Practice Makes Permanent

The importance of being mentally present at practice.

Posted Feb 28, 2020

Linda Olszewski
Mount Fuji, Japan
Source: Linda Olszewski

The South African Springboks' win in the 2019 Rugby World Cup is a David and Goliath story. Against the towering backdrop of Mount Fuji, the world witnessed as these unlikely champions inspired a new generation of rugby players.  The Springboks, or “Boks” as they are known, didn’t just win, they dominated and destroyed their competition, a triumph in the scrum, conversion kicks, tries, penalties, and drop goals

The Springboks' win was a masterstroke for coach Johan "Rassie" Erasmus who left Munster Rugby in Ireland, to return to his native South Africa and re-vision the dilapidated National sport of rugby. Erasmus harnessed the power of “oneness” by bringing unity to his team and rallying his countrymen around the previously moribund sport.

Erasmus’ realization that success didn’t only depend on the physical ability of his players, but also on their mental strength was apparent in the Boks' line up. Atypical in the sport of rugby is the Boks' World Cup starting squad, which at first glance, has some very unlikely rugby players, who though short in stature, tower in endurance and mental stamina (able to sustain the onslaught for 80 minutes!)

Even if an athlete is born with the proper genetic phenotype to be a great athlete, such as LeBron James, Michael Phelps, or Simone Biles, there is no guarantee that an individual will achieve basketball, swimming or gymnastics superstardom. Though winning the genetic lottery can help and give individuals a leg up, consider the Boks’ Cheslin Kolbe who stands a mere 5’7”.  If Rugby was in Tolkien’s “Middle Earth”, and the rugby ball was “the Ring,” Kolbe demonstrates the power of the Elves running and weaving through a field of tackling giants. Though there are no evil powers in Rugby, Kolbe is regularly chased down the pitch by men who even Gandalf would have to look up to. The magic behind Kolbe's talent isn’t his structure or build, but his dedication and passion to his sport —and his own attention to what psychologist, K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice” 

The Boks' coach Erasmus noticed that as the rugby match progressed, players’ had to continue to performing despite both physical exhaustion and mental exhaustion. With coach Erasmus’ support, the team discarded the idea that an effective practice is about mindlessly repeating a drill over and over and about the quality. The quality of training builds both mental and physical stamina in addition to endurance superseding the importance of quantity. To get really good at something, it doesn’t just take a brainless 10,000 hours of practice; it takes a lot of really focused practice. 

To engage in focused practice, an athlete, musician, or student must not only repeat, but continue to practice outside of their comfort zone, mindfully engaging in all aspects of the training.  When athletes are deliberately practicing they are actively learning and in what is referred to by Ericsson as the “learning zone.” It’s in this realm that athletes work with coaches to set their goals and work on drills that help master a specific skill. A coach, such as Erasmus may review videos of his team's performance to identify the skills that need to be improved, and introduce skills to meet this goal. When in the “learning zone,” athletes are expected to make mistakes so that they can learn from their shortcomings. During this stage, a coach will quickly correct mistakes so that, with an athletes mindful engagement, drills that are repeated over and over become a physical and mentally ingrained skill in the athletes repertoire.  It’s important to note that athletes cannot be successful unless they fully engage in the “learning zone” since this is the best way to optimize their growth and potential.

An athlete wouldn’t set out to master a new drill, technique, or dive during the Olympics, or World Cup. Instead, during competitions, athletes shift gears and change lanes. Athletes are expected to enter what Ericsson calls the “performance zone.” Instead of learning a skill, and making mistakes, the expectation is that the athlete will successfully perform the skills that had been practiced.  Athletes mindfully build skills at practice, when in the “learning zone” and maximize them in a match, game, or competition when they need to enter the “performance zone.”

In order to support our young athletes in mindfully engage in their sport or passion, parents must create space for growth by helping children tolerate and learn from being imperfect at practice. Not engaging mindfully in practice is a sure way to deny success. Sometimes failure is necessary in order to engage to improve and grow. Athletes must be open to feedback in order to advance and be ready when entering the performance zone. Here are three things your teen athlete can do to help meet their potential, on the pitch, court, pool, or field.

1. Show up to practice! Not only should your teen be physically present, but also mentally present. An athlete needs to be deliberate about practice, thinking about technique, focusing on fine-tuning and improving. When athletes don’t pay attention to the details in practice, they are giving up opportunities to perform their best during a competition.

2. Harness the power of one: Help your teen embrace his/her/their team. Encourage support and a supportive and inclusive environment in which the team unity prevails. This feeling of belonging can be more powerful and beneficial than a victory. 

3. Redefine Success:  Success does not always equate to winning or being the best. Success can also mean performing to ones potential. After all, not everyone can swim like Michael Phelps, no matter how hard and how deliberately they train. Sometimes passion and hard work is more inspiring than a win. 

Without a doubt the results of the 2019 Rugby World Cup catapulted the Springboks from underdogs to the finest rugby team in the world. But if you ask their coach Erasmus, he would disagree that the Boks were underdogs at all: After all, one has to be focused on another teams' performance to compare. Help your child keep their focus on their own performance. Finally, keep in mind that practice — even deliberate practice — isn’t a magic pill to ensure that your athlete will win at all, instead it is the best thing he/she/they can do to optimize their abilities and potential.