Are your practice sessions "Total Fun"?
"The only way a kid is going to practice is if it’s total fun for him… and it was for me.”
Wayne Gretzky Many of us don’t enjoy the idea of “practice” very much. It’s not “total fun,” like it was for Wayne (aka The Great One). The idea of being really proficient in a skill, though, now that sounds like a lot of fun. I guess everyone wants to be able to play like a pro on game day but very few people want to train like a pro in the gym. One of our mentors, Alwyn Cosgrove often reminds us that if you practice something long and hard enough, eventually they’ll call you “talented.” So if it’s practice that yields such fantastic results, why isn’t it fun for most of us? To explore this question a bit further, I’m hoping you might indulge me in shifting from the topic of fitness to another pursuit that I enjoy with equal enthusiasm: music.
I love music. I love how it accompanies a good training session, I love creating it with my instrument of choice, the bass guitar, and I even love just talking about it… I did not always love practicing it. It’s not that I didn’t have excellent teachers, because I believe I had some of the best music teachers one could hope for. It was that there was an assumption about what was meant by the phrase “go away and practice this for next week.” Of course I had an idea of what they meant when they said that, but it always felt like I had missed the day in class when they explained exactly how to structure an effective practice session. The only “method” I was aware of was to repeat the material in question over and over again, possibly at a decreased tempo, until one’s performance improved. Although this is a viable tactic for practicing some elements of playing an instrument, it is far from comprehensive.
Fortunately, Kati recently gifted me with a membership to Scott Devine’s amazing online bass education program, Scott’s Bass Lessons, and I learned how to distribute my practice time between the 5 key elements that yield the greatest possible benefit. Basically if you focus evenly on these 5 aspects of playing, and avoid distraction, you can experience much more rapid improvement in skill and the enjoyment that comes along with it. Scott defines these vital few elements as follows:
Fretboard Visualization and Application
Groove and Time
Technique, Facility and Articulation
Learning the Language (music theory)
Genre Based Studies
If you’re not a bass player, these bullets might not mean much to you, but the crux of this discovery is that there are usually just a handful of focal points to study on any given topic that actually deliver most of the results. As soon as I structured my practice around this idea, I began to improve in every session and I started to actually enjoy practicing my instrument! I started to practice “deep” instead of “wide." One of the biggest hurdles we face on a journey in fitness is that "working out” can seem like a tedious, uncomfortable and even boring prospect. I used to think that all this could be solved when you shifted your perspective away from doing “work outs" and considered a training session as a “skills practice.” But even from this perspective, the definition of practice we are so familiar with: "repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it,” still sounds frightfully dull! It also implies that repetition alone is all that is needed to achieve proficiency. Although the idea of “practice" vs. "work out” is enough of a shift in mindset to give training another chance, it still falls short for one essential reason. Most of us think we know how to practice effectively but actually we don’t. We’ve got just the one tactic; repeat something until it gets better, and that’s it. Some professionals instinctively solve for this on their own and are able to transcend early in their careers, others learn it at some point later on, but all of them know how to structure a practice session to leverage the minimum investment required to achieve maximal results. Ergo, the time spent in practice drives palpable benefits without much (if any) wasted effort, which offers up more time to spend on more high-yield practice and thus dramatically accelerates the pace of growth. Those tangible results are what makes it “total fun.” Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? It is, and anyone can learn how to do it. I’m sure almost everyone reading this is aware of the Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who noted that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes (the "vital few”). As such, until we know how to effectively practice, 80% of our skill improvements are likely derived from only 20% of our practice. You can also look at this the other way, 80% of the time spent in practice is yielding only 20% of the benefits. What a waste! In the strength training world we refer to this type of practice as performing “junk repetitions.” These are reps performed without intention; hoping to derive some positive effect in the mere performance of the movement without a skill-based objective. Yes. there can be some benefit in simply going through the motions. Yes, even a blind squirrel will find a nut every once in awhile. A 60 minute training session that only yields 12 minutes of productive work sounds about as fun as blindly stumbling upon a nutritious nut, though. Wouldn’t it be great to get those 48 minutes back to do something more productive with them? If only we could use our knowledge of the Pareto principle to actively target that 20% of the productive practice time that is driving 80% of our results.
It's difficult to harness the "vital few” elements of a training session because these productive moments are usually scattered throughout the practice time. As such, we can’t simply cut out a block of stuff that we think isn’t productive. Too often this simplistic approach results in disaster as avid gym-goers have thoughts like, “at my peak I feel and look the best, so I should just focus on peak-phase training and get rid of all the other stuff that doesn’t get me these results.” This fallacy only results in diminishing returns at best and injury at worst. Instead, we can prevail upon the extensive research and experience of the most successful athletes across the broad spectrum of sport, and extract the most productive combination of elements that deliver the biggest benefits in their training.
At Breakthrough, our programming is all designed around this principle; to focus our practice time on the “biggest bang for your buck” elements to drive results and satisfaction without compromising health and safety. In this case I’m not even talking about specific movement patterns like squat or push, but rather a series of concepts that cover how we chose to perform those movements. Once again we’re trying to practice “deep” instead of “wide.” My current definition of these 5 key elements is as follows:
Corrective and Recovery Work - Self massage, relaxation, improving mobility, range of motion, reflexive stability, maintaining muscle and joint health, and addressing any imbalances, rehabilitative or other recovery needs.
Movement Skill - Improving balance, reaction time, coordination and neurological connection to muscular contractions.
Inter-Muscle Contraction Strength - Improving the synchronization of muscular contractions under load.
Intra-Muscle Contraction Strength - Improving the intensity of contractions within a muscle, isometrics.
Energy Systems - Improving the function and deployment of all three energy systems; Alactic, Aerobic, and Glycolytic.
The power of applying these elements in training lies in their depth. These can be used to generate the greatest results from a general physical preparedness session just as much as they can be applied specifically to a given topic like powerlifting or marathon prep! If a coach and athlete understand how to structure a practice session around these aspects and consciously assign them to each training block, there is minimal risk of any wasted effort or “junk reps.” Palpable improvements will be achieved within each practice, yielding greater satisfaction and enthusiasm for the next session! As you approach a training session or program, consider how you might apply one or more of these elements in each set or block and make sure you’re not missing any by the end of the practice. A good program should reveal an obvious opportunity to work on all these elements in every session. Any tedium or boredom you might have been experiencing just slips away when you look to these 5 results-driven aspects of training, and if you get stuck just ask your coach about them and determine together which ones should be the focus of that next set. You will see your skills improve much more quickly, and so will your enjoyment and satisfaction increase!