How to Apply Deliberate Practice to Enhance Performance

It’s Tuesday night 7pm, time to put my fundamentals jiu-jitsu class through their routine. As I breakdown the technique portion of the class I carefully analyze each student’s movements. Some execute what I teach correctly, some get it right partially, while the rest struggle to grasp the basic nuances of the movement. As class commences, I notice there are 3 groups of students:

1. The ones that pack their stuff and leave the gym immediately after practice.
2. The ones that stay once and a while to practice.
3. The keeners who stay around all the time to practice till the gym closes.

As a coach, one of the most frustrating things to hear is when a student who never stays around to practice complains to me that they are not able to successfully execute the moves in class. They then ask if the technique can be taught again in the next class. Now I don’t mind showing them again but I’m not going to change the curriculum of the class just for one student who does not practice.

Martial arts, sports, business, or anything you want to master in life requires a strong consistent commitment to practice. The great performers spend countless hours away from the classroom or gym performing the repetitive motions necessary to make them second nature. The majority find this to monotonous and boring. Their ability to focus begins to fade not allowing them to realize what is truly possible.

I remember my father doing the same movements over again for years. He knew these simple and direct techniques so well it became ingrained in his muscle memory. I was able to witness this on a couple of occasions when he had to use it against unruly people; perfectly executing the strikes with precision. As a child he tried to get me to focus on these repetitive motions. I lost interest after a few sessions.

Now more mature, I understand what he was trying to instill in me. My father did not know the scientific term but it is referred to as “deliberate practice.” This means that every practice must have a purpose and be systematic. I would say most people who train in the martial arts, sports, or attend a business conference are daydreaming about something else other that what they are being taught at that moment. In sports, we call that player a floater or someone just going through the motions; they are no really into the game mentally.

I’ve witnessed many students over the years complain about their lack of progress in athletics, business, and life. They feel they should be better than so and so. However, when I thoroughly examine their practice habits it is clear to see why they haven’t reached their goals. Upon observation the way the practice has no soul, passion or purpose. Just imagine Michael Jackson rehearsing and putting no feeling into the songs. Do you think when the time comes to perform in concert he would sound his best? Of course not, that is why you see him take practice so seriously. Everything including his pitch; dance steps must be practiced at a high intense level.  He is not merely going through mindless repetition, but instead looking for every little detail that needs tweaking and improvement.

When I practice, I not only do the technique alone. I have a partner give me feedback on how my pressure feels, I get them to resist to see which angles I can exploit, and I look for whether or not a variation of the technique can be made more efficient.

The reason why we lose focus is because when an athlete repeats the same motion over a long period of time it automatically becomes a habit. This habit becomes so ingrained in our mind that we tend to overlook mistakes we may be making; missing opportunities for improvement.

As a coach, I’m trained to look for these opportunities that my students don’t see. So many times, a student will confidently say to me they know fundamental techniques. I tell them they don’t know as much as they think they do. They are also not as good as they think they are. It is only when I expose them to more challenging opponents that the truth is revealed. Video evidence of them performing under pressure allows them and myself to see all the areas needing improvement. It is important to always be humble and honest with yourself. The best performers are confident but what really sets them apart is their thirst for knowledge, taking time to understand the how and the why things work, and commitment to improvement.

The biggest misconception is “practice makes perfect.” Yes, it does but it must be deliberate practice otherwise you will be doing the same thing repeatedly believing you are improving when in reality you are just reinforcing bad habits.

So how can an athlete or entrepreneur apply the science of deliberate practice to improve their performance?

1. Have a look at your entire process (how do you perform a movement or task) like a tennis swing for example. Break it down into individual parts: the approach to the green, your posture, focus, the angle you swing your club, the follow through. Look for weaknesses (I like recording myself). Ask yourself what can be done better? Are there new ways of doing it more efficiently? Once you find out, integrate them into your game.

Here is an example of me helping integrate a new strategy in my student’s game. A few months ago, I had a skinny student spar against a heavier burly student. After they finished sparring the skinny student told me he felt like he was in a street fight. I said yes, I paired you guys up on purpose because you need to learn how to acclimatize yourself to someone overly aggressive like that in practice. The reason is you may face that person in a street altercation. This will prepare you mentally to handle it should the need arise.

2. Be willing to embrace feedback. This is the most crucial ingredient in deliberate practice. Most people don’t want to hear the truth because their ego stops them. They feel hurt when they realize they were not as good as they were lead to believe. Understand that feedback is not to be taken personally but is a valuable tool in letting you know what needs to be improved. Make sure you have a good coach who will hold you accountable, help you find new ways to improve, and monitor your progress.

Be a student of lifelong learning, explore, experiment with new ways of doing things. Commit to deliberate practice and you will reveal your true potential. As the old saying goes, “ the black belt is just the beginning of learning.”

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