Practice doesn't always make perfect

Why practice doesn’t always help us achieve our goals

Published on November 14, 2019 Updated on November 28, 2019

Let’s say you’ve recently started playing golf. As anyone starting a new hobby, you aren’t very good but you’re determined to get better. You know it’s a long and difficult road ahead. You’re hard on yourself and you compare yourself to your more skilled friends. Nonetheless, you keep going every week and suddenly you realize “Hey, I’m getting pretty good at this!”. You may even end up beating your friends once or twice.

Eventually, you start to realize you aren’t getting better at the same pace; you’ve hit a wall and you don’t seem to be improving nearly as much as you once were. You keep practicing and use your play time to try and improve. You may even see some little improvements here and there, but overall you stay at about the same skill level.

Practice doesn’t always make perfect.

Growing up, we’re always told that if we practice enough, we’ll become better. Which is true, practice is a key to becoming better in any field. But we’re never taught how to practice effectively.

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the type of “practice” I mentioned above. Just playing here and there and hoping to get better without trying to correct anything too specific. Personally, I don’t care much about becoming the best golfer in the world so this type of “practice” works just fine for my golfing skills. I’m happy just playing at an amateur level with my friends.

The thing is, practice plays a part in all aspects of our lives; From your career to your weekend hobbies. The more effective your practice, the higher the level you’re able to reach.

First, let’s break down the different types of practice.

Level 1 — Naive Practice

This is the most common definition of practice, which consists of: a repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill to “hopefully” improve performance.

For example, when I would go to the driving range, I would tee up, zone out and think about other things happening in my life at the time. This is essentially naive practice, hoping to improve by going through the motions while not giving your practice any deeper thought. Try to think of the last time you practiced, did you give your practice deep focus and thought?

Level 2 — Purposeful Practice

The next level is purposeful practice which, you guessed it, has purpose. Most of us are familiar with this level and have applied aspects of it in our lives at some point. This type of practice has defined and specific goals and requires focus on these goals.

If I were to apply this to my golf skills, I would first start by isolating a skill I think I need to improve on. For instance my putting skills. I would get even more specific and focus on my long distance putts. Set up a shot and practice it until I can achieve it consistently 3 times in a row. This gives me an attainable target to hit. I can start keeping track of my shot accuracy and try to improve on it. Practice with a purpose.

Level 3 — Deliberate Practice

The cream of the crop; the highest level of practice. Deliberate Practice has a handful more characteristics than the first two levels.

To list a few:

  • Training under an experienced coach or mentor
  • Well-defined specific goals
  • Requires full attention and conscious actions
  • Feedback to help improve those specific skills
  • Effective mental representations (this section requires it own write up, I recommend doing some research on mental representations if you‘re looking for more on this topic’)
  • Takes place outside of one’s comfort zone (always be pushed out of your comfort zone to improve)

For example, if I were to step up my golf practice, I would hire a golf coach to help me isolate issues in my golf game. This experienced coach could help me set specific practice routines and goals that focus on those issues in my game.

Wow! this Deliberate Practice stuff sounds great!, but how am I supposed to find someone to coach me on how to cook, or help me become the best skateboarder in the world?

Deliberate Practice is the ideal situation for practicing and improving but is not realistic for most people.

It’s true, many characteristics of deliberate practice are hard to obtain. Not everyone can dedicate their lives to one passion like golf. This is where level 2.5 comes in.

Level 2.5 — Autonomous Practice

In a world where the internet exists and surfin’ information about literally anything is at the tip of our fingers, we’re able to construct our own way to Deliberate Practice.

First, we are going to assume that you have the drive and motivation to consistently practice the skill of your choosing. Consistency is one of the most important aspects of practice. Now some of the characteristics that we can apply and take inspiration from deliberate practice are…

Need a mentor? watch one! — If you know what you want to practice, there is probably a tutorial or a master somewhere on the internet that you’re able to learn from. While they may not be able to teach you one-on-one, (a sacrifice to interacting with a true mentor), having insight from the highest-level people in their respective fields can do wonders for your practice. Viewing the way they think and work can help you decide on the how and what you should be practicing.

A fantastic example of this is the live streaming platform Twitch. People can tune into their favourite player’s stream and gain insight into how these professionals think or act in different situations. This is a very valuable thing that many people overlook.

Well defined goals & feedback —  Building on the idea of finding a mentor on the internet and learning from them. Being able to compare yourself to someone gives you a bar to reach for. Once you have that bar you can start setting specific goals and receive a form of feedback by comparing yourself to these internet mentors.

Another great thing about our access to technology these days is that everyone has a camera in their pockets. Recording your practice and reviewing it is a great way to be able to give yourself feedback. It’s easy to miss stuff in the moment, but taking a breath and going over your practice sessions can help isolate points of your chosen skill to improve on.

Deep focus and comfort zones — For me, these come hand in hand. It’s a lot easier to be focused on your practice if you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. These are things you need to be asking yourself when practicing: “Am I truly focused in right now?”, “Am I thinking about every element and breaking it down?”, “What am I trying to improve here?”, “Am I too comfortable with this?” etc.

“Change begins at the end of your comfort zone”

To wrap up, you probably aren’t going to be able to apply these to every aspect of your practice routine. However, just taking the time to think about how you currently practice, and to improve your practice routine can help you increase the effectiveness of it by ten-fold. Even if you’re only able to apply a few of these to your practice routine, I guarantee you’ll notice a difference in no time!

Thanks for reading, if you’re interested in this topic definitely check out “Peak” by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool.