practice tired. One of the worst habits people have: practicing tired because they think it’s helping. It’s not. When you’re tired, you’re training your brain and body to be sloppy. Just stop. Always practice fresh and form good habits.
- Get over your fear. Stop projecting the worst that could happen all the time. Prepare for the worst and you’ll know you’re ready.
- Always think “what would I do if…?” Back when I played baseball, I used to have a word written on the outside of my glove in black marker: THINK. When I’d be standing around in the outfield between pitches, I’d find myself looking down at the glove, remembering to think, and then constructing the next play in my head. When the ball was hit my way, I was ready.
Off to practice sleeping now (it’s late as I’m writing this – and we have a 2-week old baby boy!) Enjoy your practice and keep the realism coming!