Practice Doesn't Always make Perfect
Repetition by itself doesn't make you a better player.
Several years ago, I was interviewing a youth coach on ways players could practice on their own to improve their skills. At one point, I mentioned the often-used phrase, “practice makes perfect.”
The coach politely but gently corrected me.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect,” he said. “Perfect practice makes perfect.”
I must admit I had never thought about it that way before. But it’s certainly true. If you practice something 100 times the wrong way, chances are you’ll do it 100 times the wrong way.
But practicing the proper way isn’t enough. To be successful in anything, whether it’s sports or a career, you have to put in lots of time practicing your craft.
Mike Roberts, a former college coach who has also been a consultant to several major league teams including the Chicago Cubs, told me many players fail to put in that required amount of time, either with their teams or by themselves.
“Repetition is great. Repetition done correctly is even better. Repetition done many times has a chance to help you be much improved,” explained Roberts, father of former Baltimore Orioles All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts.
Repetition doesn’t necessarily mean practicing harder, but smarter. Ever wonder why some players kill it in practice, only to wilt under the pressure once the game begins?
For most players and even coaches, it’s easy to assume the problem must be a mechanical one. But this isn’t always the case, according to mental performance coach Eli Straw. Constantly scrutinizing mechanics will only compound the problem.
If it’s not a physical issue, what then?
Straw, a former professional baseball player, holds a master’s in psychology. Like many athletes, he constantly battled feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. He recalls many examples of spending hours in the batting cage trying to correct his swing. He was obsessed with a desire to control or fix his situation, rather than simply striving for success.
“Funny enough, I was crushing the ball in practice,” Straw wrote on his site Success Starts Within. “This showed there was absolutely nothing wrong with my mechanics. Meaning, something else was to blame for my lack of production.”
Straw believes players place more pressure on themselves than necessary. That pressure comes from high expectations from coaches, parents, and others. But most of that pressure, he says, is of our own making. This ultimately leads to anxiety, worry and fear of failure.
Instead of investing so much of our mindset into pressure, Straw recommends identifying the mental block or main distraction that causes a lack of success. Once that’s identified, work through it by witnessing or visualizing success in the situation that causes the pressure to become overwhelming. Then, focus on the moment and don’t look too far ahead.
Practice with Purpose
Just because mechanics may not be a problem doesn’t mean one shouldn’t work to improve them. But practicing should have a purpose that goes beyond a coach telling a player to get in a batting cage and swing or shoot a hundred free throws.
“I think a lot of youth coaches preach practice and repetition, but not purposeful repetition,” Bryan Green, a former track and field and cross-country runner at UCLA and author of MAKE THE LEAP told the National Association of Youth Sports. “Coaches should be encouraging athletes to focus on specific aspects of the activity – like body positioning and how it feels – and not just ‘doing it.’ And encouraging athletes to ask what they should be focused on.”
Green is a father of two girls, both of whom ice skate. When he asks them what aspects of jumping they worked on that day, neither girl has an answer.
“Their coach may point out when a jump goes badly, but they get more out of their jumps when their coaches focus them on the position of their hands, or generating more height, or how deeply they bend their knees,” he explained. “Simply jumping is naïve practice. Jumping to master a specific aspect of a jump is purposeful practice.”
Practice On Your Own
There’s only so much time a team can practice. For each player on that team to get better, they must be willing to put in time on their own or with a parent.
My grandson started playing soccer and basketball this past year. His dad bought a soccer goal to practice kicking techniques, and a basketball goal for shooting. Many baseball players practice throwing balls at a chalk target against a wall or hitting a ball off a batting tee. It doesn’t always have to be an exact simulation of a game situation or practice for an athlete to improve a skill.
Above All, Have Fun
If you don’t enjoy the sport you’re playing, or certain aspects of it, you will certainly have a difficult time staying motivated to practice.
I loved playing baseball, but hated base running drills. Roberts often encountered this as a coach. To address this problem, he advises players to think of base running in terms of being on a track and pretending to run sprints as you would in a track meet.
“When the bat is not in your hand, and if you’re running around the bases, we want it to become as if you’re running a 220 or 440,” Roberts explained. “If you’re running between the bases or stealing, we want it to become a 100-meter dash.”
Green encourages coaches to keep players motivated to practice. For younger kids, have a game component for each workout and then team players up. Encouraging them to work together and depend on each other will keep them less focused on how they feel and more on how they can support their team. For older kids, emphasize the importance of showing up to do the work professionally and make the most of it.
“First and foremost, it's important to remember that it's never about one workout,” Green told NAYS. “You can design the perfect practice, but if your athletes aren't mentally and physically ready to do it, it won't produce the intended benefits.”
Excelling in sports or any walk of life isn’t easy. As my grandmother used to say, “the world won’t get handed to you on a silver platter. You have to go for it.”
But practicing something a thousand times won’t give you the success you hope to achieve unless it’s done the correct way and with the proper mindset. Contrary to that old cliché, practice doesn’t always make perfect.
Hot Takes and Great Reads
I would like to thank each of you who took the time to comment on last week’s article on youth athletes and suicide, and expressing your condolences for the passing of my son last month.
I appreciate your insights, like this one from Moritz Whittmann, a former rugby player who coaches in Canada:
“I love the fact that you've addressed the topics that you do, as I see them manifested every day. The boys I coach at age 18-25 are young men but certainly aren't exempt from the mental health struggles every athlete faces. They come to us often feeling overwhelmed or anxious, trying to balance student life with academics, sports and a social life as well. And of course we do our best to give them the guidance, tools and resources they need to be better young athletes.”
Thank you, Moritz, for your dedication to coaching. We need more coaches who care about athletes as people and not just tools to winning championships.
Keep those comments coming on this or any stories you find in the newsletter. I always enjoy your feedback.
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