Practice makes perfect (almost)

We're all familiar with the old saying and it seems logical. But there's a vital catch to making your practice translate into race day success.
Practice makes perfect.

Practice makes Perfect. 

You probably heard that saying hundreds of times as a kid. And it certainly seemed logical. 

You want to get good at playing piano? Practice. Electric guitar? Practice. (I can’t do either).

You want to beat your older brother at driveway games of one-on-one basketball? Practice. (This I pulled-off)

You want to win that all-you-can-eat chicken wing challenge? Even here, practice probably helps.

Excelling at a particular sport, craft or pursuit requires commitment, dedication and years of — you guessed it — practice. 

How important is practice?

In his book Outliers, about how certain individuals forged paths to major, colossal successes, Malcolm Gladwell popularised an existing theory known as the 10,000-hour rule.

He (and its proponents) effectively argued this was the magic-number of practice-hours needed to become a master at a complex task: playing violin, for instance, or engineering computer programs. 

This theory has been repeatedly debunked as the key to success, in part, because it ignores (or fails to account for) some important variables: genetics, inherent ability or talent, and the context of said practice. 

Imagine two individuals that have practiced playing basketball for 10,000 hours. They have dedicated the same amount of time to the sport, but their growth and trajectories in the sport might vary wildly.

One is 6 ft 3 and can leap out of the gym, and has practiced her whole life with other high-calibre athletes and proficient coaches. The other is 5 ft 9, and has only ever practiced in the schoolyard with her mates. She’s never been coached.

Over time, both improve. But clearly, one individual has higher prospects of playing professionally.  

Mastery through repetition

Nevertheless, there’s a small grain of truth in that 10,000-hour rule. And that is, practice will yield some improvement for all people.

It might not turn you pro, but it will make you better  — even if some people make gains at different rates and speeds. 

We learn skills (often aided by teachers or mentors) through repetition. Think back to all the maths exercises you did in school! 

Once we have mastered certain skills and can do them on our own, we can proceed to ever-more challenging tasks. That is, things which are beyond our comfort zone (or in teacher-speak, our zone of proximal development). 

We may need help again, at first, but eventually — through practice and repetition — we can acquire (and in some cases master) the new skill. And this process continues for our whole lives.    

Practice makes perfect. This should not be a revelation. 

It’s logical. But is it entirely true? 

Practice makes perfect… but with a catch

I learned a valuable lesson, once upon a time, from a junior ice hockey coach. 

We were 12-year-old kids and we were half-decent hockey players, but we had a tendency to goof around in practice. This was pretty normal behaviour for kids not destined for the NHL (though I’m sure some of us, and our parents, held out hope).  

I can still picture our mustachioed coach in the dressing room, pointing emphatically to his iPad-sized, ice-rink-mimicking whiteboard. I can still hear his voice echoing through the arena, reiterating his headline message: a familiar adage, with one key amendment. 

Perfect practice makes perfect.  

Huh? It was a twist on the saying we’d all heard hundreds of times, and it took a moment (as a 12-year-old) to grasp the meaning.

Does this guy really not know the saying? We looked around at each other, confused. 

But he hadn’t butchered the saying. He’d made an alteration. Essentially, it was coach-speak for: Stop mucking about, and work harder

Treat every practice as if it were a game; or a concert, or an exam.  

Bad practice can lead to bad habits

As he saw it, there was not much sense going through the motions for the sake of it, or doing drills (once we understood them) at half-speed. That was a recipe for developing bad habits, which might carry-over into games. And we wanted to win. This was competitive hockey.  

That saying became something of a mantra for our team that year. And it changed the way we practiced: there was less goofing around, more focus, and real intent. 

It says something that now, nearly two decades later, I still remember his message.  

Practice needs to be done correctly (i.e. perfectly) to have value; it needs to be purposeful, and there needs to be intent and intensity.

Perfect practice makes perfect.

How does this relate to running?

We prepare, sometimes for months, in advance of a race by training our bodies and minds for the stresses we know we might encounter.

We want to taste the pain of running at our anaerobic red-line before we get there in a 10 km race. We want our bodies to become accustomed to the mental hardship that comes with pounding the pavement for hours-on-end in a marathon.

We prepare in a number of ways as runners. We practice our pacing and our fuelling, we study course routes, we game plan, and we make sure we have the right gear and equipment to succeed. 

It is through perfect practice (and preparation) that we can better cope with the nerves and pressure of race day. 

Even the world’s greatest marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge, feels pressure before a major event. And he copes, in part, by being meticulous with his preparation and his practice.

“The way I know Eliud, he feels real pressure and gets really nervous for competitions. The way for him to handle that pressure is to have a perfect preparation. And if he has the preparation right, that gives him the calmness, the routine, to be convinced in the event that he is going to do it.”

Valentijn Trouw,  Kipchoge’s manager at the Netherlands-based Global Sports Communication (GSC) agency. 

Perfect practice makes perfect

For elites and amateurs alike, preparation is a prerequisite for both confidence and success.  

It’s helpful to keep this is mind as we run, as we train, and as we practice. Not every run is going to be testing your limits of speed, or endurance; some recovery runs are designed to feel easy. 

But you can still run with some intention, in some form. Set little goals, or consider things you’d like to be conscious of on the run. 

Maybe that’s to focus on your breathing, or your heart rate. Perhaps you want to consider your cadence, or the idea of running to feel. Or even being conscious of your mind and where it goes when you’re running.  

These are all little things that we can practice; things we can work on to help our preparation. And if we practice these things perfectly, or at least with intensity and intent, we can enhance the value of that practice.

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