5 steps to excellence through purposeful practice

As we have said before, the idea of practice being the key to excellence only tells part of the story. It is about more than training and it is about more than just practice. Top athletes don’t get to the top of their game by simply practicing; they get there through purposeful practice.

Purposeful practice means focusing in on the areas that are core to the skill, the areas that challenge and push yourself beyond what feels safe and comfortable. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance.

Don’t be perfect to begin with.

Too often when people are starting out learning a new task they get hung up on being perfect. When starting out quantity is more important.

In Art & Fear authors David Bayles and Ted Orland retell an interesting story:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left hand side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one— to get an A.

Well, come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

That is not to say that form is not important but just that in the early stages the faster and more often you practice, the faster you will learn.

Falling short, but getting up, time and time again.

Author Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated researched one of the greatest ever figure skaters, Shizuka Arakawa. He found that in her journey from a determined five-year old to 2006 Olympic champion, she tumbled more than twenty thousand times. As Colvin said, “Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.”

(*Not Shizuka Arakawa)

Get feedback.

You can only improve if you are receiving accurate information about how you are progressing, the faster you receive the feedback the quicker you will learn and develop.

As Atul Gawande, a veteran surgeon and author of the Checklist Manifesto states in The New Yorker, experienced coaches and mentors can give you immediate feedback on how you’re performing and suggest adjustments and corrections.

While coaches are widespread in sport, with even masters such as Roger Federer and Tiger Woods having multiple coaches to ensure they are as good as they can be and as Tiger Woods once said – I can’t watch myself swing.

While coaches are not as commonplace in business you can search out a mentor either within your organisation or externally.

Adopt the right mindset.

Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success states that people generally fall into one of two mindsets – fixed or growth.

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.


Which Mindset do you favour?

Dweck provides a simple questionnaire to assess which mindset you favour on here website.


Be ‘in the zone’.

Excellence comes from striving for a goal that is just out of reach, just beyond your abilities, but with a clear idea of how that gap will be closed. Over time, through concentration and purposeful practice the gap will start to reduce and eventually a new gap will emerge, once again just out of reach, pushing you to the next level of expertise.

It is in this process that people achieve what Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

It is a feeling everyone has had at times, characterised by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfilment, and skill. It is also the state in which people report being the happiest, and interestingly this state is achieved more at work than in leisure time.

According to Senior Lecturer Hans Henrik Knoop from Denmark’s Educational University School there are factors that can encourage the creation of flow:

• possibility of taking initiatives independently
• specific, energising goals
• manageable, un-bureaucratic rules
• a clear sense of how well one is performing
• possibility of influencing one’s own situation
• high degree of self-worth
• possibility of immersion in a task
• possibility of using one’s strengths and knowledge for something that is seen as important

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