In his intriguing book Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin makes a case for the idea that what really separates world-class performers from everyone else is how they practice. The same applies to students. Students who get the most out of high school and college are students who know how to study, as study is a form of practice. Even being a great spouse is often a question of how effectively a person studies and practices the skills for succeeding in married life.
As a psychologist who has worked with multiple top-ranked professional athletes, I totally agree with Colvin. I see the how my athletes work at continually upgrading their skills when they are winning. When they are performing less well, ineffective practice is almost always a significant component of their drop in success. Depression or anxiety are usually factors as well, but these go hand in hand, in circular causation, with less practice.
Similarly, as a grandma for more than a baseball team of young kids, I can see already in their early years how children who have an intuitive sense for how to practice efficiently and effectively quickly become highly skilled at activities they enjoy. Whether it's mastery of skateboarding, fencing, playing piano or drawing dragons, the kids who love to practice become most outstanding in their endeavors.
The good news is that being good at practicing is a skill that can be learned. Colvin summarizes biographies of great performers and also academic research on learning to back up his point that while talent helps, the two main keys to excelling at anything are quantity and quality of practice.
Let's look first at quantity of practice time.
According to Colvin, Tiger Woods' dad began practicing golf with him when he was still an infant of seven months, able to sit but not yet to walk. By the time Tiger was two, he and his dad played and practiced regularly at the golf course (page 30). That means that by the time he was nineteen, Tiger had already been playing as much as a decade longer than most of his young golfer peers. That's a lot of extra practice time.
In general, look at a any group of athletes or musicians. The performers who reach the top pretty consistently will be the performers who put in the most hours per day perfecting their skills.
Are there upper limits to how much quantity is good? More isn't better if it becomes too much. Colvin reports that the upper limit of hours per day of practice for highest level adult professionals tends to be four or five hours, broken up into sessions lasting no more than 60 to 90 minutes (page 71). More time than that leads to boredom, inability to focus or concentrate, and burn-out. That's the same for athletes, musicians, chess champions and probably pretty much any outstanding performer in any arena. Kids probably reach their upper limits of focused practice with fewer hours.
In general though, including at the beginning levels of learning, more practice is better practice. Daily practice of an hour or so will have a radically different impact than say fifteen minutes at the piano, kicking a soccer ball, or practicing basketball free throws. Unless it's excessive and leading to burnout or boredom, more practice time yields more learning.
Now let's look at the quality of how someone practices.
What factors characterize what great performers do during their practice time? Colvin calls what they do "deliberate practice."
Yes, great performers do practice with many many repetitions, but these are mindful, not mindless, repetitions. Great learners visualize ahead of each repetition what specific improvement they are trying to accomplish. In addition, after each repetition they review what worked or didn't work. That way they are continually debugging and upgrading their skills so that repetitions do not engrain mistakes but rather lead to better and better performance.
In addition to continual analysis and re-programming, effective practice includes breaking down complex acts into small components, practicing each of these, and then gradually putting these small components together into increasingly longer sequences.
My violin teacher when I was a teenager explicitly taught us, her students, this aspect of practice. At the outset of the lesson we would play the piece we were working on for her. While we were playing the piece, she would circle in pencil on the music the measures where we had stumbled. We'd then go back to each difficult spot, practicing just two or three notes. Our teacher might give us a drill on that very specific skill. We would work up to playing the full measure, then combine several measures, and only then try to fit the newly improved difficult spot back into the full piece.
When, by contrast, I hear youngsters practicing an instrument by playing a piece again and again from start to finish, I groan. That's classic inefficient non-deliberate practice. The children are well-meaning. They just haven't had someone explain how learning proceeds most effectively, which is by repetition of carefully selected small pieces which they then can gradually put together like building blocks to create a dazzling whole.
Where do the ideas come from for analyzing what's working and what's not?
That's where top notch coaching turns out to be critical. Tiger Woods began with coaching from a dad who was himself an outstanding golfer. By age four Tiger already was also working with professional coaches carefully selected by his dad.
Top flight coaches know the nuances of how to do the activity they are teaching and therefore are able to give detailed feedback. I see this myself in tennis coaches I've learned from. Tomi Winnig, the tennis coach from whom I have learned the most, gives me short but detailed feedback on one aspect of almost every stroke during our lesson hour. "Bend your knees," "shoulders all the way facing the back of the court," "shoulders back sooner." Each suggestion shapes my strokes toward immediately better and better performance, especially since he also designs short drills to highlight and help me master any specific mini-skill that I'm repeatedly missing.
There's a second payoff to specific and frequent coaching feedback. When I'm then practicing on my own, I hear Tomi's voice. Echoes of his words prompt me before each shot. After I have missed a shot, his voice in my head pops up to help me figure out what was missing that I need to readjust in the next shots.
Research on therapy effectiveness has found a similar phenomenon. Therapists who give more and more detailed feedback to their clients bring about more positive therapeutic outcomes.
Similarly, while my book The Power of Two explains the skills for marriage success, reading a book alone is just the starting point for most folks who want to upgrade their relationship. I wrote then a workbook, The Power of Two Workbook, and then added an online program called PowerOfTwoMarriage.com so that folks could practice in a focused way with multiple repetitions their new skills.
So self-coached deliberate practice is vital.
So self-coached deliberate practice is vital.
Few learners have the luxury of having a coach to practice with them all the time.
When I watch my skate-boarder and other grandchildren practicing their sports and arts, I see that the ones who are gaining most in their skill development do indeed utilize the practice skills that Colvin highlights. They do a specific action, and then they reflect, figuring out what to do differently the next time. They work on small specific sub-skills, and gradually put these together into longer sequences. By the time they tackle the overall project again, like skateboarding up the full block with jumps and clever turns, their level of performance has bumped up significantly.
The moral of the story: practice often, practice with deliberate focus, and you too can master whatever skill your passions lead you to.
Susan Heitler is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University and author of the online marriage skills program PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.