PART TWO: IMPROVING SKILLS – Find the Sweet Spot, Then Reach
If I had to sum up the difference between people in the talent hotbeds and people everywhere else in one sentence, it would be this:
People in the hotbeds have a different relationship with practicing.
Many of us view practice as necessary drudgery, the equivalent of being forced to eat your vegetables, far less important or interesting than the big game or the big performance. But in the talent hotbeds I visited, practice was the big game, the center of their world, the main focus of their daily lives. This approach succeeds because over time, practice is transformative, if it’s the right kind of practice. Deep practice.
The key to deep practice is to reach. This means to stretch yourself slightly beyond your current ability, spending time in the zone of difficulty called the sweet spot. It means embracing the power of repetition, so the action becomes fast and automatic. It means creating a practice space that enables you to reach and repeat, stay engaged, and improve your skills over time.
The previous section was about getting ready. This section is about action: simple strategies and techniques to direct you toward deep practice and nudge you away from the unproductive swamp of shallow practice.
TIP #13 FIND THE SWEET SPOT
There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. Here’s how to find it.
Sensations: Ease, effortlessness. You’re working, but not reaching or struggling.
Percentage of Successful Attempts: 80 percent and above.
Sensations: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.
Percentage of Successful Attempts: 50–80 percent.
Sensations: Confusion, desperation. You’re overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it’s mostly luck.
Percentage of Successful Attempts: Below 50 percent.
To understand the importance of the sweet spot, consider Clarissa, a freckle-faced thirteen-year-old clarinet player who was part of a study by two Australian music psychologists named Gary McPherson and James Renwick. Clarissa was an average musician, in every sense of the word—average ability, average practice habits, average motivation. But one morning, a remarkable thing happened: Clarissa accomplished a month’s worth of practice in five minutes.
Here’s what it looked like: Clarissa played a few notes. Then she made a mistake and immediately froze, as if the clarinet were electrified. She peered closely at the sheet music, reading the notes. She hummed the notes to herself. She fingered the keys in a fast, silent rehearsal. Then she started again, got a bit farther, made another mistake, stopped again, and went back to the start. In this fashion, working instinctively, she learned the song. McPherson calculated that Clarissa learned more in that span of five minutes than she would have learned in an entire month practicing her normal way, in which she played songs straight through, ignoring any mistakes.
Why? Picture the wires of Clarissa’s brain during those five minutes. Each time she made a mistake, she was 1) sensing it and 2) fixing it, welding the right connection in her brain. Each time she repeated the passage, she was strengthening those connections and linking them together. She was not just practicing. She was building her brain. She was in the sweet spot.
Locating your sweet spot requires some creativity. For instance, some golfers work on their swings underwater (which slows them down, so they can sense and fix their mistakes). Some musicians play songs backward (which helps them better sense the relationship between the notes). These are different methods, but the underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”
The key word is “barely.” Ask yourself: If you tried your absolute hardest, what could you almost do? Mark the boundary of your current ability, and aim a little beyond it. That’s your spot.
TIP #14 TAKE OFF YOUR WATCH
Deep practice is not measured in minutes or hours, but in the number of high-quality reaches and repetitions you make—basically, how many new connections you form in your brain.
Instead of counting minutes or hours, count reaches and reps. Instead of saying, “I’m going to practice piano for twenty minutes,” tell yourself, “I’m going to do five intensive reps of that new song.” Instead of planning to hit golf balls for an hour, plan to make twenty-five quality swings with each club. Instead of reading over that textbook for an hour, make flash cards and grade yourself on your efforts. Ignore the clock and get to the sweet spot, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and measure your progress by what counts: reaches and reps.
TIP #15 BREAK EVERY MOVE DOWN INTO CHUNKS
From the time we’re small, we hear this good advice from our parents and teachers: Take it a little bit at a time. This advice works because it accurately reflects the way our brains learn. Every skill is built out of smaller pieces—what scientists call chunks.
Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and when those chunks are combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful.
To begin chunking, first engrave the blueprint of the skill on your mind (see Tip #2). Then ask yourself:
1) What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?
2) What other chunks link to that chunk?
Practice one chunk by itself until you’ve mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one, exactly as you would combine letters to form a word. Then combine those chunks into still bigger chunks. And so on.
