Is there any one thing you practice every day?
Not a discipline, like morning quiet time or meditation or even exercise, but something you go out of your way to practice? Something you deliberately set time to work on in order to get better at? Your golf swing, calculus, memorizing data, learning a musical instrument or voice practice?
I’m reading a book called “Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise” written by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. It examines the science of purposeful or deliberate practice – I also happen to be practicing something right now. I’ve practiced something every day of my life for as long as I can remember (writing is one of my more consistent practices), but for the past six months, I’ve been practicing jumping. Actually, I’ve been relearning how to jump and land properly.
You might be thinking “but you played volleyball for years, isn’t jumping something you just do? Why do you need to relearn something you already know how to do?”
Good questions. I’ve asked them myself on particularly frustrating days.
Why am I practicing this? Why does it matter? Isn’t it too late to be figuring this stuff out? Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way, no it’s not too late, yes, it matters and also, when the zombies come, I’ll be able to get over all those fences that seem to be in the way during my important chase scene.
But most importantly, in recent years, I couldn’t jump or land without pain and I wanted that to change.
“If you practice something enough, your brain will repurpose neurons to help with the task even if they already have another job to do,” Ericsson and Pool.
So, in June, I hired a professional fitness coach. I wanted to test my physical capabilities under the direction of deliberate coaching and also, I wanted to do things (like jump) without pain. I wasn’t just looking for reps on reps kind of practice, but, deliberate, intentional practice. So, for the past six months I’ve been rebuilding things – slowly, deliberately, intentionally. It’s not all roses. I’ve also resisted, become frustrated with my progress, envied other people lifting barbells while I try not to snap myself with an arsenal of assorted exercise bands. I had to practice seemingly unrelated things to get where I wanted to go and I didn’t get to jump right away.
Yah. I know, right?
It went a little something like this:
- single-leg band work
- goblet squats
- single-leg band work
- single-leg band work
- single-leg reverse deadlifts with a band
- single-leg band work (developing theme)
- single-leg jumping and landing
- jumping and landing with two feet
Abridged, but you get the idea.
The good news for me is that I’m jumping – with less pain and with more frequency than I was six months ago. The other good news is that with daily, deliberate practice I’m developing new (and also cashing in on some old) brainy mental stuff too, like, mental strategies and patterns that keep me motivated and interested.
In short, my jumping practice doesn’t just benefit my jumping, it benefits me in other areas of my life too.
“Even when the skill is being practiced is primarily physical, a major factor is the development of the proper mental representation,” Ericsson, Pool.
Practicing something that is physical in nature not only offers physical benefits and satisfies my need to get airborne, it also stimulates the areas in my brain that help develop mental strategies (Ericsson and Pool call these “mental representations” or maps). As I get better at the task I’m practicing, I gain confidence with that skill, but I also gain confidence to try more things outside of those parameters.
Which means I learn to jump, but I’m willing to learn other things too.
Like, say, dance.
“The key change that occurs in our adaptable brains in response to deliberate practice is the development of better mental representations, which in turn open up new possibilities for improved performance,” Ericsson and Pool.
I’m not a dancer. (I know, shocking).
Recently, however, I danced (okay, memorized steps) a small part in our local production of the Nutcracker, with my husband and children. I learned the steps in just over a week of rehearsals and although it took a few days for my brain to connect what I was seeing to what my feet were supposed to do, once I figured out how to break it down into little segments it started coming together.
The music, the choreographer’s counting, following my husband’s lead and watching the more seasoned dancers around me all played a role in developing a mental plan to execute my part of the dance. As the steps became second nature, I tried to add emotion that matched the story and had to figure out what to do with my anxiety about doing all of this in front of an auditorium full of people, many of whom I knew personally.
“As you push yourself to do something new – to develop a new skill or sharpen an old one – you are also expanding and sharpening your mental representations, which will in turn make it possible for you to do more than you could before,” Ericsson and Pool.
Which leads me back to why learning how to jump (or how to do anything) is so important.
Jumping leads to dancing leads to expanding and sharpening mental representations leads to taking on challenges of all kinds, physical or otherwise. So, with deliberate, intentional practice of some skill, you become more adaptable and that leads to doing and trying new things. And I have good news, we all qualify for that.
You may not want to practice jumping or dancing, but how about a foreign language, memorizing strings of numbers or famous quotes or scripture or practicing an instrument or playing chess?
That new year’s resolution coming up? Yeah, don’t do that. Find something you enjoy and want to get good at, find someone to coach or teach you and give you feedback and start practicing – every day, with deliberation. Yeah? I mean, honestly what have you got to lose?
Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She holds her Crossfit L1 Trainer Certification as well as the CrossFit Mobility Certification and an undergraduate and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has written for FloVolleyball, Volleyball Magazine, The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Sweat RX, Gorgo Fitness Magazine, CrossFit Fury and the CrossFit Games. She is married with two children and in a former life played collegiate and professional volleyball. This blog is a collection of her own opinions, stories and process and do not reflect that of the sites or magazines for which she writes. Even though she was once called “The Spikedoctor” during her playing career, she is definitely not a doctor of any kind.