Practice Frees Your Mind

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A great essay in the Wall Street Journal by Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like A Champion and the new book Practice Perfect:

“No one disputes that practice is the way to prepare for a cello concerto or a tennis match—complex, physically challenging activities that have to be executed without a coach’s immediate direction or the chance for a do-over.

But these activities are not unique. Thousands of other tasks that are done ‘live’—from delivering employee performance reviews to examining a patient, from hearing a customer complaint to reacting to a student’s question—would benefit from practice beforehand. The problem is that we seldom think of these other kinds of work as the sort of things that can be improved by routine and repetition.

Why is practice so helpful for complex, nonrote tasks? One reason is that the capacity of our brains is finite. You might be able to chew gum and cross the street at the same time, but you probably can’t cross the street, solve a math puzzle and answer your child’s question about why the sky is blue.

Practice lets us execute a task while using less and less active brain processing. It makes things automatic. When performers master one aspect of their work, they free their minds to think about another aspect.” (Read more here.)

Are there aspects of your work that would benefit from practice? I know that the more I practice a speech, for example, the more brain space I’ll have available for connecting with the audience, gauging their reactions, and so on—rather than just thinking about which words come next.

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4 Responses to “Practice Frees Your Mind”

  1. The Inner Game of Tennis* would disagree with this. It suggests a specific manner of practice in which “Self 2″ is driving, not “Self 1″. “Trying hard” to practice might not help your game.


  2. anniempaul says:

    Could you tell us more about this, Matt? Is there any research behind it? My understanding is that we work hard during practice so that we don’t have think about fundamentals during the game or performance.

  3. My take is that when you intentional try hard (during practice or a game) your muscles tighten and your body isn’t able to do what it want’s to do. You get down on yourself (self 1) and tell yourself to fix this or that which increases the tension and makes you play worse.

    By getting in the flow, the author suggests “focusing on watching the ball spin”, your body (self 2) will naturally do what it is able to and perform better. When you judge, criticize or focus on changing behavior you actually inhibit what you want to change.

    The author is claiming that this method is “natural” learning, like how you learn to walk, run, etc, vs. forced teaching. In contrast to Malcolm’s 10000 hours of practice, natural learning will allow your body to perform better faster.

    I’m still in the middle of reading but I can relate with the tennis experiences the author mentions. I have seen similar situations playing ultimate where people get so focused on throwing to a certain person that they get tense and choke. I’ve also seen people who have played ultimate (non-players call it frisbee football), who have “practiced” for years but never learned basic throws.

    It seems that practice is good, but there is a continuum of effectiveness in practicing.

  4. John says:

    My understanding of Galway’s teaching is that it’s more about focus and mindset than practice or not practice. He teaches us to have a more inclusive form of awareness, being interested in the process rather than the results. Self 1 says, “I have to win this point, otherwise I’ll lose the game,” and the body tightens. Self 2 might say, “What will happen if I take a deeper breath before my serve?”

    The inner game is a form of practice and we can practice different kinds of awareness, thought, and what we sense. We can practice observing and sensing in a less judging way or we can practice negative self talk and clenched fists. Practice is creating habits and we need to be mindful of which habits we want to create.

    Great blog, by the way! John

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