Musicians at Meadowmount cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces in a hat, then pull each section out at random. Then, after the chunks are learned separately, they start combining them in the correct order, like so many puzzle pieces. “It works because the students aren’t just playing the music on autopilot—they’re thinking,” says one of the school’s violin instructors, Skye Carman.
No matter what skill you set out to learn, the pattern is always the same: See the whole thing. Break it down to its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.
TIP #16 EACH DAY, TRY TO BUILD ONE PERFECT CHUNK
In our busy lives, it’s sometimes tempting to regard merely practicing as a success. We complete the appointed hour and sigh victoriously—mission accomplished! But the real goal isn’t practice; it’s progress. As John Wooden put it, “Never mistake mere activity for accomplishment.”
One useful method is to set a daily SAP: smallest achievable perfection. In this technique, you pick a single chunk that you can perfect—not just improve, not just “work on,” but get 100 percent consistently correct. For example, a tennis player might choose the service toss; a salesperson might choose the twenty-second pitch he’ll make to an important client. The point is to take the time to aim at a small, defined target, and then put all your effort toward hitting it.
After all, you aren’t built to be transformed in a single day. You are built to improve little by little, connection by connection, rep by rep. As Wooden also said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”
TIP #17 EMBRACE STRUGGLE
At all of the talent hotbeds, from Moscow to Dallas to Brazil to New York, I saw the same facial expression: eyes narrow, jaw tight, nostrils flared, the face of someone intently reaching for something, falling short, and reaching again. This is not a coincidence. Deep practice has a telltale emotional flavor, a feeling that can be summed up in one word: “struggle.”
Most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it’s uncomfortable. It feels like failure. However, when it comes to developing your talent, struggle isn’t an option—it’s a biological necessity. This might sound strange, but it’s the way evolution has built us. The struggle and frustration you feel at the edges of your abilities—that uncomfortable burn of “almost, almost”—is the sensation of constructing new neural connections, a phenomenon that the UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork calls “desirable difficulty.” Your brain works just like your muscles: no pain, no gain.
TIP #18 CHOOSE FIVE MINUTES A DAY OVER AN HOUR A WEEK
With deep practice, small daily practice “snacks” are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow—incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep. Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up. Or, as the music-education pioneer Shinichi Suzuki puts it, “Practice on the days that you eat.”
How short can these segments be? Hans Jensen, a cello teacher at Northwestern University, provided an example when he taught a time-strapped medical student who desired to practice only two minutes a day. Working systematically, they broke a piece into its component passages, tackling the toughest ones first. The student was able to successfully learn a complex étude in six weeks. “We were shocked at how well it went,” Jensen said. “The key was total focus and being ruthless about noticing and fixing every tiny mistake from the start.”
The other advantage of practicing daily is that it becomes a habit. The act of practicing—making time to do it, doing it well—can be thought of as a skill in itself, perhaps the most important skill of all. Give it time. According to research, establishing a new habit takes about thirty days.
TIP #19 DON’T DO “DRILLS.” INSTEAD, PLAY SMALL, ADDICTIVE GAMES
This tip is about the way you think about your practice. The term “drill” evokes a sense of drudgery and meaninglessness. It’s mechanical, repetitive, and boring—as the saying goes, drill and kill. Games, on the other hand, are precisely the opposite. They mean fun, connectedness, and passion. And because of that, skills improve faster when they’re looked at this way.
Dig into the biography of any world-class performer and you’ll uncover a story about a small, addictive game. Whether it’s the young golfer Rory McIlroy chipping golf balls into the family dryer, or Warren Buffett as a child going door-to-door selling chewing gum and trying to figure out what flavor sold best, or Keith Richards in the early days of the Rolling Stones trying to decode a riff on an old blues record, what they have in common is a juicy, addictive sense of involvement, fun, and excitement.
Good coaches share a knack for transforming the most mundane activities—especially the most mundane activities—into games. The governing principle is this: If it can be counted, it can be turned into a game. For example, playing a series of guitar chords as a drill is boring. But if you count the number of times you do it perfectly and give yourself a point for each perfect chord, it can become a game. Track your progress, and see how many points you score over a week. The following week, try to score more.
TIP #20 PRACTICE ALONE
Solo practice works because it’s the best way to 1) seek out the sweet spot at the edge of your ability, and 2) develop discipline, because it doesn’t depend on others. A classic study of musicians compared world-class performers with top amateurs. The researchers found that the two groups were similar in every practice variable except one: The world-class performers spent five times as many hours practicing alone.
