I wrote recently about ways to make your training sessions more effective. This was sport specific and for those who have already been training for some time. But what about people who have just commenced with any hobby or pursuit that want to get better as quickly as possible— be it painting, judo or even podcasting? We used to say “practice makes perfect” until of course some “thought leader” had to come along and modify that to “no, perfect practice makes perfect.” As though no one knew practice is supposed to be high quality beforehand.
The funny thing about practice is that most people don’t really know how to do it, because they just think in terms of repetitions. We think back to school or in junior sports when we were told to just practice something over and over again until it feels good. That’s really only scratching the surface though, and will have diminishing returns. That’s because to really excel in any field, you have to go beyond practicing a skill in isolation. You have to find new ways to practice and to stretch your abilities so that you continue to grow. How you practice, not just how much you practice, makes a huge difference in how quickly you improve in your field.
From my experience over 30 years as an athlete, a writer, an instructor and a coach, there are three specific methods of practice that need to be utilised for a person to reach their full potential:
- Technique or skill specific practice
- Attribute specific practice
- Conditions specific practice
Skill specific practice
This is, of course, your bread and butter, and what most people think of when they think of practicing or training, because it’s the foundation. If you’re a writer, it’s practicing writing articles or stories. If you’re a golfer, it’s practicing your individual strokes at the driving range or putting green. If you’re a judo player, it’s practicing your throws. This sort of practice relies on lots and lots of repetitions so your neural pathways can assimilate the movement and thought patterns required. Skill specific practice relies on high volume, so in this sphere the person who puts in the hours is the one who will improve most quickly.
Attribute specific practice
The people who train attributes really stand out from those who rely only on skill specific practice. Martial arts is one of the best examples of this, and the reason that so many traditional styles such as taekwondo, kung fu and karate fall apart under the pressure in places like the UFC. They spend all their time training techniques until they are sharp and look great, but unlike combat sports such as boxing, judo, BJJ and Muay Thai, they don’t train attributes anywhere near as much or as effectively. In martial arts, training attributes takes place in the form of full speed and contact sparring.
When you train in this manner, you learn distancing, timing, the flow of combat and you also become accustomed to the unique physical requirements of fighting. Most importantly, you learn how to perform your techniques at full speed against an opponent who is trying to do the same to you. In my first months of judo, I had a reasonably high volume of technique specific practice because we were beginners and that’s what you focus on, but as soon as I was allowed to by the head coach I began going to fight nights.
It was here that I’d fight with world class judoka twice a week. After a couple of years, fighting the guys on my level who didn’t attend fight nights, the difference was stark. The greatest difference, however, happened when I moved state. I was living in a small town and started training at the only judo club. The highest ranked guy there was the same grade as me, and his throwing technique was much better than mine. Sharp, technically perfect. It was clear he spent a lot of time practicing.
What happened when we sparred? My time spent training attributes showed. He wasn’t even a challenge, I threw him whenever I wanted to, because I was used to fighting against people much faster, stronger and better than him. You can have the best technique in the world, but if I’m faster and have better sensitivity than you, you won’t land even once. The power of attributes cannot be understated, and I’ve seen it borne out again and again in other fields. What does attribute specific training look like in other disciplines though? Here are some possibilities:
- If you’re a writer, it’s writing different genres in different registers, so you aren’t limited to writing listicles or stream of consciousness. It forces you to think more and articulate yourself in a variety of ways, helping you to grow your ability to express your ideas.
- If you’re a painter, it’s painting in different styles or with different materials and paints.
- If you’re a fighter, it’s applying your skills in sparring where the environment is chaotic so you know what works for you and what is low percentage.
- If you’re a podcaster, it’s interviewing a number of people with differing personalities, so you get used to being able to build rapport with all kinds of people and keeping the conversation flowing.
A great example of attributes specific practice is Hoseok Lee, the Korean climber who went from a beginner (and non-athlete) to climbing V6 within 10 months. If you don’t know climbing, that’s obscenely fast progression. He went to V8 3 months later. Here is a video of him discussing the attributes he trained to get there. Everything in his training routine is about increasing the strength in his fingers, arms, back and core, and his ability to hold himself to the wall while he moves his body around. His climbing days are the ones where he trains technique.
What practicing attributes gives you more than anything is the ability to be creative. You can’t be great at anything if all you focus on is technique. Great chefs don’t become great by always sticking to recipes. Great boxers don’t become great just by working a bag.
Conditions specific practice
This is the last piece of the puzzle, because it only becomes important after skill and attribute practice, when you’re looking to put it all together in competition. Training for conditions is vital if you want to succeed in the competitive arena, because you never know what they’ll be and you have no choice or control over them.
If you’re a fighter who trains in an air conditioned facility year round, you’re going to be in real trouble when you go to a competition in the middle of summer and you aren’t used to performing in that level of heat. Not only is it going to be really hard physically, but now you don’t have proper knowledge or practice of how to hydrate to keep you performing properly — that’s a great big hole right there. If you’re at a big tournament and aren’t used to the noise of the crowd, it’s going to throw you off and make you lose your head
It does also apply to creative endeavours as well, just to a lesser extent. If you need absolute silence to be able to write effectively, that’s only going to work for you if you have an abundance of it. If you’re like everyone else and have a busy life, you might need to practice writing in busy places until you can do it effectively.
One of my biggest strengths as a writer is the fact that I can sit down pretty much anywhere and churn it out — train, plane, coffee shop, at home. That took a lot of practice though. Another example might be if you get paid work with a certain word count and a deadline. Unless you’re used to both of those conditions, you might freak out and struggle to put together something that truly showcases your abilities.
The military knows a lot about practicing in specific conditions, because lives are at stake. They create scenarios that mirror the real world and when they can’t, they’ll literally build them. HUET, short for Helicopter Underwater Escape Training is to teach soldiers how to get out of a helicopter that has crashed into the ocean and is flooding with water. They build the rig to mirror the inside of a helicopter, put soldiers in and then dunk it in a tank so they have to escape under real conditions.
When we did gas training in the army, we wore the equipment around all week, played soccer in it, practiced eating and drinking and shooting in it. It’s hot, it’s uncomfortable and it’s just plain irritating. That doesn’t matter though, what matters is that you know reflexively how to use it.
The military does condition specific practice like this because they know that people don’t rise to the level of their expectations, they fall to the level of their training. Proper training in real conditions teaches people how to stay calm and manage their emotions so they can maintain performance and not freak out. That’s how the astronauts of Apollo 13 managed to stay calm despite the fact that the command module was haemorrhaging oxygen in the middle of space, because they’ve practiced those scenarios literally hundreds or thousands of times.
No astronaut launches into space with their fingers crossed. That’s not how we deal with risk. — Commander Chris Hadfield
Now let’s think about practicing for conditions in a real world example: your next job interview. How many of you have practiced interviewing? How often do you wear a suit; if it’s not often, odds are you don’t even know if it fits and regardless, you’re going to be uncomfortable in the interview and that’s going to show. So, practice wearing your suit around until it feels right. Get friends or mentors and practice being questioned by a couple of people. Practice being able to give clear and eloquent responses under pressure. Practice your answers to the typical questions. Even practice drinking water in between answers so you can control your hand and not tremble in front of the interviewers.
In this case, condition specific practice could mean the difference between the job of your dreams and a huge payrise, or being stuck in the job you dislike.
As you can probably tell, training methodology is a huge passion of mine. I hope that this guide has really made you think about how you practice the different things in your life, and how you might improve that to get the results you want.