Everyone thinks that practice makes perfect. That’s not exactly right. There’s a word missing. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi put it, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
Practice, as an activity, often not only doesn’t lead to perfection, but frequently leads to stagnation, or worse, regression. For far too many of us, if not most of us, practice is the mundane, routine experience of doing something over and over in hopes of getting better. The repetition of practice is essential but if you’re repeating your mistakes over and over, then all you’re going to accomplish is becoming perfect at doing it wrong, whatever it is.
You see, practice has to be as progressive as it is repetitive. Regardless of whether you’re a mathematician, a musician, a mountain climber, or anything in between, if you want to be good, if you want to be respected, if you want to succeed, you need to practice the right things the right way with a focus on how to how improve while ingraining your current skill level in your subconscious to the point where doing it right is second nature. Practice and repetition only work if you correct – not repeat – your mistakes. This element of practice is called persistence.
Persistence means you practice regularly no matter what. Even if you don’t feel like practicing, do it anyway. Once you break routine, it’s harder to get it back again.
The second element of successful practice is consistency. Not everything is like riding a bike, just because you’ve learned it doesn’t mean you’ll remember it and even if you do, you won’t sustain your skill without consistent practice.
Acclaimed violinist Jascha Heifitz put it this way, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days of practice, the critics notice it. If I miss three days of practice, the public notices it.”
The third element of successful practice is intensity. Intense focus during practice brings the added benefit of anchoring the results of your practice deep in your subconscious mind. This is the secret of subconscious competence, that ability you see in successful people that allows them to rely on their skills at the highest level without having to stop and think. They are so thoroughly prepared, both physically and mentally, that they function at the highest levels on auto pilot.
Let me give you one more example. NBA great Larry Bird used to spend hours alone on the basketball court, practicing his shots. Each time he practiced, he imagined that the game was on the line and he had to make the shot, or his team would lose. He visualized the crowd, imagined the noise, pictured the last seconds on the clock ticking away and then he would shoot, always seeing himself making the shot. That’s the intensity you need to practice with.
Years later, the effects of Larry’s training regimen came out in a very unique setting, shooting a television commercial. In the commercial, Larry was supposed to just miss an important shot, rolling it around the rim and letting it bounce out. Well, Larry set up where the director told him, picked up the ball, took his stance, launched a shot toward the basket, and he made the shot. He tried it again, and again, dozens and dozens of times, making shot after shot. His body and mind were so well conditioned, so well trained, that it was harder for him to miss the shot than to make it. That training may have frustrated the director, but it gave Larry a Hall of Fame career.
Learn to practice progressively in pursuit of perfection and you’ll make your Hall of Fame too!