Blog Published: 07/11/2018

Blogger - David Hughes

The Power and Timing of Practice

What a summer. Unprecedented continental weather and a world cup. Thinking of the football, and after years of torment, it was a relief to finally see the England team win a penalty shootout at a major tournament, but taking a penalty for England is not something most of us would envy. History shows that England lose penalty shoot outs at critical moments in the highest profile tournaments. The ones who miss are forever in the national consciousness.; Pearce, Waddle, Batty and Southgate all come to mind.

However, at this World Cup, Gareth Southgate, the dapper, waist-coated, emotionally intelligent England Manager has had the team practicing. Not just practicing the actual execution of the daunting 12-yard spot kick itself but practicing the whole experience, even the walk from the centre circle to the dreaded penalty spot in front of billions. Mapping the experience and practicing the process in order to optimise the outcome has its foundation in science. The Talent Code by Dan Coyle has made sense of it all. The science says that we have billions of neural pathways that provide the relevant signals at the right time. Roger Federers’ muscles are pretty dumb, they simply do as they’re told. His brain however is the multi grand slam winning genius and that talent came at a price. The price he paid was the investment in practice. There’s that old statistic that says we can become expert at anything if we invest 10,000 hours; that’s 4 years if we take 8 hours a day 6 days a week. If you start early you could make it. Walking from the centre circle to the penalty spot and striking the ball cleanly many times undoubtedly helped the England players in the shoot out against Columbia.

So how does it work?

You start with the neural pathways which are developed when we start doing things and we start to become consciously competent; on the first rung of the ladder, we’re not very good but we tried and we know we have a gap. Hitting your first serve, trying to fathom that guitar chord or sitting in a car ready to drive for the first time, we’re all going to be pretty useless. We’ve made a start and now the magic happens as the brain kicks in to its role as a remarkable problem-solving engine. It knows there is a better way and it starts to experiment (imagine Christopher’s gears whirring in The Imitation Game), but it needs a challenge. Minute experiments happening in milliseconds against a reasonably defined gap (I know this chord can be played but I simply can’t play it) which triggers a journey into the zone of deep practice. This is the zone of failure and intense “stop and fix”. I can see the gap, I can’t get there but I have some motivation and purpose to keep going. If we get into this zone, then the chemical magic is exponential. Our thin and flimsy neural pathways start to get wrapped in something called myelin.

Myelin is a lipid-rich substance formed in the central nervous system by glial cells called oligodendrocytes, and in the peripheral nervous system by Schwann cells. Myelin insulates nerve cell axons to increase the speed at which information travels from one nerve cell body to another or, for example, from a nerve cell body to a muscle.
Extract from Wikipedia

The key here is the speed. The faster the message travels to the muscles and the more reliable the signal, the more unconscious competence we display. Roger Federer doesn’t worry too much about hitting the ball back after receiving a 120mph service from Andy Murray, he’s done it for thousands of hours and it’s all hard wired in his system after years’ worth of Myelin wrapping around the backhand return neural pathway. He starts to worry about the exact position the ball will land in as he now has the time to add the quality differentiation between his performance and that of his opponent. It’s not necessarily an innate, god given talent that makes us good at something, although some basic co-ordination wiring might be a good foundation, but the systematic small failures that trigger problem solving that in turn gets the myelin wrapping around the message delivery system.

In addition to deep practice, another factor can help in our development. Sometimes we can’t see what we need to do to develop our own talent and we need an additional external perspective to support our journey. Dan Coyle also refers to Master Coaching as a key ingredient in talent development. Roger might be the world’s best ever tennis player, but he also has a great team of coaches who certainly aren’t as good at tennis execution, but who can see the small failures and challenge for deep and relevant practice to get those extra and sometimes miniscule improvements that make all the difference at the highest levels.

I guess the parallels with our working lives in the construction industry are pretty obvious. Find a purpose, start, fail, stop-fix, problem solve, apply, reset targets, revisit purpose, practice, fail, stop-fix. Getting better at something requires failure, practice and problem solving. Start with finding where you are in your talent journey against your own universe of technical wizards is a wonderful start.

There are great tools out there like KnowledgeSmart that can identify your skills and your gaps, providing you with a tailored learning path to close that gap.
Set a target and start to problem solve your way through.
KnowledgeSmart can be connected to Pinnacle Series, which is an industry leading tool that can support the foundation for learning. It come pre-loaded with industry standard assets on Autodesk software, Adobe, Microsoft and more, and is where you can develop and perform your learning path.  Test yourself again and see how you’re doing. Try, fail, stop-fix, experiment, fail…
In the construction industry the pace of new software developments and release schedules is fast pace, which makes it vital to stay on top of this information. The reality is the suite of tools, systems and thinking needs to align to support the journey.

Developing a strategy for Organisational Development has to start with a good understanding of the problem the organisation is looking to solve, and many businesses would agree that development of people in any organisation is critical to its future success. I know from our own experience at Excitech, we have the motivation to build capability in ourselves and we find the words easy to say but deploying the right tools, systems and thinking is another level of commitment and investment we have to be prepared for.
Harry Kane or Roger Federer spend time practicing and failing penalties and backhands. We should all look to the areas that matter most to us and consider the practice and coaching we need, individually and collectively, to get a little bit better every day.

About the author

  • David Hughes

David Hughes

Managing Director

David took over as Managing Director in 2015 after two years in key sales and marketing roles within Excitech. Prior to Excitech, David gained 20 years of experience in sales, marketing and general management working within large corporates and as a self-employed consultant. David has also previously run his own business employing c.40 staff, and brings a track record of leadership, strategy and business development and deployment. David has a passion for Lean Thinking and believes it’s the next wave of development for all businesses as it provides an intense focus on people and a deep understanding of what is of value to customers.

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