Let me tell you everything I know about getting good at anything in a one liner:
Practise a lot and you will get good.
I know that’s been said before, in many different forms (and I’m intentionally staying away from the obvious one) but it’s a universal truth. This one’s a bit topical, if you follow my activity such as it is on the internet forums of Ireland (and who doesn’t?) you’ll know that I was recently involved in a debate on this very topic. There has been a glut of books in recent years that espouse the importance of perfect practise in developing expertise in any discipline. The strange thing is how recent these books are considering the study upon which they are all based is Ericsonn et all, which was published in the mid 1990s. Unless there are books from that time or just after that I am not familiar with, Bounce, The Talent Code and most notably Outliers all seem to have emerged with broadly the same subject matter towards the end of this decade. My first thought when they started to appear was that there had been some new study but that doesn’t seem to have happened at all. So I suppose it’s just a parallel evolution of ideas, or perhaps just some authors all got made redundant at the same time and finally got around to writing that book they had always said they’d write. Anyway, having not read Bounce (more on that here) but having read the other two (The Talent Code and Outliers) and also having read the Ericsonn study itself, I’m going to force my opinion on you.
So let’s summarise for those of you not willing to venture to your local library, or go hunting through Web of Science. The whole subject of talent is a contentious one. A little like the old Gary Player line, “The more I practise, the luckier I get”, the study arrived at the conclusion that what you required to be successful was a magic number of 10,000 hours deliberate practise. The books that have emerged are essentially pop-science books on just that subject, and they flesh it out further. Gladwell cites everyone from Bill Gates to Robert Oppenheimer as not just having the drive to go and become what they did, but also the unique opportunities to be a success and put in those 10,000 hours deliberate practise.
That funny slanty writing is called italics, by the way. And when I use them I’m either trying to express irony, reinforce a point. Or they could mean I’m about to be a smart arse. Guess which one happens most often?
A while back, an excerpt from Outliers appeared online. I assume it appeared prior to the publication of the book, but I didn’t come across it until a while after. Pretty soon every internet forum was chock full of guys logging one of their 10,000 hours practise in their never ending quest for expertise. There wasn’t an argument about skill that didn’t eventually have someone with limited understanding of the topic posting the link to the excerpt as though they were stamping QED all over the subject. I hated it. I still hate it.
It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with the whole idea of practise. It’s quite the opposite. Every time I spend more time on the mats I improve- every single time. I have never not benefitted from more hours spent doing what I’m trying to be good at. But there’s a problem. Like most things, people misappropriate this information and assume that all they have to do is spend some more time doing whatever it is they’re seeking expertise in and hey presto, they’ll hit those 10,000 hours. But they ignore that word deliberate. (There are those italics again. Sound the smart arse siren). Ericsonn specified deliberate practise. Deliberate here meaning high quality. So that hour you spent yapping about a new choke you discovered, was that really deliberate practise? Or those hours you spent swapping techniques instead of training, do they really count? I don’t think so.
I get fewer practises than most of my peers, since I coach, so I have to be very smart and try to use every hour I get well. I don’t always succeed and sometimes I’m my own worst enemy, but I try to make my hours as deliberate as possible. One of the things I do is keep a log. My most recent online one is here at the informed performance forum, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist and have a training diary I keep at home too. I use something called the RPE scale with some notes too. The RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) scale is a method of rating your training directly after you have completed it to give an idea of effort level, tiredness, mood etc. In this way you can control an athlete’s sessions to ensure they are getting enough intensity, and also to ensure they’re not pushing too hard (rarely a problem). Of course we’re not dealing with just a physical activity here, but also a skilled one, so the notes are important to me so I can track my technical improvements or indeed lack thereof. Each session gets a 1-5, one being a walk through and 5 being a near death experience. It’s not perfect, but it is a reasonably simple way of ensuring that I’m pushing some of the buttons I want to push on a regular basis and being exposed to enough intensity in my training. It isn’t that much of a problem mind you since pretty much everyone on the mats wants to kill me because I call them names.
That’s also a coaching trick… being an asshole.
So purposeful, deliberate practise with someone leading you and directing you? Yes. Absolutely. Categorically yes. Go do that voodoo. Just clocking in the hours? No way. Reading abstracts of articles and extracts from books and passing them off as knowledge? Sod off.
See you on the mat,
PS. Reading material on this topic- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Bounce by Matthew Syed. I can recommend the first two but the last I haven’t read. If you want to read some more on people’s opinions and on what started me writing this post the topic on boards.ie is there for all to see.