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On Deliberate Practice

We've all heard the saying that it takes 10,000 hours to get really expert at something, whether that something is physical or cognitive. Tennis players and chess players, bakers and business owners. It takes practice to make progress.

What matters more than the time you put in (though of course you must put in some time) is how you go about practicing the skill you want to improve. Psychologist Anders Ericsson coined the term "deliberate practice" to describe the process of what it takes to get the most out of the time you put into your practice. 

Imagine it's deadlift day (yay, deadlift day!). How do you approach your loaded bar? Do you walk up and just start pulling, or do you take a moment to focus on your set up position, feel your muscles engage, and then start the pull? The difference between these two approaches will yield, over time, different results (not to mention, lower your injury risk!).

Focusing just a little bit more on the task at hand, as well as having a logical process or progression to follow, are only part of what it means to practice deliberately. The steps are:

1. Motivation: If the goal you're attempting to reach isn't one you REALLY want, then it will be harder to put in both the focus and time necessary to see true improvements. It can be more motivating to pick one or two areas of focus, maybe improving your mile time and getting those pull ups. Work with your coaches and fellow CrossFitters to help you stay motivated!

2. Specific, realistic goals. Sometimes this means taking a BIG HUGE SCARY goal and breaking it down into smaller, more achievable short-term goals. These goals or steps toward the goals should be very specific, so that when you reach them, you'll know! In CrossFit, this is pretty easy to do. You can decide to improve a lift by a certain percentage over a long period of time, maybe six months (and your coaches can help you know what a good realistic goal for you might be). You can work on stringing together more double unders. In either case, you'll know if you achieve that goal or not.

3. Step outside of your comfort zone–just a little bit. This means that, sometimes, you have to try something that feels just a little bit too hard, a tiny bit out of reach. You might fail. But the process of trying to achieve this just-out-of-reach step will really help you focus on what you're doing, help you try just a little bit harder, and do the things you need to do to make it. For example, if one of your goals is to increase your box jump height, you could start by adding a plate to your current box. Adding just a tiny bit of height adds to the challenge, sharpens your focus, and trains your body to move to achieve the harder goal. Then, two plates, etc. 

4. Be consistent and persistent. Without consistent work toward your goals, your progress will suffer. Set your gym schedule for the week, and stick to it (and if you need some extra help getting to those early morning or late afternoon classes, get a workout buddy to meet you at the gym). And, when you don't achieve those just-out-of-reach goals in step 3, resolve to keep trying.  

5. Get feedback. Sometimes the feedback will come in the form of one of the coaches giving you technique suggestions. Sometimes it can come during the deliberate practice itself. For example, if you're practicing your barbell or kettlebell snatch technique, you'll know when you've done the movement correctly by the way the barbell or kettlebell feels as you lift and catch it. In those moments of doing the movements correctly, take a few seconds to reflect on what went right, and after an appropriate rest time, try to recreate it (maybe with a lighter weight even). 

6. Rest and recover. Yes, even here! Your body needs time to physically recover from the work you are putting it through at the gym, as we all know. But deliberate practice is also mentally (and sometimes emotionally) taxing, and rest breaks, recovery days, etc give your muscles, central nervous system, and brain a chance to settle back down until your next practice session. 

There are tons of ways to apply the principles of deliberate practice, and we can help you if you're stuck on any piece of the process. And maybe just knowing that there IS a process is helpful, too. We can't say it any better than Anders Ericsson himself: 

“So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.”

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

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