Posted by: Korry | December 5, 2011

Disciplined Practice

Last week, I wrote about focus and how it is often the major differentiator between amateurs and professionals. Developing such a refined focus takes years of practice, but not just any practice; it must be disciplined and deliberate practice. I first came upon this concept while reading Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. This isn’t willy-nilly, “fun” practice. This is hard, mentally demanding, practice with a very defined purpose. That may not sound fun (and it probably isn’t), but it works! So if you’re hoping to improve your golf game, learn a new language, improve your presentations or master virtually any skill, you have to use disciplined practice. 

So how can you turn regular practice into disciplined and deliberate practice? According to Colvin, there are four things you must do.

1. The activity must be specifically designed to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help. Isn’t all practice designed to improve performance? Well, not really. For example, I can remember being a kid taking piano lessons. I often enjoyed “practicing” the songs or passages I knew well. That was fun! But, it wasn’t practice. I was in my comfort zone, and if I wanted to improve, I needed to push myself past my comfort zone and get into my learning zone. Of course, we can over-challenge ourselves, too, and when that happens we shut down because we don’t have the skills we need to face those challenges yet. Colvin calls this the panic zone. This graphic should make it more clear:

Comfort, Learning and Panic Zones

The comfort zone is not enough push. The panic zone is too much. Deliberate practice means always doing activities that are in our own personal learning zone. The trick is finding that sweet spot, and that’s one of the biggest benefits of having a teacher or coach. Their entire job is centered around constantly keeping you in the learning zone. Think you’re too good for a coach? Tiger Woods still uses a coach. So do Fortune 500 CEO’s and master musicians. If coaches and teachers are beneficial for them, don’t you think they’ll work for you, too?

2. The activity can be repeated a lot. Colvin gives the example in his book of Tiger Woods practicing a particularly difficult shot out of a sand trap by putting the ball in the sand and then stepping on it. Tiger knows that in professional golf, one extra shot is the difference between winning a tournament and finishing second. So while he may only encounter a sand shot like that once or twice in a season, Tiger wants to know he’ll be able to hit it well when the time comes. So he practices it…again…and again…and again. Hundreds of times, maybe even thousands. And when the time comes, thanks to his deliberate practice, he’ll be ready.

3. Feedback on results is continuously available. These are the metrics that allow you to track your progress. This can include specific “score keeping” such as counting how many of your shots at the driving range were on target, short, long, left, right, etc. and it can include using video or audio recordings to allow you to analyze parts of your performance that you couldn’t possibly catch in real-time, particularly without the aid of a coach. However you choose to do it, you have to get feedback. As I was often told in grad school, you can’t manage what you can’t measure…so get measuring! 

4. It is highly demanding mentally. If this all sounds difficult, that’s because it is. The fun meter probably won’t be pegged. You have to really focus. You have to be in the zone, not thinking about anything else. Trust me, this will wear you out. When you start, you may only be able to use disciplined and deliberate practice for a short period of time. Don’t worry though, because as you continue to practice deliberately, your endurance for practicing at such a high level will increase and winning results will be just around the corner.

Is this overkill? Well, do you want to be a professional instead of an amateur? Are you committed to success? If so, disciplined and deliberate practice is for you because it is the secret ingredient in the sauce of success. Sometimes you may have to schedule time to practice. At others, you may be able to recognize unexpected opportunities during your daily life to institute disciplined and deliberate practice. Either way, the more you use it, the more you will see improvements in your skills.

I guess what I’m saying is that to me, the question isn’t really if you should use disciplined and deliberate practice. The question is in our ultra-competitive world, can you really afford NOT to use it?

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  1. My old football coach use to say (probably quoting someone else): “Practice doesn’t make perfect. “Perfect” practice makes perfect.” Then we’d run the series of plays again and again until we all got it right!

    • I’d say he was using the exact concept. As a player, it had to be frustrating to run those drills again and again…but I bet your team enjoyed the results of that hard work!

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