Encouraging proper practice

One of my favourite books of the last few months is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; an American who won awards for his 2006 biography of Lance Armstrong. This is a must-read for all those involved in coaching sport and should also be most valuable for parents. The author offers some very real insights into the learning process and how this is enhanced through practice.

Since time immemorial teachers and coaches the world over have pursued the slogan “Practice Makes Perfect”. What this says is absolutely true, but it must be done constructively and properly.

In the area of Coach Education and Training, I believe there’s a greater need than ever to understand how the art of what Coyle refers to as “deep practice” influences the development of the skills pathway. Practicing better and smarter is one way to help with the player-improvement continuum which is so vital to succeed at sport. Nowadays this is often referred to as the “Ten Year (or 10 000 hours) Rule” which is the proven requirement for success in any activity, whether it be sports, athletics, art, music, maths or business. (Editor’s note)

Contemporary research usually emphasises the following conclusion: sporting achievement is the by-product of continuous hard work, as much as it relates to any natural talent or other inherent factors. Adults should, of course, be very wary of pressurizing achievement out of their children / students, but that is different from encouraging or even insisting that time is set aside for practicing their chosen sport if they really wish to improve.

It needs to be noted here that children under 11 usually do not have the maturity required to pursue “deep practice”. For them the following principles and guidelines do not apply nor should there be any undue pressure placed on them. I have learnt this from my wife, Adell, who teaches ballet and creative movement to girls from age 3 to 8; she finds that nobody in this age-range has the capacity to fully concentrate on a skill for more than about 10 to 15 minutes. Please remember that parents!

“Bounce” by Matthew Syed (another brilliant read) refers to “deliberate practice” as opposed to a mindless, vague indulgence where nothing constructive is actually achieved. Ok it can be a bit of fun to knock around with a ball and a bat (racquet, stick or a club) with your friends, but that’s not practice in the true sense. Most coaches insist on dedicated periods of time where the skill is practiced over and over again with the full 100% level of concentration and with the intensity that would normally be required in the competitive environment or game situation.

An obvious question is: how much time does a sports person need to achieve deep practice? One response is with another question: how much time are you prepared to give? The attitude required for elite performance can be summed up by: “Whatever it takes.” This could also be reflected in the mantra: “When you think you’ve done enough, do more.” The bottom line is there is no magic bullet or formula for the amount of time you MUST spend practicing.

One of the encouraging conclusions about deep and deliberate practice is that it requires less time than you may think; once players get into a focused state of mind and really practice properly, they should get as much benefit in an hour as in a couple of hours of aimlessly “hitting balls”.

“The Talent Code” suggests several key points which may help a young sports person with practice:

  • Break each movement into “chunks”, like a slow-motion replay; study all the parts of that skill;
  • Practice it over and over until it becomes a totally instinctive movement; this means you can repeat it without thinking. Even in ball games, practice extensively without the ball, so that it resembles a shadow movement, but done in exactly the same way as if the ball is present.
  • Now think back and remember the difference between how the movement felt at the start of that particular practice session and how it felt at the end;
  • Prepare for your next practice by using self-reflection or self-examination; leave the practice session with a renewed determination to do it even better next time.

My own childhood experiences are still very clear; we were privileged to have a large garden which also had a convenient wall and a small terrace. I used to spend countless hours on my own playing ball & bat games up against the wall, despite the terrible English weather!! The environment was peaceful with few distractions; there was hardly any TV and of course no computer games back then!! Test Matches & FA Cup games were re enacted over and over. In essence I was developing a solid base which helped me down the line; good memories! I was very lucky to go on and play professional cricket (without a huge amount of talent); the platform was laid in those hours of deep involvement where the skills became second nature to me and it all seemed totally instinctive.

How can parents help with this? Some of the above may sound complicated especially for the mind of an adolescent; so simplify things by breaking each skill or movement into evenly balanced steps. Help them to understand clearly what is involved and what they need to do at each step. You could then assist by throwing or collecting balls (for example) or recording times / repetitions.

Finally, always encourage a good use of the time available; we spend so much of our day chasing the clock. You should encourage the child to write down a simple programme and help him or her to stick to it. Aim to do a little bit as well as possible, rather than lots of bits in a rush; in other words slow it down! Parents should avoid getting involved in any direct “coaching” unless you’re properly equipped; certainly offer constructive observation with plenty of encouragement.

Unfortunately there is no magic wand to be found to create the perfect practice time, but helping a person to work methodically towards his or her goals is a great start. Good luck!


Editor’s note:

There has been much debate recently around the “10,000 hour rule”. I think what is important to remember is not whether it is 8,000 hours or 12,000 hours, but the concept of deliberate practice. In addition, it should never be forgotten that sporting talent, performance and achievement is a complex interaction between genetic endowment, experiences, opportunities, environment, parental influence, coaching, physical conditional, technical skills, hard work, dedicated practice and mental ability.

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