And let me tell you, it really does suck sometimes.
You’re probably used to going to the gym to unwind, zone out, get sweaty and tired. Now you come to the gym to get better at something that’s pretty complicated, and the only thing tired is your brain and your emotions.
Learning a skill takes a toll on you, but not in the physical way we’re used to. It’s important to know that it’s like this for everyone.
No one came out of the womb snatching or doing handstands. We didn’t even come out being able to crawl.
But I’ll avoid those annoying metaphors about babies learning to walk and falling over all the time. We’ve all heard those, and I know for me, they just piss me off more.
Let’s talk about what’s happening inside our bodies and brains. I, personally, find that much more comforting.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of 10,000 hours to master a new skill. So think about this: let’s say you train 2 hours a day, 5 days a week to accumulate 10 hours a week. No breaks for 52 weeks a year, 520 hours a year. It will take you 5 years to truly be proficient at the new skill.
Olympic lifting abso-fucking-lutely falls into the paradigm of a skill. And in my experience and interactions with people of various levels, that 5 year mark plays out pretty solidly.
And it’s not just any type of practice, but DEEP PRACTICE.
Deep Practice is a targeted, mistake focus method of skill development. You move through the desired skill, slowly at first, watching closely for any deviation from “perfect.” If you deviate, you go back and do it again. And again. And again, until you’re satisfied with what you’re doing. THEN you can move on.
This process affects a biological process called myelination, where your body wraps layers of fat around nerves. By wrapping fat layers around nerves responsible for a specific skill, the signal travels faster and with less signal strength degradation.
This is why we can’t say “practice make perfect,” we have to say “practice makes permanent.”
A couple of researchers, Zimmerman and Kitsantas, watched and followed volleyball players of various levels. They made extremely accurate predictions about which athletes would move up quickly in the ranks and which ones wouldn’t based not on inherent skill, but on mindset and approach:
“Our predictions were extremely accurate. This showed that experts practice differently and far more strategically. When they fail, they don’t blame it on luck of themselves. They have a strategy they can fix.” ~Barry Zimmerman on his study with Anastasia Kitsantas
As outlined in the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, there are three main methods to creating deep practice.
Chunk it Up - Absorb the whole thing by watching/listening/however so you have in your mind your ultimate goal. Then break the movement down into its smallest pieces.
Slow it down - Be precise with your movements, whether is lifting something light enough you can ensure proper bar path, or it’s playing a song single note by single note.
Repeat It - Myelin sheaths are built through action. Each practice session should bring that same attention to detail and focus on correcting mistakes as the initial session. It’s better to do 10 very concentrated lifts than it is to do 50 grip and rip lifts.
Learn to Feel It - If something doesn’t feel right, it should bother you. It should feel like an eyelash in your eye. And you need to be in tune enough with your body and your targeted skill that these feelings arise.
While that seems like a short process, it’s a long road. Just like taking a single step is easy, linking all the steps needed to traverse a marathon is a whole ‘nother story.
So make your practice WORTH IT. Embrace the sucky parts and make each moment, each movement, count.
Titles to pick up:
“The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle (Amazon Link)
“Mindset” by Carol Dweck (Amazon Link)