As the North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance said, “The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching.”
TIP #21 THINK IN IMAGES
Which of the following instructions is easier to remember?
• Take the tennis racket back in a straight horizontal line.
• Take the tennis racket back as if you were sweeping dishes off a coffee table.
• Sing the phrase more quietly at the end.
• Sing the phrase like a balloon running out of air.
• Touch the strings as lightly as possible.
• Touch the strings as if they were burning hot.
• Trap the soccer ball gently.
• Let the ball kiss your foot.
The images are far easier to grasp, recall, and perform. This is because your brain spent millions of years evolving to register images more vividly and memorably than abstract ideas. (After all, in prehistoric days, no one ever had to worry about getting eaten by a hungry idea. But they did have to worry about lions.)
Whenever possible, create a vivid image for each chunk you want to learn. The images don’t have to be elaborate, just easy to see and feel.
TIP #22 PAY ATTENTION IMMEDIATELY AFTER YOU MAKE A MISTAKE
Most of us are allergic to mistakes. When we make one, our every instinct urges us to look away, ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen. This is not good, because as we’ve seen, mistakes are our guideposts for improvement. Brain-scan studies reveal a vital instant, 0.25 seconds after a mistake is made, in which people do one of two things—they look hard at the mistake or they ignore it. People who pay deeper attention to an error learn significantly more than those who ignore it.
Develop the habit of attending to your errors right away. Don’t wince, don’t close your eyes; look straight at them and see what really happened, and ask yourself what you can do next to improve. Take mistakes seriously, but never personally.
TIP #23 VISUALIZE THE WIRES OF YOUR BRAIN FORMING NEW CONNECTIONS
When you go to the sweet spot on the edge of your ability and reach beyond it, you are forming and strengthening new connections in your brain. Mistakes aren’t really mistakes, then—they’re the information you use to build the right links. The more you pay attention to mistakes and fix them, the more of the right connections you’ll be building inside your brain. Visualizing this process as it happens helps you reinterpret mistakes as what they actually are: tools for building skill.
TIP #24 VISUALIZE THE WIRES OF YOUR BRAIN GETTING FASTER
Every time you practice deeply—the wires of your brain get faster. Over time, signal speeds increase to 200 mph from 2 mph. When you practice, it’s useful and motivating to visualize the pathways of your brain being transformed from simple copper wires to high-speed broadband, because that’s what’s really happening. (For more on this process, see the Appendix on this page.)
TIP #25 SHRINK THE SPACE
Smaller practice spaces can deepen practice when they are used to increase the number and intensity of the reps and clarify the goal. A good example is used by FC Barcelona, widely considered the world’s best soccer team. The method is simple: one room slightly bigger than a bathroom, two players, and one ball—whoever can keep the ball from the other player longest wins. This little game isolates and compresses a vital skill—ball control—by creating a series of urgent, struggle-filled crises to which the players respond and thus improve. “It looks very crazy,” says a former Barcelona academy coach named Rodolfo Borrell. “But it works.” I used a version of this idea to teach my Little League baseball team defensive situations (which player covers which base), and we had several productive sessions in a space no bigger than a living room. My favorite part? Not having to shout across the field.
This tip does not apply to just physical space. Poets and writers shrink the field by using restrictive meters to force themselves into a small creative form—such as with haiku and micro-writing exercises. Comedy writers use the 140-character arena of Twitter as a space to hone their skills. Businesses can also benefit from compression: Toyota trains new employees by shrinking the assembly line into a single room filled with toy-sized replicas of its equipment. The company has found that this mini-training is more effective than training on the actual production line.
Ask yourself: What’s the minimum space needed to make these reaches and reps? Where is extra space hindering fast and easy communication?
TIP #26 SLOW IT DOWN (EVEN SLOWER THAN YOU THINK)
When we learn how to do something new, our immediate urge is to do it again, faster. This is known as the Hey, Look at Me! reflex. This urge for speed makes perfect sense, but it can also create sloppiness, particularly when it comes to hard skills (see Tip #8). We trade precision—and long-term performance—for a temporary thrill. So, slow it down.
Super-slow practice works like a magnifying glass: It lets us sense our errors more clearly, and thus fix them. Slow practice is used by many talent hotbeds to teach hard skills, from the Spartak Tennis Club (where students swing in such slow motion they resemble ballet dancers) to the Septien School of Contemporary Music (where performers learn a new song by singing one slow note at a time). Ben Hogan, considered to have perhaps the most technically sound golf swing in the history of the game, routinely practiced so slowly that when he finally contacted the ball, it moved about an inch. As the saying goes, “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slowly you can do it correctly.”
