Natural Talent vs Deep Practice

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There is growing interest in how individual athletes achieve their potential and deliver performance at the highest level and all of the evidence points to deep and deliberate practice over natural talent.

Let’s start by asking what makes a world-champion? Natural talent? Well yes, many top athletes possess natural talent as a useful starting point but a quick look (see below) into the way top athletes train dispels any misconception that natural talent is much of a shortcut to world domination.

On the contrary, evidence shows that the way individuals practice skills and the amount of practice they do largely explains differences between top performers and others.

Practice makes perfect….. but only if you practice well. Many athletes train hard, practice daily, but that’s not enough to perfect skill. No matter how often or for how long you practice there no guarantee that you’ll be improving your skills. 10,000 hours is what is needed to build world class skills, right?

So, the more you practice and the more mistakes you make, the faster you learn and the better you get. It’s not that simple.

Deep Practice

Skill is an active not a passive thing and something you build by being fully engaged throughout the process. You can learn a lot more in a lot less time simply by making your practice highly targeted, and error-focused. What if you could do a month’s worth of practice in just six minutes? You can, but you have to slow down to speed up. You can’t just go through the motions if you want to build skills at an accelerated rate, you have to do deep practice.

Myelin is what wraps and insulates your nerve fibres to make your living circuitry faster and more accurate. Myelin is a big deal.  It’s the holy grail of acquiring skill. Deep practice is how you build myelin. Highly targeted, error-focused practice is how you develop myelin and myelin is what allows an athlete to build skills at an accelerated rate. Simples!

There are many definitions of deep practice but perhaps the one that has gained most momentum is that espoused by Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code

There are many definitions of deep practice but perhaps the one that has gained most momentum is that espoused by Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code. In The Talent Code, Coyle describes a way of effective practice which he calls ‘deep practice’,  a way of attentive practicing.

How to Deep Practice

Step One – Know what to do and how to do it well

The first step in deep practice is to look at the task at a whole, after all this is what you’ll be trying to replicate. One way of doing this is to observe an expert rider or watch a video clip. A quick word of warning though, make sure to only use the best reference examples. Your coach is the best source for such material not your friendly weekend warrior who may not (yet) have perfected the skill or even being performing it correctly!

The same applies to videos. Youtube is awash with poor example of skills demonstrations and instruction and again your coach is the best source of good material.

Step Two – Chunk it up!

Next divide the task into its smallest possible (practical) components (chunks). Each chunk needs to be practiced and perfected individually and where possible separately. Remember, with deep practice, perfect execution of each chunk is essential. Once each chunk has been mastered, you then link them together in progressively larger groupings until the whole task is complete. This is how you build muscle memory and produce myelin.

Step Three – Start slow, then add more speed but only at the right time

The next step is to play with time. At first as you begin your practice, slow the action down even to a walking pace if you need to. Slowing down helps you to attend more closely to errors, allowing you to create a higher degree of precision. Then once you have managed to execute the technique perfectly at slow speed and whilst maintaining perfect technique, start speeding it up to eventually perform the technique perfectly at a full race-pace.

Step Four – Make it harder to develop that skill further

This is my own extension to Coyle’s three step system which will apply to some technical skills more than others. To really master and develop deep and embedded skills, introduce other elements and levels of difficulty. This approach ensures you continues to develop the skill and are always learning.

As an example of a skill that you can develop significantly lets look at the humble track-stand.

  1. Start with the usual approach, body position and front wheel turned toward leading foot.
  2. Once this is mastered to perfection, turn the wheel away from the leading foot.
  3. Again once mastered move to perfecting a one-handed track-stand.
  4. Next go no-handed.
  5. Think you’ve made it? Close your eyes!

Learn to embrace failure

To improve and to develop truly embedded skills it’s essential to focus your time and effort on things you can’t yet do, NOT what you can already do well. Yeh it’s great to show off your skills but if you really want to be the best, you need to deep practice and to do so in areas outside your comfort zone. This means failing on a regular basis as you run through the processes outlined above.

Embrace these minor failures and refine your approach as you develop those perfect skills. You’ll need a coach to help you through this process too so that you don’t develop bad habits or poor technical skills and you might need a bit of moral support when things don’t go to plan. You’ll also need honest critique and feedback. Keep an eye open for our next post on The Power of Yet.

About Kaizen Cycling

Kaizen Cycling offers skills coaching and prescribed training for all levels of athletes. You can contact Kaizen Cycling here.