Part 9: Practice Excellence
This is the ninth and last installment in a nine part series. If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 8, you should begin with those. Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.
Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.
Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.
Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.
Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills. The second involves the split second decisions you must make.
Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways. How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?
Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training. It’s also good myelin building. You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps. It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.
Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice:
In clicker training we break lessons down into thin slices. It turns out in talent hotspots, they do the same thing.
Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”
This section looks at the three tiers of deep practice Coyle identifies in “The Talent Code”
Part 9: Practice Excellence:
The series concludes by looking at the difference between mindless drilling and practicing for excellence.
Part 9: Practice Excellence
How We Practice
Coyle cited an interesting study done by Barry Zimmerman of New York University. Zimmerman asked a simple question: can you judge ability solely by the way people describe how they practice. In other words, without seeing someone perform, can you accurately predict their level of expertise if all you know about them is how they practice?
Zimmerman and his colleague, Anastasia Kitsantas, chose volleyball serves as the skill they would evaluate. They interviewed expert players, club players, and novices. They had twelve measures for evaluating serving practice. Based on the answers they predicted how each person would perform when their serve was evaluated. They then had the players execute their serve and their actual performance was compared to the predictions. Ninety percent of the variation in skill could be accounted for by the players’ answers. The conclusion: experts weren’t better because they were more gifted. They were better because they practiced differently.
Practice brings with it images of endless, boring drilling. I remember at school sitting in French class repeating over and over again the same phrases. It was the opposite of deep practice. We may have been saying the words slowly but it was mind numbing – not mindful. I could pass every test with flying colors, but I learned nothing, except perhaps to hate French class. Thankfully I did not learn to hate repetition. Other experiences have taught me to value mindful, thoughtful repetition. “Nothing you can do — talking, thinking, reading, imagining — is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing the errors, honing the circuit.”
Coyle posed this question: What would be the surest method of ensuring that LeBron James started missing jump shots or that Yo-Yo Ma missed chord changes? The answer: don’t let them practice for a month. That’s all it takes.
Myelin like all living structures needs maintenance. Daily practice doesn’t just grow new insulation, it also keeps the existing myelin in a state of good repair. That is particularly true as you get older. Myelin production slows down as you age past fifty. You can still add insulation, but the process is slower.
Coyle quoted the pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, who continued to play into his eighties: “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip practice for three days, the world notices.”
More is not Better. Better is Better.
If you were the victim of mindless drilling, here’s some good news: more is not always better. Doing six more push ups won’t help if you are no longer paying attention to your technique. Mindless drilling is just that – less.
Deep practice doesn’t require that you spend hours on end walking around your arena in the t’ai chi walk. What it does require is that you spend your practice time in what is referred to as the sweet spot, that point at the “edge of your capabilities where you attentively build and hone circuits. . . . When you depart the deep practice zone, you might as well quit.”
At the music camp one of the instructors teaches a course in how to practice. She urges her students to “find a balance point where you can sense the errors when they come. To avoid the mistakes, first you have to feel them immediately. If you hear a string out of tune, it should bother you.”
This resonated so strongly with me. This is why I have people work their horses through patterned exercises. I take the time to pace out circles and mark the circumference with cones. I have paced out hundreds of circles. I could get lazy and just put the cones out in a rough approximation, but I don’t. I pace out the circle so people can develop a feel for what it means to be in balance. When their horses drift slightly off the circle, I want that loss of balance to bother them – a lot.
Over the years I’ve become hyper-tuned to balance. When I work with horses and feel them lose their balance, I can’t help but wonder how can people not feel this? It’s like finger nails on a blackboard. That tuning is always with me. When horses fall out of balance, when they drift over their outside shoulder, or lean in to the inside, I notice just as surely as a musician notices when an instrument is out of tune. The horse isn’t literally going to fall down – not at the pace that we’re going, but add energy, add speed, and what might seem at first like a trivial loss of balance becomes the reason the horse can’t hold the canter through a turn, or find his stride going over a jump, or keep you safe negotiating steep terrain.
Big problems have their roots in little things.
Turning Inward to Find The “Sweet Spot”
One of the challenges for beginner trainers is knowing how fast to progress. If you go too fast, you’ll encounter resistance. On the other hand, if you stay too easy, you won’t progress.
The people in the talent hot spots were looking for the sweet spot: “that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle which involves a cycle of distinct actions:
1.) Pick a target [behavior].
2.) Reach for it.
3.) Evaluate the gap between the target behavior and the reach.
4.) Return to step one.”
With the horses we have to be careful that we pick target behaviors that contain steps that they can reach and succeed at. We need to be able to keep the rates of reinforcement high. After all it is our goal not their’s that we are reaching for. We want the pretty canter depart, the perfect shoulder-in. They have no notion of these things. But they do understand our enthusiasm, and they do come to love the game of figuring out what earns clicks and treats.
“One of the useful features of myelin is that it permits any circuit to be insulated, even those of experiences we might not enjoy at first.”
Coyle wrote this in relation to practice. You might not enjoy it at first, but as you repeat the process and myelinate the circuits, you build a habit. Practice may have been something you wanted to avoid at first, but now you find yourself craving your practice sessions.
At a talent hotspot music school the new students at first struggle to understand the deep practice process. Slowing music down to the point where it becomes unrecognizable is hard work. Revealing all the errors in your technique is also hard. But most of the students come to enjoy the process very quickly and their learning accelerates accordingly.
Owen Carman, the director of the school referred to it as: “a turn inward; they stop looking outside for solutions and they reach within.”
Finding Joy: Where the “Sweet Spot” Takes Us
For our horses this looking inward is critical to success. Yes, you can have instructors who can give you broad brush coaching, but good riding is internal. It is about breath control. It is about letting go of force and make-it-happen energy. It is about subtle balance shifts that the horse can feel but an observer cannot see. It is about thinking and having the horse respond. It is about lightness, grace, and love. These things must be found within. Deep practice gives you a route in to find them.