When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

I remember the article snippet taped to the mirror above my bed during high school and college.  It was an article written by pro golfer Curtis Strange.  In the article, Strange talked about how pounding golf balls on a driving range wouldn’t help someone improve if the mental aspect of their game wasn’t right.  Though I never made it past the high school golf team from a competitive standpoint, I read that article many times, hoping each time I could harness that sage wisdom to take me to the next level.  I always felt I could never get out of my own head on the golf course during tournaments, and I didn’t know how to correct it.

Only now when I reflect back do I actually understand what Curtis Strange was really saying.  You see, Strange was someone who had mastered the art of practice, but it wasn’t just any practice.  He knew exactly what to practice and how to practice to reach elite levels in his profession.  There was a sharp focus, an intensity, a desired outcome, and some knowledge of the “how” to get to the next level…not just a thoughtless repetition.

How often do we “practice” something without really improving?  Sometimes we need to change our technique (or something else) to reach that next level of performance.  Recognizing something needs to change is helpful, and perhaps we can do that on our own.  But if we don’t know what to change, guidance from an external source is required.  Tennis players (like many athletes) change coaches because they believe a new coach can help them improve performance in some way.  In fact, you won’t see many without a coach because the coach can spot things the player cannot see on his / her own.  The coach’s style and teaching methods have to click with the athlete as a part of the process.  If you can’t learn from your coach, that’s a problem and could indicate a mismatch.

I started reflecting on this idea of practice after reading Moonwalking with Einstein (a top 10 pick from my 2020 reading list), which led me to then read Peak followed by The Art of Learning.  If having the messages from these books resonate wasn’t enough, I’m also the father of an 11-year-old who was recently diagnosed with developmental dyslexia.

The parallels here are fascinating.  Someone with dyslexia could put forth all the effort they can muster trying to learn to read and never improve.  Some of the earliest recorded cases of dyslexia (called “word blindness” at the time) describe people who had no trouble seeing words and letters on a page but could not read them (confirmed by eye doctors).  Those same folks were very intelligent and could read numbers and do mathematical calculations with ease.  One of the young men with this “word blindness” was described as having potential to be the sharpest in his class…if everything had been communicated to him orally.  For these individuals (which we would now label as having developmental dyslexia), there is a language processing issue in play, and if specialized reading instruction is not given to these individuals to help them improve, levels of frustration and self-esteem plummet along with performance in reading compared to nondyslexic peers.

The practice needed for dyslexics to improve reading skills must be deliberate, something distinctly catered to help them overcome processing and decoding challenges.  Structured Literacy is an effective approach to teaching those with dyslexia to reach peak reading performance.  If I’m someone who has dyslexia but doesn’t know it, I don’t know how to help myself become a better reader.  I just know I can’t seem to do what many around me can.  My “practice” isn’t deliberate and focused through the lens of what will help me learn best.  It is merely a form of repetition that is ineffective.  While not everyone has dyslexia, I imagine we’ve all had a practice session that was ineffective.

Now, think about how you would like to progress professionally.  Without some self-reflection on practice and learning, you may find yourself pushing a figurative brick wall, expecting it to move, and getting frustrated when it doesn’t.  Here are some things to consider when trying to improve your own performance.  Since I like to evaluate this through the career lens, we will focus on mental performance.

  • What is it you want to learn, or where is it you want to improve performance?
    • Maybe it’s public speaking and presentations, maybe it is technical writing, maybe it’s developing into a leader, or perhaps it’s fine tuning programming skills in a particular language.  It may be something you need to learn / improve, something you want to learn / improve, or both.
  • How do you learn?
    • Do you learn by seeing, hearing, reading / writing, doing, or some combination of these?
    • Are there issues making it more difficult for me to learn certain skills (i.e. dyslexia or some other learning disability)?
      • Get yourself evaluated by a professional if you suspect a problem.
  • How do you practice?
    • Is the practice regimen optimized for the way you learn?
    • How much time do you spend practicing?
      • Depending on what you need to practice, more time may be required.
  • When do you practice?
    • Consider your chronotype.  Have you found the best possible time of day for the practice to be effective?
      • Timing may not matter if other aspects of practice are not constructed to fit your needs.
  • Is your practice effective?
    • Can you measure the level of improvement?
    • Are you getting fast feedback to determine if you’re on the right track before you’ve built an incorrect mental representation?
      • Ask others for feedback who can help (i.e. a coach, etc.).
    • Is your process repeatable to use in other areas?
      • Generalize when you can, but keep in mind the process may need to be highly specialized based on the “what.”
  • What should you practice?
    • Do you need external help evaluating your current level of mastery in an area and where to focus next?
      • Don’t be afraid to ask someone.
    • Is the scope of your practice appropriate?  Is it focused on specific skills / concepts to master or too broad?
      • Practicing your TCP / IP Networking skills is too broad.  Understanding and creating NAT rules for a vendor’s gateway appliance is more specific.

The coach doesn’t have to be someone you hire, but it could be.  Maybe it’s a friend, a colleague, a program debugger output, or an online quiz that provides some of that fast feedback to determine if you’re on the right track.  Ideally repetition continues so that steps are logical and correct, which will help develop the proper mental representations for mastery.  And while practice won’t ever make us perfect, the right kind of practice will make us better.

Check out the books on deliberate practice cited by James Clear.

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