Deliberate Practice

Talent is OverratedWould you like to play music like Mozart?

Most people would say it is impossible. That Mozart was a natural talent, who got his gift from God. He played when he was three years old! Wrote compositions when he was only eight!

It seems he must have been a genius from the moment he was born.

It’s true he wrote compositions when he was eight years old. But the thing is, they weren’t very good (and they were also “copied down” by his father, a composer and music teacher). He wrote is first masterpiece when he was 21, after almost 20 years of hours of practice every day under the guidance of his father, a famous music teacher.

And it wasn’t just any kind of practice. It was an uncomfortable kind of practice that challenged him constantly. It could be called “deliberate practice.”

* * *

I am reading a book called Talent is Overrated. The book studies world-class talents…famous musicians and composers, sports heroes, Olympic athletes, chess masters…those who are the best in the world at what they do.

Most people tend to believe that these world-class performers have an inborn talent for what they do that explains their success, as if they were chosen for greatness at birth.

But this book cites many studies proving that this is not the case. What makes someone world class is not inborn talent, but years of hard work (along with good teachers and the necessary passion to do this work, hour after hour and year after year). And not just any kind of hard work, but hard work of a very specific kind, called deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice means working hard, with concentration, on a specific element of technique that you want to improve, in a way that gives immediate feedback. It’s usually an element chosen by a coach or teacher, who can see better than you what you need to work on.

It seems this kind of practice is hard and uncomfortable, and reading stories about people who faced these challenges year after year is awe inspiring. It is Tiger Woods, practicing putts on a basketball court(!) for hours because the greens at the Masters are so smooth and fast. It’s violin players playing the most difficult sections of a piece over and over again, pushing themselves to learn it.

One story is about Shizuka Arakawa, who won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating in 2006. As the author of this book says, good skaters practice the moves they can do. But world class skaters practice the moves they can’t do, again and again and again. He estimates that Arakawa may have fallen 20,000 times during practice, hitting the hard ice over and over as she struggled to master the most difficult jumps (like the Ina Bauer) that finally won her the gold medal.

In other words, once you can do something smoothly, it is fun and valuable to keep practicing it, but it is not this kind of deliberate practice that pushes your body and brain to new levels of achievement. And it’s deliberate practice that creates world class talents.

The beautiful thing about deliberate practice is, even people who aren’t “natural” at something, if they have the basic body type and the passion to study for long hours, can get very good at their chosen field.

And, even if you don’t want to be world class, deliberate practice can make you better at almost any skill.

Such as bodywork?

I wondered, can we use deliberate practice in bodywork, to improve our skill?

I decided to try it. I got a friend to practice on, but rather than practice a whole massage, or certain moves, I focused on one element that I often did without much thought.

I chose entering, the first moment of each stroke when we touch the client. This is an important moment, but often I’m more focused on the stroke I’m doing rather than that first moment of contact.

So for a 90 minute session, I decided to very deliberately enter each stroke. I imagined my fingers, touching the client’s skin like a graceful creatures slipping into a calm ocean.

I set the goal to focus on this very specific moment, and to let out a breath, every single time I began a stroke.

Even doing this, at first my mind wandered and I forgot to concentrate on this moment about 40% of the time.

But as I continued to focus, my concentration increased, and I was able to really feel that moment of beginning a stroke more deeply. I was asking my friend for feedback regularly as I did this.

Toward the end of the session I was doing a series of stroke along the forearm. And each one, I felt my thumbs and fingers touching and sinking deeper into her forearm, one after the other, each time more connected than the last.

Her feedback was wonderful.

I started thinking about more elements I could practice with. Rocking, finishing the strokes, deep moves on specific parts of the body, my posture. Not just practicing moves, but really focusing on one key element of the move itself, again and again. In a short time, I think it would be possible to improve by a lot.

But the other fascinating thing about deliberate practice, and the stories in this book, is it gives a great sense of possibility to the reader. It tells us that great achievement isn’t just for people born with a gift, but that if you really love something (art, chess, writing, bodywork, music) and are willing to put in the hours and hours of difficult practice that stretches your skills, you can get very good at it.

If we have the passion, we can get closer to becoming like the geniuses we admire.

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