Is Perfect Practice Really Perfect?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sport & Fitness, June 2009.

Everyone has heard the popular coachism, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Nobody questions this logic. Intuitively, it makes sense: to learn something new requires practice and the execution in the practice should be the same as the desired execution.

When you learn to hit a tennis ball, you hit hundreds of balls attempting to use the perfect technique so when you play a match, your forehand technique is perfect. You develop the proper habits so that when you play a match, and performance is important, you do not have to think about the execution; you rely on your habits. However, is that how we learn? Do we learn perfectly?

When a child learns to walk, nobody teaches him. Nobody insists on perfect practice. The child crawls and tries to stand up to mimic others around him. He intuitively notices that other people move much faster, and they move on two legs, so he copies them. Inevitably, he falls. So, he tries again. He falls again. Eventually, he takes a couple steps before falling. Before too long, the child is walking.

Did he learn through perfect practice? Heck no. He learned through a series of mistakes.

In many sports, parents and coaches insist on perfect skill execution before the player plays the actual game. Golfers hit at the driving range until their stroke is perfect; tennis players hit thousands of ground strokes before they play a match; basketball players shoot thousands of shots before they play a game. Is this necessary? Is this the best way to learn a skill? Or, are we better off learning by doing, much like when we learned to walk?

When you learn to hit a tennis ball, you hit hundreds of forehands in a row. As you begin, the ball machine, your partner or an instructor hits balls directly to you so you concentrate strictly on the technique. This is called block practice.

During block practice, your practice performance improves. After hitting hundreds of balls, your technique is better. You see the improvement and you feel like you spent your time wisely. After hundreds of shots, your practice is perfect. Now that you have learned your technique, you believe that by engaging in more of the same practice, you will continue to improve and improve.

However, the demands of tennis differ from a block practice session. The forehand is a different shot when running to get to a ball that is slicing away from you.

The same is true in golf. Players hit hundreds of drives on the practice range and believe they have fixed their stroke. Then they shank a drive on the second hole. Their practice performance improves as they hit hundreds of shots in a row, but during a round of golf, the performance changes. The demands of a tennis match or a round of golf are variable or random.

Because the game is random, random training transfers better from practice to games. However, when players engage in random training, their practice performance does not improve as quickly.

Rather than hit hundreds of forehands from center court, random training would mimic a game and force you to hit different shots at different speeds and with different spins. While engaged in this practice, your performance likely will not be perfect. You will make mistakes.

However, just as we learned to walk, mistakes, in the right frame of mind, present learning experiences. A baby does not judge himself poorly when he falls down. He does not know that he made a mistake. We view the fall as a normal experience. Nobody tells the baby to stop and wait until he can walk perfectly before trying again.

As the baby gets older, he learns to avoid mistakes. Making a mistake in class means a giant red mark and a bad grade. Mistakes amongst other kids elicit laughter. Mistakes in organized sports translate to less playing time. We hear coachisms like “Perfect practice makes perfect,” so we try to practice perfectly.

The problem is that, like the baby, we have to make mistakes to improve. If the baby feared mistakes, he would never learn to walk. He would feel content to crawl forever. Fortunately, our fear of failure does not occur until later in our maturation.

However, when we learn a sports skill, this fear of failure is often present. Many baseball players aim the ball rather than throwing it because they fear the result. Tennis players try so hard to get the ball in the court that they do not take a hard swing through the ball. Basketball players short arm shots because they try to place the ball in the basket rather than shooting it.

Rather than fearing mistakes, we need to encourage these mistakes. There is a time for perfect practice but down the road. At the beginning, players have to make mistakes. Without mistakes, players stay the same.

When I train young players, I encourage mistakes. I tell players that if they are not making mistakes, they are not working hard enough. They may be able to do a ball handling drill at a slow speed without making a mistake, but does that perfect practice help them improve?

The key, however, is the player’s mindset. Before a player can learn a new skill or improve a skill, he must overcome his fear of failure. This means changing his outlook.

Rather than emphasizing perfection or the execution, emphasize the effort and the process. After watching your son play, comment on his effort and improvement, not just his result. If you congratulate a Little League player for a great game because he had four hits in four at-bats, and you say something like, “Wow, you’re quite a talented player,” he develops what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a Fixed Mindset. However, if you say, “You had a great game. All your practice is paying off!” he develops a Growth Mindset.

With the Fixed Mindset, he protects his talent. He fears making a mistake because it might expose his lack of talent. With a Growth Mindset, he learns that success is a product of his effort, so he is encouraged to work harder. When he makes a mistake, he sees it as part of the learning process, not as an indictment of his skills or talent.

When players have the confidence to make mistakes as part of the learning process, they move more quickly to perfect practice. They concentrate on the process, not the result.

When learning to hit a forehand, they concentrate on the perfect execution of the skill, not the perfect result. You may use the proper technique and hit the ball into net, but during the learning process, that is preferable to using a strategy to hit the ball in the court without the best technique. Some players rely on a slice to keep the ball in play rather than learning a proper swing. They concentrate on the result, not the skill execution or the process.

Aiming for perfection often hinders skill development. Instead, aim for small improvements day by day and accept mistakes as a part of the learning process and without judgment, just as a baby learning to walk.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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