TIP #27 CLOSE YOUR EYES
One of the quickest ways to deepen practice is also one of the simplest: Close your eyes. Musicians have long used this technique to improve feel and accuracy, but it also works for other skills. Michael Jordan practiced free throws with his eyes shut; Navy SEAL training includes generous helpings of pitch-black darkness during which soldiers learn to disassemble and reassemble their weapons, and, in one exercise, cooperate to pitch a tent; yoga and martial-arts practitioners frequently close their eyes to improve body awareness and balance.
The reason, in each case, is the same. Closing your eyes is a swift way to nudge you to the edges of your ability, to get you into your sweet spot. It sweeps away distraction and engages your other senses to provide new feedback. It helps you engrave the blueprint of a task on your brain by making even a familiar skill seem strange and fresh.
TIP #28 MIME IT
At talent hotbeds you will see people swinging golf clubs and tennis rackets at empty air, playing the piano on tabletops, and skiing imaginary slalom courses with their feet fixed on the floor. It looks crazy, but from a deep-practice perspective it makes sense. Removing everything except the essential action lets you focus on what matters most: making the right reach.
TIP #29 WHEN YOU GET IT RIGHT, MARK THE SPOT
One of the most fulfilling moments of a practice session is when you have your first perfect rep. When this happens, freeze. Rewind the mental tape and play the move again in your mind. Memorize the feeling, the rhythm, the physical and mental sensations. The point is to mark this moment—this is the spot where you want to go again and again. This is not the finish—it’s the new starting line for perfecting the skill until it becomes automatic. As Kimberly Meier-Sims of the Sato Center for Suzuki Studies says, “Practice begins when you get it right.”
TIP #30 TAKE A NAP
This is one of my favorite tips. Napping is common in talent hotbeds, and features both anecdotal and scientific justification.
The anecdotal: Albert Einstein was good at physics, and he was really good at his daily post-lunch twenty-minute snooze. Other famous nappers include Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and John D. Rockefeller. Spend time with any professional athletic team, and you’ll find that they’re also professional nappers.
The science: Napping is good for the learning brain, because it helps strengthen the connections formed during practice and prepare the brain for the next session. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that napping for ninety minutes improved memory scores by 10 percent, while skipping a nap made them decline by 10 percent. “You need sleep before learning, to prepare your brain, like a dry sponge, to absorb new information,” said the study’s lead investigator, Dr. Matthew Walker.
TIP #31 TO LEARN A NEW MOVE, EXAGGERATE IT
Think of the way parents teach their babies new words—they stretch out each sound, overemphasize it, overdo it. There’s a good reason for this. Going too far helps us understand where the boundaries are.
To learn a new move, exaggerate it. If the move calls for you to lift your knees, lift them to the ceiling. If it calls for you to press hard on the guitar strings, press with all your might. If it calls for you to emphasize a point while speaking in public, emphasize with theatricality. Don’t be halfhearted. You can always dial back later. Go too far so you can feel the outer edges of the move, and then work on building the skill with precision.
TIP #32 MAKE POSITIVE REACHES
There’s a moment just before every rep when you are faced with a choice: You can either focus your attention on the target (what you want to do) or you can focus on the possible mistake (what you want to avoid). This tip is simple: Always focus on the positive move, not the negative one.
For example, a golfer lining up a putt should tell herself, “Center the stroke,” not “Don’t pull this putt to the left.” A violinist faced with a difficult passage should tell himself, “Nail that A-flat,” not “Oh boy, I hope I don’t miss that A-flat.” Psychologists call this “positive framing,” and provide plentiful theories of how framing affects our subconscious mind. The point is, it always works better to reach for what you want to accomplish, not away from what you want to avoid.
TIP #33 TO LEARN FROM A BOOK, CLOSE THE BOOK
Let’s pretend that one week from now you will take a test on the next ten pages of this book. You have thirty minutes to study. Which practice method would help you get a better grade?
A) Reading those ten pages four times in a row, and trying to memorize them.
B) Reading those ten pages once, then closing the book and writing a one-page summary.
It’s not even close. Research shows that people who follow strategy B remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A. This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning.
On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.
