If It Ain’t Broke…Practice Breaking It

Swimmer Michael Phelps, now retired, is one of the most decorated Olympic athletes of all time. Of his 22 medals, 18 are gold. Phelps trained in Ann Arbor, Michigan, under swimming guru Bob Bowman.

Swimming is a highly repetitive sport, involving long hours in the water, perfecting the efficiency of every stroke. The tedium of doing laps can be meditative, but over-reliance on routine can lead to complacency.

Tiger Woods’s father Earl was notorious for creating all sorts of distractions while his young protege was practicing a difficult putt. Earl reasoned that in an actual golf tournament, the players would need to fight for focus, and therefore, the harder he made practice, the more he could prepare Tiger for the glare of TV cameras and noise of the crowd. Earl was attempting to wire Tiger’s brain for a deeper level of focus.

Along the same vein, one day in practice, Bob Bowman purposely stepped on Michael’s goggles, ensuring they would leak. A pair of cracked goggles meant Michael would not only have to ignore the sting of of chlorine in his eyes, he would also need to operate with very limited vision.

A championship swimmer needs to know exactly where their body is in relation to the pool wall; it’s how they judge when to turn. A few microseconds lost on a badly timed turn can literally spell the difference between a gold medal and a consolation prize. Phelps would instead have to count, memorize, and feel the number of strokes from end to end—in essence, swimming blind.

Practicing in intentionally extreme conditions is sometimes known as ‘bookending’. Instead of preparing yourself to attack a goal under the best case scenario, you seek to understand what could possibly go wrong and factor that into your training.

In the 2008 Olympic games in China, Coach Bowman’s leaking goggle strategy paid off in a big way. During his 200-meter butterfly attempt, Phelps’s goggles failed and began to fill with water. Phelps, of course, knew exactly what to do. He kept his focus and ended up setting a new world record.

Having what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, where talent is seen as inborn and predetermined, and effort feels like a sign of failure, is a huge drawback in this respect. If you are too invested in proving to yourself that you are one of those special skilled few, obstacles become terrifying. You begin to avoid risks, skipping out on things you’re not entirely confident in. Trying to putt against distractions or swim with chlorine in your eyes sound like a nightmare, but life has proven a fixed mindset to be a hindrance and struggle a necessary part of improving.

Taking a hard look at an established routine can lead to a new level of understanding. Unfortunately, as Michael Phelps can attest, sometimes it might sting.

Tricking Your Brain into a Better Life

Have you ever wondered what makes the difference between a virtuoso like Ray Charles and the guy putting in his piano set at your local Holiday Inn this Wednesday evening?

Luck aside, Malcolm Gladwell would probably explain it as the 10,000 hour rule, a concept based on the research of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University. The idea is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of focused practice to achieve mastery in a given field. That number is, of course, an estimate, but there’s no way around the need for putting in a lot of time.

Gladwell chronicles the early history of the Beatles and how their tireless hours playing German dive bars like the Cave gave them the necessary chops to hit it big in the rest of the world.

On the other hand, there are countless bands playing long sets in cheap hotels and bars all over, logging their 10,000 hours without ever scratching the surface of what the Beatles achieved. Other than a lack of distinctive haircuts, what’s the difference?

Let’s return to famed scientist Daniel Kahneman’s description of your brain’s two major processes: system 1 (reflexive and emotional) and system 2 (methodical and analytical).

The beauty of your system 1 brain is that it’s always looking to preserve your precious mental energy for a later emergency.

When it comes to practice, the Holy Grail of learning, system 1 is both your ally and your enemy. Performing the same actions over and over means running through the same neural circuitry. To expend less effort, system 1 insulates those circuits with myelin. The more myelin, the stronger and faster those signals. When everything goes right, we call this skill.

But that same love of shortcuts can cause problems. System 1 is—and this is important—not interested in perfection. Its motto might be best described as, “If it works okay, good enough.” If system 1 could sponsor a product, that product would be duct tape—and not even the sticky kind. It’s all about the quick fix, not long-term improvement.

In short, if you want to refine a skill, you’re going to have to practice tricking your system 1 brain. Author Daniel Coyle describes this idea as “deep practice”:

1. Break whatever it is you’re learning into smaller increments. Tackling something as a whole is overwhelming and can lead to frustration and failure.

2. Work each chunk carefully and slow down to guarantee you’ve fully mastered each section before moving on to the next one. Otherwise, you’ll bake mistakes right into your reps.

3. Push yourself to the edge of your ability. Growth generally involves a little mental pain.

4. Find an expert who can give you feedback about what you’re doing right, and the steps you can take to improve.

Using deep practice might not make you the next Mirror Ball trophy winner on Dancing with the Stars, but at the very least, it will make your next gig at the Holiday Inn go a little smoother.

Hey, it worked for Billy Joel.