Embrace the Power of Deliberate Practice

Be the Best You Can Be

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Practice Pays Off (photo credit: Danny Kavadlo)
Practice Pays Off (photo credit: Danny Kavadlo)

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee

There is a thread amongst elite performers in every walk of life.  Whether it’s the business, academic or athletic world, the very top performers share common traits.

These commonalities can be tough to spot on first inspection, until we widen our view.   However, there are broad stroke traits and habits that these people all share.  One such area is a commitment to deliberate practice.

In spite of our modern obsession with hacks and shortcuts, you don’t get to the top in any field without paying your dues.  Without putting the necessary work and effort in.

Every single high-level performer started from a place very far removed from elite.  Focusing on a path of improvement got them to where they are.  A total commitment to practice, underlies this improvement path.

Total Immersion in the Process

Deliberate, and focused, practice is where the gold is mined.  It’s what turns beginner to intermediate and intermediate to advanced.

Roger Federer didn’t become the most successful tennis player of all time by neglecting his practice.  To this day, he maintains a routine that would leave most of us dizzy with exhaustion, just reading about it.

Robert De Niro didn’t become Robert De Niro by avoiding practice.  He paid his dues and refined his approach to his chosen craft.  Respecting the process and respecting his art.  A total commitment to the work, to the process of improving.

These icons immersed themselves in their practice to the point that learned behaviours became part of their own fabric.  The practice provides a foundation for them to work from and to work on.  Hours and hours spent trying to perfect the tiniest of nuances.  Totally absorbed in the process of improvement.

We celebrate these and other individuals at the top of their craft for many reasons.  They make the hard look easy, they make what we think is impossible, possible. 

What anyone at the top of their game understands is that there is a power in practice.  Deliberate, focused practice is where the giants roam.  It’s where champions are made.

What Does this Mean for Us?

We don’t have to have dreams of being the greatest, the biggest or the best to learn some important lessons from this commitment to practice.  Our own wishes and wants may be much more grounded. 

Perhaps we just want lo learn to play a few chords on the guitar and bash out a song or two, at parties with friends.  Maybe we want to get better at presenting our ideas at work.  Perhaps we want to shave some time from our 5 mile, morning runs. 

Our goals are ours to own but deliberate practice can help us achieve them.

A Personal Example – Battles with the Pull Up Bar

A personal example may be in order. 

I’m a practitioner and fan of calisthenics (strength training with one’s own body as the weight).  I’ve included some form of bodyweight basics in all my workouts, for over two decades.  As I’ve grown older, more and more of my workouts have become bodyweight based.  I find this form of training endlessly fascinating.  I love the simplicity.  There is an element of beauty and creativity in attempting to move one’s body through space, with grace. 

However, along the way I have often run into spells of frustration with a perceived lack of progress, or when I hit plateaus in my own training.  This frustration gets me nowhere fast.  It does lead to me enjoying my exercise sessions much less, even dreading them a little at times and looking for an excuse not to practice.  Far from ideal.

Enter ‘Coach’ Kavadlo

Along this journey I’ve sought out the lessons learned from others.  Lessons from those ahead of me and that have a much larger degree of skill and expertise than me.  In the world of calisthenics, the Kavadlo surname kept on popping up on my radar many years ago.  The tattooed brothers from New York (Al and Danny) that looked like they walked their talk but also wrote with a stripped back clarity that is rare in the fitness realm.  I became an immediate fan.

In a world of fitness bombast and dogma, the brothers message was that many ways can work.  Yes, they presented ideas and frameworks from their own hard won experience, but they also encouraged readers to find our own way.  To experiment and find what works and fits best for us. 

The brothers approach their work applying an almost Zen like, Beginner’s Mind.  They know that although many of us seek them out as experts, they are also still students in strength themselves.  Never afraid to challenge their own ideas.  Embracing the endless learning process.

This message resonated with me deeply.  I read every book the brothers put out.  I nodded along, laughed at the humour and appreciated the deep wisdom in some of the words.  What I wasn’t always good at was putting what I read into practice.  This was particularly true in the case of embracing the process for its own end, rather than being focused on an external goal as the end point (more pull ups, less fat etc).

I’m pleased to say this has now changed in a big way.  A major catalyst for this change was I actually got some in person time with Danny Kavadlo.

While both the brothers are incredible writers from my perspective, nothing can really compare to an in person experience.  So I have sought out some of Danny’s time on visits to New York, whenever we are in town from overseas.  Danny has a motivating presence.  He is truly the larger than life character you hope he will be.  He also just seems a great guy, both interesting and interested.  He exudes an energy and confidence that is tough to fake.  In short, he seems very much like the real deal.

One of the biggest takeaways from the time I have spent with my coach (as I now consider him in all things strength), is that there really are no shortcuts.  No tricks that will get me to double my pull ups overnight.  No hacks I was missing out on.  We all have to embrace the grind of deliberate practice at a certain point, if we want to get better at just about anything.  In fact, we have to welcome it.  It’s part and parcel of the journey.  Our achievements are also all the richer for this journey.

The time with Danny has inspired me but also made me re-evaluate.  It has led to a shift in how I approach my workouts.  I have chosen to embrace the journey.  See the plateaus as a necessary part of the journey.  Understand that sometimes they’re my body’s way of telling me to back off a little or change something.  I hope to be at this for my entire life, so really, what’s the rush?

The result of this renewed approach is I get frustrated less and I enjoy my workouts a whole lot more, often approaching them with a practice mindset (trying to refine a skill) rather than beating myself into the ground. 

As importantly, this new approach has led to improved performance in a few areas of focus. 

For me, getting some expert tuition and cues from someone far ahead of me in capability and experience has been a game changer.  I would encourage anyone to seek out a coach (or mentor) for a similar area of interest you may have. 

The Obstacles Will Always Be There   

Broader than exercise, I try to let this approach, and the lessons I’ve learned from it, spill over into other aspects of my life.  Embracing the journey for its own sake in whatever I am applying myself to.  I don’t always achieve that goal and still get frustrated at times (hey, I’m human!) but I’m getting better.  I’m more consistent.

The pull up bar will always be there.  However good I get at getting myself up to it, someone else will be able to do more reps, with a cleaner technique and that’s okay.  It’s inspiring.  All I can do is be committed to make my reps the best they can be.  Clean up my own technique, try not to leak strength or waste effort.  Drive for that perfect rep.  Know that I gave the bar my best today and commit to showing up again and again, to do more of the same. 

To show up, work hard, practice with purpose and consistency, is my goal.  Then hit repeat.  Not only with pull ups but in life. 

We can all decide to embrace and appreciate the journey.  Doing so often proves so much more fruitful than fighting it.  The journey is where we spend a part of ourselves.  Where we work towards our goals, where we earn our own prizes. 

Tap Into the Power of Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice means using the power of positive constraints and cutting through distractions.

It means focusing on the process, not necessarily the outcome.

Practice gives us purpose, it gives us structure, it gives us something to fall back on when we lose our way.  It gives us routine.

Embrace the power of deliberate practice, be the best you can be in your own field of endeavour. 

Inspiration & Notes:

Danny Kavadlo is a New York City based trainer, writer, presenter and bodyweight training specialist.  He works with people around the world to improve their strength, health and vitality.  He can be reached at his blog.   

**Parts of this post have been adapted from an earlier guest article on Dragondoor.com.

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