TIP #34 USE THE SANDWICH TECHNIQUE
Deep practice is about finding and fixing mistakes, so the question naturally pops up: What’s the best way to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes? One way is to employ the sandwich technique. It goes like this:
1. Make the correct move.
2. Make the incorrect move.
3. Make the correct move again.
The goal is to reinforce the correct move and to put a spotlight on the mistake, preventing it from slipping past undetected and becoming wired into your circuitry.
TIP #35 USE THE 3 × 10 TECHNIQUE
This piece of advice comes from Dr. Douglas Fields, a neurologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who researches memory and learning. He discovered that our brains make stronger connections when they’re stimulated three times with a rest period of ten minutes between each stimulation. The real-world translation: To learn something most effectively, practice it three times, with ten-minute breaks between each rep. “I apply this to learning all the time in my own life, and it works,” Fields says. “For example, in mastering a difficult piece of music on the guitar, I practice, then I do something else for ten minutes, then I practice again [and so on].”
TIP #36 INVENT DAILY TESTS
Daily routine in the talent hotbeds is full of little tests. The tests aren’t scientific, and they’re not treated as verdicts—they’re far more like targeted workouts, invented by the performers and their teachers.
For example, Tiger Woods has created a test in which he has to hit a certain percentage of shots inside a certain distance each day (80 percent of eight-irons within twenty feet, for example). At Meadowmount, the music school, teachers will provide an impromptu test by tucking a five-dollar bill inside a student’s cello or violin—if he plays the song perfectly, he wins the money. Robert Lansdorp, the coach of former tennis champions Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin, and Lindsay Davenport, uses a similar game with ten-dollar bills tucked inside small orange cones—hit the cone, win the money. Teachers don’t see this as a bribe, incidentally, but as a bit of motivational juice to add interest. As the cello teacher Hans Jensen explained to me, “The important thing, the only thing, is to help the student push themselves. There are many ways to do that; whether it’s money or chocolate or pride or something else doesn’t really matter.”
To invent a good test, ask yourself: What’s one key element of this skill? How can I isolate my accuracy or reliability, and measure it? How can I make it fun, quick, and repeatable, so I can track my progress?
TIP #37 TO CHOOSE THE BEST PRACTICE METHOD, USE THE R.E.P.S. GAUGE
The biggest problem in choosing a practice strategy is not that there are too few options, but that there are too many. How do you identify the best methods? This tip provides a way to measure practice effectiveness. It’s called the R.E.P.S. gauge. Each letter stands for a key element of deep practice.
R: Reaching and Repeating
S: Strong, Speedy Feedback.
ELEMENT 1:REACHING AND REPEATING. Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating?
Scenario: two math teachers teaching the multiplication tables to thirty students.
• Teacher A selects a single student to write the tables on the board.
• Teacher B creates a “game show” format in which a multiplication problem is posed verbally to the entire class, then a single student is called on to answer.
Result: Teacher B chose the better option because it creates thirty reaches per question. In Classroom A, only one student has to reach—everybody else can lean back and observe. In Classroom B, however, every single member of the class has to reach in case their name is called.
ELEMENT 2:ENGAGEMENT. Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal?
Scenario: two trumpet students trying to learn a short, tough passage in a song.
• Trumpeter A plays the passage twenty times.
• Trumpeter B tries to play the passage perfectly—with zero mistakes—five times in a row. If she makes any mistake, the count goes back to zero and she starts over.
Result: Student B made the better choice, because the method is more engaging. Playing a passage twenty times in a row is boring, a chore where you’re simply counting the reps until you’re done. But playing five times perfectly, when any mistake sends you back to zero, is intensively engaging.
ELEMENT 3:PURPOSEFULNESS. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build?
Scenario: Two basketball teams keep losing games because of missed free throws.
• Team A practices free throws at the end of a practice, with each player shooting fifty free throws alone.
• Team B practices free throws intermittently during a full-court scrimmage, with the fouled player shooting while tired and under pressure, as in a game.
Result: Team B made the better choice, because their practice connects to the skill they want to build, the ability to make free throws under pressure, while exhausted. (No player ever gets to shoot fifty straight in a game.)
ELEMENT 4:STRONG, SPEEDY FEEDBACK. Does the learner receive a stream of accurate information about his performance—where he succeeded and where he made mistakes?
Scenario: two high school students trying to improve their SAT scores.
• Student A spends a Saturday taking a mock version of the SAT test, then receives the test results one week later.
