Practice

“You are what you do often”

 -Robbie Deans

Robbie Deans, the current Wallaby coach,  is merely paraphrasing Aristotle who said “We are what we repeatedly do.”  It therefore goes without say that if you sit at home every day watching The Wire you’re well practiced as a coach potato.  If you drink at least five pints a day, well, you’re more than likely an alcoholic.

 A couple of years back I asked my cousin to watch me as I swam.  I was frustrated that after years of swimming my freestyle hadn’t improved.  He observed that my breathing was inefficient and that I would need to start breathing on both sides.  He also recommended visiting the pool more often than once a week. “You’re not practicing enough” he roared in his thick Galway accent.  I took the advice, and I now swim over three miles a week which has done wonders for my overall fitness.

It’s easier to see the benefits of consistent and deliberate practice in sport than it is in business.  During the annual Six Nations Rugby Championship the sports pages are replete with profiles of  either coaches or elite players who give some hints as to why they have been successful.  This weekend the Welsh are a win away from their third Grand Slam in seven years and their second under Warren Gatland.  Gatland, who seems to be a shoe-in for the position of head coach for the British and Irish Lions trip to Australia in 2013, outlined a brutal training regimen which attempts to simulate actual match conditions in an interview with Richard Corrigan of The Independent in February 2009.

“You have to replicate in training what happens during a match,” is the way Gatland sees it. “You have to have intensity and put yourselves under pressure so when a game comes around everyone is prepared for it physically and mentally. Yes, at times we make things harder in training than they will be in a match.

 The logic is that if you practice under these conditions your skills will not fail you in the heat of the battle.  Wayne Smith, former head coach of the All Blacks and assistant coach to side that won last year’s Rugby World Cup once bemoaned the basic skill levels of his squad.  At the turn of this century the All Blacks were knocked from their perch by Australia.   A number of senior squad members thought they knew it all and were not prepared to continually practice the basic skills of tight forward play.  This resulted in yet another Tri-Nations series loss to Australia.

Richard Strozzi-Heckler is a successful US-based executive coach and a 6th degree Aikido Black Belt.  He has written a number of books on Leadership and his most recent, The Leadership Dojo, devotes 30 pages to the need for continuous practice in order to build a foundation as an exemplary leader.  He highlights the effort involved in achieving mastery when he cites research which shows that it takes 300 repetitions to achieve body memory, which is “the ability to enact the correct movement, technique, or conversation by memory.”  He then points out that it takes 3,000 repetitions to create embodiment, meaning that you know longer have to think in order to do something, it is simply part of who you are.

In order to put in the effort required to embody a discipline Strozzi-Heckler stresses the need to be passionate about what you do.

“Humans will enage in a practice if they’re passionate about what they are practicing.  We are passionate about what we practice if it’s relevant to the life we want to create.”

So, if as a little red-blooded brat you gave up the piano because you wanted to play football instead, don’t worry, it was never meant to be.  Strozzi-Heckler highlights the simple benefits of practice by quoting Richard Baker who said “enlightenment is an accident, but practice makes you accident prone.”

The next time Brian O’ Driscoll  scores a wonderful game-changing try out of nothing,  it was more than likely crafted through years of observation and hours of repetition on a mucky training field in either Dublin, Belfast or Limerick.

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