Practice makes perfect?

There has been plenty written on the concept of how much practice it takes to allow a performer to get to elite level in their chosen field. Matthew Syed in his book, Bounce, talks of how it takes 10 000 hours of practice (although this, in itself, is based on Ericsson’s 1993 study into Berlin violinists), whilst there is a lot of research currently being undertaken on the concept of specialisation, and whether sports performers should undertake to play just one sport, and, if so, when that undertaking should happen. Michael Griffin, the author of Learning Strategies for Musical Success, talks of how each human body has one hundred brain cells, but the art of learning is not how many brain cells one has, but how the connections work between them. Varied practice and knowledge of different areas leads to a greater capacity to learn. This relates to sport – rather than just worrying about whether a young person should be focusing on one or more sports, maybe there are even more influences that can help a young performer to develop their skills, and, instead of thinking insularly, it might be wise and, even, productive to look over the fence at other co-curricular areas in order to develop the concept of practice.

One of our PRC Elite speakers, Frank Buglioni, is a fascinating example of someone who is psychologically so strong. As a boxer, he has to train for months on end in order to be ready for one event – the boxing match – where, after 12 gruelling rounds, he will either be dubbed a success or failure. He then has to go away and plan again for the next bout, where he will either take on a harder challenge, or try again in order to get to the next level.

That should sound familiar to A level and GCSE students?
An examination is just the same, and has an even longer period of practice and preparation ready for the big “event”. That set of hours in an, often, cold sports hall, then defines what you do in the next period of your life. It is either move onto a degree, or plan for the retakes. This is unless the examination board take away the concept of retakes, which therefore means that you have to be even more ready for that one performance.

That should sound familiar to any actors or actresses?
Preparation for performing a play or show is so exhausting. One has to first learn the basic lines, then understand your character, then practice incessantly until you have developed the play. Only then can you start to work with the costumes, technical support and in front of audiences in dress rehearsals. The Edinburgh fringe is littered with such driven and focused people, and, at the elite level, it takes even longer in order to justify the artistic energy that one puts into the final “event”. Simon McBurney is a great example – the founder of the world famous theatre company, Complicite, took eight years to develop his last masterpiece, The Encounter. It’s made even more difficult in final performance as there is no outright winning or losing like for a boxer, or passing or failing as for taking an examination, but success is based on what other people think.

Maybe this sounds familiar to musicians?
Russell Williams is the artistic mind behind the band, The Last Carnival. This band, made up of a group of five hugely talented young men, are just about to make the final push towards jumping into the “big time” of music. I stayed at Russell’s house last week, and, as I had an early meeting, I thought I would be the only one in the household up at 6am waiting for a taxi. Russell was already in the recording studio composing, mixing and recording. On quizzing him, it seems he is up religiously at 4.30am daily, studiously practicing in order to get to something that not only he can be happy with, but also that the world will, hopefully, be happy with, in order to try and become the best.

So here’s the key point. Maybe sports practitioners and coaches shouldn’t be as concerned with whether young players should be playing one or two sports, but instead think a little more widely as to where else youngsters can learn the key skills of how to practice, what dedication is, and, most importantly, how to prepare for performance? Alastair Cook was a chorister AND a cricketer. That seems strange to most, but why so? Surely both have skills that are so intertwined that they feed off each other? And what does this mean for schools? One of the key educational practitioners in England once said to me, “Pupils perform better because of being busy, not in spite of it.” Maybe pupils can be more elite in their chosen areas by taking part in more, rather than trying to specialise too much. Maybe the connection between the brain cells, learning from other skills and genres, coupled with putting the requisite practice into their chosen skill set, can help a young person become the best they can be.

Practice – preparation – performance. A simple system that can be used in many different walks of life. The key is to constantly try and learn from each other’s differences. The specialisation debate certainly is not just confined to sport.

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Nick Tester Written by:

Nick Tester is a leading figure in Sport and Education, having been Head of Cricket at Chigwell School and Head of Boy’s Games, Football and Cricket at Ardingly College.