• Student B spends a Saturday taking a mini version of each section, grading herself and reviewing each test in detail as soon as it’s completed.
Result: Student B made the better choice, because the feedback is direct and immediate. Learning swiftly where she went wrong (and where she went right) will tend to stick, while finding out a week later will have little effect.
The idea of this gauge is simple: When given a choice between two practice methods, or when you’re inventing a new test or game, pick the one that maximizes these four qualities, the one with the most R.E.P.S. The larger lesson here is to pay attention to the design of your practice. Small changes in method can create large increases in learning velocity.
TIP #38 STOP BEFORE YOU’RE EXHAUSTED
In many skills, particularly athletic, medical, and military ones, there’s a long tradition of working until total exhaustion. This tradition has its uses, particularly for improving fitness and mental toughness, and for forging emotional connections within a group.
But when it comes to learning, the science is clear: Exhaustion is the enemy. Fatigue slows brains. It triggers errors, lessens concentration, and leads to shortcuts that create bad habits. It’s no coincidence that most talent hotbeds put a premium on practicing when people are fresh, usually in the morning, if possible. When exhaustion creeps in, it’s time to quit.
TIP #39 PRACTICE IMMEDIATELY AFTER PERFORMANCE
The previous tip was about the importance of practicing when you’re fresh. This tip is about a different kind of freshness, which comes in the moment just after a performance, game, or competition. At that moment, practicing is probably the last thing you want to do. But it’s the first thing you should do, if you’re not too worn out, because it helps you target your weak points and fix them. As the golfer Jack Nicklaus said, “I always achieve my most productive practice after an actual round. Then, the mistakes are fresh in my mind and I can go to the practice tee and work specifically on those mistakes.”
TIP #40 JUST BEFORE SLEEP, WATCH A MENTAL MOVIE
This is a useful habit I’ve heard about from dozens of top performers, ranging from surgeons to athletes to comedians. Just before falling asleep, they play a movie of their idealized performance in their heads. A wide body of research supports this idea, linking visualization to improved performance, motivation, mental toughness, and confidence. Treat it as a way to rev the engine of your unconscious mind, so it spends more time churning toward your goals.
TIP #41 END ON A POSITIVE NOTE
A practice session should end like a good meal—with a small, sweet reward. It could be playing a favorite game or it could be more literal. (Chocolate works quite well.) My ten-year-old daughter ends her violin practices with a foot-stomping rendition of the bluegrass tune “Old Joe Clark.”
TIP #42 SIX WAYS TO BE A BETTER TEACHER OR COACH
Sooner or later, no matter who you are, you’ll find yourself being a teacher, a coach, or a mentor. It might happen at home, at work, or on the playing field, but when it happens, it helps to have a few basic skills. Here, from the master coaches I’ve researched, are six pieces of advice.
1) Use the First Few Seconds to Connect on an Emotional Level
Take a moment and recall the best teacher, coach, or mentor you’ve ever known. If you’re like most people, your memories are less about what that person did than about the way that person made you feel. You knew, somehow, that they saw something special in you, and understood you. You trusted them.
Effective teaching is built on trust, and when it comes to trust, we humans are consistent: We decide if we’re going to trust someone in the first few seconds of the interaction. This is why good teachers use the first few seconds to connect on an emotional level, especially on the first encounter. There are lots of tools for making this connection—eye contact, body language, empathy, and humor being some of the most effective—but whatever you use, make sure you prioritize that connection above all else. Before you can teach, you have to show that you care.
2) Avoid Giving Long Speeches—Instead, Deliver Vivid Chunks of Information
Thanks to movies, many of us grow up thinking that great teachers and coaches stand nobly in front of groups and deliver inspiring speeches. Nothing could be further from the truth. Master teachers and coaches don’t stand in front; they stand alongside the individuals they’re helping. They don’t give long speeches; they deliver useful information in small, vivid chunks.
As a Little League coach, I was accustomed to giving instruction to an entire team at the same time; for example, teaching them all the proper technique to field a grounder. But after spending time with master coaches, I started focusing on delivering short, targeted, customized messages to each player, one at a time. And it worked a lot better. Not only did players catch on more quickly, but the process also forged closer bonds of communication.
When you’re coaching, picture the person’s brain lighting up, the wires sparking fitfully, reaching to make new connections. The question is not what big important message you can deliver. The question is, what vivid, concise message can you deliver right now that will guide her toward making the right reach?
