What It Takes to Be Great
When your children are on the sports field or with the violin, how do they get better? How can you ensure your child gets the most out of the time? A lot of it has to do—at least until a certain point in development—with
It is pushing yourself just beyond the comfort zone. Colvin refers to University of Michigan professor Noel Tichy’s three concentric circles, with one being the comfort zone, the next one out being the learning zone, and the outer one the “panic” zone. If we do what only comes easily to us (the “comfort zone”), we will never get better. But if we give ourselves too difficult a task, we freeze—the “panic zone.” Teachers can easily recognize when they’ve thrust the child into that zone, and they know how to bring the child back to the “learning zone”—where the tasks are just difficult enough to stretch the student.
It is high repetition of the right way to perform the task. Colvin says, “Repeating a specific activity over and over is what most of us mean by practice, yet for most of us it isn’t especially effective.” This requires that we know what to repeat, which leads to another aspect of “deliberate practice.”
It is designed practice—meaning someone is telling us, or our child, how to improve. Colvin says, “The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s on to the next aspect.” To know what those aspects are requires coaching—someone who has been at the field longer and knows the most efficient and effective pathway to success. Parents should observe lessons or coaching sessions so they can reinforce the teaching methods later in the absence of coach or teacher.
It is continuous feedback on whether the task is being performed properly. Colvin quotes Steve Kerr, former chief learning officer of Goldman Sachs, who said that “practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level.” This is also where the coach, teacher and parent are critical. We need feedback to ensure we are in fact getting better.
It is highly demanding mentally. The mental requirements of “deliberate practice” are the main reason most people are not great. The concentration necessary to repeat that small sixteenth-note passage, or to choose that perfect word in the essay, or to condition the brain to move the arm in that way every time for the throw is largely what separates the average from the great.
It is not much fun. If it were inherently fun and easy work, everyone would do it, and everyone would be great. Again, parental involvement is key. Praise and encouragement can help a child stick with a challenge. If a child lacks self-motivation, parental motivation is the next best thing, even if “negative,” to help a child conquer laziness. Evidence shows that in many cases, eventually the child will internalize that motivation. One study looked at the 24 finalists of the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition. Not all were “child” prodigies. They were forced to practice like everyone else. Colvin relates, “One of the pianists recalled the life-changing experience at age 15 of sitting just three feet away as a great pianist performed: ‘I remember feeling inundated and overwhelmed with the dynamic range, with the expressive potential. … [A]t that point I became serious like I never had before. I cut out horsing around at the piano. … I worked.’”