kottke.org posts about deliberate practice

Of two minds on the pitcher's moundJul 08 2009

If I ever write a book, it might have something to do with the two minds that govern creative expertise: the instinctual unconscious mind (the realm of relaxed concentration) and the thinking mind (the realm of deliberate practice). The tension between these two minds is both the key to and fatal flaw of human creativity. From the world of sports1, here's Rockies pitcher and college physics major Jeff Francis describing the interplay of the minds on the mound:

Even though I do understand the forces and everything, there's a separation when I'm pitching. If I throw a good pitch, I know what I did to do it, but there has to be a separation between knowing what I did and knowing why what I did helped the ball do what it did, if that makes any sense at all. If I thought about it on the mound, I'd be really mechanical and trying to be too perfect instead of doing what comes naturally.

But you don't need to be a physics major to wrestle with the consequences of the conflict between the two minds. After an injury and subsequent surgery, Francis' instinctual mind works to protect his body from further injury:

Francis repeatedly pulled the ball back in preparation to throw. But as he flashed his arm forward, his hand would, mind unaware, bring the ball back toward his ear rather than at full extension. It was his body essentially shortening the axis of his arm to decrease the force on his shoulder, protecting him from pain. And Francis could not stop it.

After his 10th pitch and first muffled groan of pain, he stopped.

"It's hurting you?" Murayama said.

"Yeah," Francis said.

"I can tell. You're getting out ahead of your arm. Slow down, stay back a little more."

"Does it look like I'm scared to throw a little?"

"Are you scared?"

"Not consciously."

To fully recover and regain his former effective pitching motion, Francis will utilize his thinking mind to retrain his unconscious mind through deliberate practice to ignore the injury potential. (thx, adriana)

[1] Most of the examples I've cited over the years deal with sports, mostly because professional athletes are among the most trained, scrutinized, studied, and optimized creative workers in the world. For a lot of other professions and endeavors, the data and scrutiny just isn't as evident.

Giving 110%, in defense of sports interview clichesMay 04 2009

Freakonomists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner probably got the ball rolling back in 2006 with their article about how people get really good at something. Malcolm Gladwell threw his hat into the ring with Outliers and the 10,000-Hour Rule. More recently, David Brooks stepped up to the plate and delivered a review of two recent books on how genius is made, not born: Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated. I even stuck my oar in briefly; the deliberate practice concept fascinates me, tangentially related as it is to relaxed concentration. From Brooks' article:

The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It's not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it's deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

Athletes have long been ridiculed for the cliches they use when talking about how they won, particularly during post-game interviews. You know them by heart:

We just have to keep working hard.
It just comes down to staying focused.
We gave it 110% tonight.
We worked hard in practice all week.
We never gave up.

If the writers above (and the researchers their writings are based on) are correct, maybe the jocks have it right: it all comes down to preparation, working harder, and wanting it more than the other guy. Simple...except for that pesky 10,000 hours thing.

Practicing relaxationMar 13 2008

A post by Jonah Lehrer about thinking under pressure links deliberate practice with another of my favorite concepts, relaxed concentration. For novice golfers, thinking more about a putt increases their chances of making it. But for experts, thinking about the mechanics of the putt in the same way makes it less likely that they'll sink it.

Rather than think about the mechanical details of their swing, [expert] golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, or what psychologists call a "holistic cue word". For instance, instead of contemplating things like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, they should focus on descriptive adjectives like "smooth" or "balanced". An experimental trial demonstrated that professional golfers who used these "holistic cues" did far better than golfers who consciously tried to control their stroke.

Related: a reader recommended George Leonard's Mastery as a good read about deliberate practice. (thx, jd)

Update: Another recommendation: Inner Tennis. kottke.org reader Stuart says:

Reading this book a couple of years ago quite honestly transformed my tennis game: I am good at deliberate practice, which had allowed me to become technically very sound, but until then I was completely unable to consciously enter a state of relaxed concentration and execute in a match situation: I was a classic "over thinker". Gallwey's book treats relaxed concentration as a skill to be deliberately practiced, and gives an approach to do so. Highly recommended, and fascinating for any (thoughtful) sportsman.

(thx, stuart)

Stephen Dubner wrote a short article onMar 13 2008

Stephen Dubner wrote a short article on one of my favorite topics of the recent past: deliberate practice.

This means that, your level of natural talent notwithstanding, excellence is accomplished mainly through the tenets of deliberate practice, which are roughly:

1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
2. Set specific goals.
3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

(via clusterflock)

Goodbye, Guitar Hero 3Dec 31 2007

Sad news. Guitar Hero 3 and I have broken up. Sure, we might hook up occasionally when I'm lonely at night, but our relationship is effectively over. I can play every song1 without effort on Easy mode but can barely make it through any on Medium after dozens of tries. So so lame. I've hit the wall and my pinky is to blame...the damn thing just won't work properly and I'm unwilling to try playing with just three fingers (a la Clapton) because that seems like a dead end once Mr. Orange Button comes into play.

But the real reason is that because I don't have a natural talent for the game, the only way to get better is through deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task -- playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Deliberate practice...sounds like fun! Yeah, no. No doubt I could master the game with enough focused effort, but when games stop being fun and become deliberate, that's where I get off. Back to the surprising depth of Desktop TD.

[1] When relationships end, that's when the lies start. The one song I still can't play all the way through is Slayer's Raining Blood. That damn song is just random notes as far I can can tell.

Creating talentMay 11 2006

The Stev(ph)ens Dubner and Levitt report on some recent research suggesting that people who are good at things got good at them primarily through practice and not because of innate talent.

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers -- whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming -- are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of cliches that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular cliches just happen to be true.

The talent myth described here seems to be distinct from that which Malcolm Gladwell talks about in relation to talented people and companies, but I'm sure parallels could be drawn. But back to the original article...I was particularly taken with the concept of "deliberate practice":

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task -- playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

"Deliberate practice" reminds me of a video game a bunch of my friends are currently hooked on called Brain Age. Available for the handheld Nintendo DS, Brain Age is based on a Japanese brain training "game" developed by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. The game measures the "age" of your brain based on your performance of simple tasks like memorizing a list of words or addition of small numbers. As you practice (deliberately), you get faster and more skilled at solving these mini-games and your brain age approaches that of a smarty-pants, twitchy-fingered teenager.

Speaking of talented teenagers, this week's New Yorker contains an article (not online) on Ivan Lendl's golfing daughters. In it, Lendl agrees that talent is created, not born:

"Can you create athletes, or do they just happen?" [Lendl] asked me not long ago. "I think you can create them, and I think that Tiger Woods's father proved that. People will sometimes ask me, 'How much talent did you have in tennis?' I say, 'Well, how do you measure talent?' Yeah, sure, McEnroe had more feel for the ball. But I knew how to work, and I worked harder than he did. Is that a talent in itself? I think it is."

Translation: there's more than one way to be good at something. There's something very encouraging and American about it, this idea that through hard work, you can become proficient and talented at pretty much anything.

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