I hate to be the one to tell you this: they lied to you.
Contrary to popular belief, practice doesn't make perfect.
If it did, then people on the job for twenty years would be supremely good at their jobs. But have you ever gone into, say, a government office and dealt with someone who's been there a long time? It doesn't seem like practice has made them perfect.
Or how about people who've been driving for over a decade? Practicing the complicated task of piloting an automobile for many years would lead one to believe that an older driver is an expert driver. But have you been on the roads lately? Yikes.
No, practice does not make perfect.
Perfect practice makes perfect.
What's the difference? Several things.
Earlier this year, Roger Federer published a video of him practicing with a fellow pro in Dubai (you can watch it here). It was, well, perfect. And it taught us everything we need to know about how to get better at something.
The Perfect Practice Principles:
- Plan out everything, down to the second. The first thing you'll notice in the video is that Federer gets right to work. He is on a schedule formulated by his physio trainer and it's non-stop. Everything has a purpose. I love it when athletes/students/coaches brag about how they "practiced for hours." I've seen many examples of what it looks like when people organize their own practice sessions. It's 86% talking, 12% actual playing, and 74% goofing around. Those sessions aren't multiple hours of practice; they're multiple hours of meaningless distraction. Perfect practice means everything done in that session is useful.
- Find an inspiring place to work. Just look at that court they're on. It's amazing. Who wouldn't want to practice there? But what if we don't have a bungalow in Dubai at our disposal? Then do the best you can. Find a comfortable chair or an environment that's fun to be in or people you like to be around. Being inspired leads to focus which leads to improvement.
- Be happy. Can you feel how happy Federer is to be doing the work? He loves being there. He loves all the little details, even if they're hard work. He loves warming up. He loves telling us what he's working on. If you like doing the work --if it makes you happy-- then success is inevitable.
- Be coachable. Federer is the best tennis player of all time. He's won everywhere and won everything. And yet he totally defers to his coach. He does the drills that his on-court coach has designed and the exercises his fitness coach has developed. No questions asked. He has his own ideas (as anyone should) but he's always listening and deferring. That's how we keep improving no matter how old we are or what we've accomplished. Be coachable.
- Love to win. Federer says something profound in the middle of the drills and it's easy to miss it. Offhandedly, Federer says that he loves to win. He says that that feeling is different from many other players. Many other players hate to lose. That's a huge difference. Hating to lose is a limited, possibly defeating, mindset. Using hatred as your fuel means you're using a limited fuel source. Eventually hate runs out. Or worse, it can turn your emotions against you. Hate can get so strong that it leads you to hate yourself for losing. Once you hate yourself, the learning is over (and so is your career). By loving to win, though, you're on an indefinite winning path. When you lose, you're eager to get back to work if you love winning. And when you win, you love it and you're thankful for it. That thankfulness will keep you winning for a long, long time. We can do things we love for a lifetime. If we hate something, it's only a matter of time before we're out of the game.
Nothing is more fun that getting better at something. By using Federer's example, our practice actually can make us perfect.