3) Be Allergic to Mushy Language
One of the most common mistakes teachers and coaches make is using mushy, imprecise language. For example, when a Little League coach tells a batter to “move the hands higher.” How high should the hands move? To the shoulders? Above the head?
To avoid this, use language that is concrete and specific. For example:
• “Move your hands higher” is vague. “Move your hands next to your ear” is concrete.
• “Play the song a little faster” is vague. “Match the metronome” is concrete.
• “Please work more closely with the sales team” is vague. “Please check in with the sales team for ten minutes every morning” is concrete.
All good teaching follows the same blueprint: Try this concrete thing. Now try this concrete thing. Now try combining them into this concrete thing. Communicate with precise nouns and numbers—things you can see and touch and measure—and avoid adjectives and adverbs, which don’t tell you precisely what to do.
4) Make a Scorecard for Learning
Life is full of scorecards: sales figures, performance rankings, test scores, tournament results. The problem with those scorecards is that they can distort priorities, bending us toward short-term outcomes and away from the learning process. We’ve all seen it happen, in business and in sports. Organizations that focus maniacally on winning today tend to lose sight of the larger goal: learning and developing competencies for the long run.
The solution is to create your own scorecard. Pick a metric that measures the skill you want to develop, and start keeping track of it. Use that measure to motivate and orient your learners. As a saying goes, “You are what you count.”
For example, I’ve encountered a number of top soccer, basketball, and hockey coaches who track the number of smart passes their team makes during a game, and who use this number—not the score—as the most accurate measure of their team’s success. The players catch on, and try to exceed themselves each game. Regardless of what happens on the scoreboard, this number gives them an accurate way to measure their real progress.
Tony Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”), a founder of the online shoe retailer Zappos, started out with the desire to create the most skilled customer-service team in the world. The usual scorecard of customer-service success is customers served per hour. But for Hsieh, that scorecard made no sense. He didn’t want to be merely efficient—he wanted to make people happy. So Zappos ignored the usual scorecard and began tracking the occasions when their customer-service representatives went above and beyond the call of duty—“delivering wow,” in Zappos parlance. Those moments, tallied and celebrated by the company, form the scorecard. And it seems to work: On a dare, Hsieh once phoned Zappos anonymously in the middle of the night and asked if he could order a pizza. He shortly received a list of the five pizza places closest to his location that were still open.
5) Maximize “Reachfulness”
Reachfulness is the essence of learning. It happens when the learner is leaning forward, stretching, struggling, and improving. The point of this rule is that good teachers/coaches/mentors find ways to design environments that tip people away from passivity and toward reachful action. This is why good sports coaches will avoid activities where players stand in lines, waiting their turn, and instead employ lots of small, intense games. But the idea of reachfulness applies to more than sports.
Recently, United Parcel Service was struggling with its driver-training program. Retention was down; injury and dissatisfaction were up. UPS responded with a novel program: It canceled classroom lectures and built a $34-million training center that resembled a small town, so the trainees could learn by doing. The trainees didn’t hear lectures about how to drive, stack, or deliver—they actually did it. To teach balance, UPS trainers secretly squirted soap on the floor and had trainees walk across it carrying a load of boxes. (The trainees were hooked up to safety harnesses, so they weren’t injured.) The program was a success; retention, performance, and satisfaction are up.
Some progressive schools increase reachfulness through a technique called “flipping the classroom.” The term refers to changing the traditional model, in which students spend class time listening to a lecture and then do reinforcement work at home. In a flipped classroom, students do the reverse. They listen to lectures at home, online, and spend class time actively struggling with the work: doing problems, wrestling with concepts—in essence, reaching—while the teacher walks around, coach-style, and helps individuals one at a time. In a yearlong study of algebra students at one California high school, the flipped classroom scored 23 percent higher on tests than the conventional classroom.
The larger point is that being a good teacher means thinking like a designer. Ask yourself: What kind of space will create the most reachful environment? How can you replace moments of passivity with moments of active learning?
6) Aim to Create Independent Learners
Your long-term goal as a teacher, coach, or mentor is to help your learners improve so much that they no longer need you. To do this, avoid becoming the center of attention. Aim instead to create an environment where people can keep reaching on their own. Whenever possible, step away and create moments of independence. Think of your job as building a little master-coach chip in their brains—a tiny version of you, guiding them as they go forward.