There is a popular, and highly overused saying, that is shared within both the athletic and business communities: “Practice makes perfect.” If you’ve been in either community for long, you’ve heard it. Most likely, you’ve either accepted it as truth, or you have said it to younger, less experienced participants as you wanted to motivate them to achieve a higher level of expertise or performance – or both. It implies that practicing will evolve into perfect practice.
It’s a shame that this statement is widely popular and shared by millions. It’s a lie.
Practice does not “make perfect.” More importantly, it never promises that you will become “perfect” in a skill, technique, or strategy. What it promises is that you can do the same thing over and over again.
The key point is this: if you practice the wrong skill, technique or strategy, you may become better at doing whatever it is you are doing – but that doesn’t make it the best approach. It just makes you look more smoother and efficient at what you are attempting to do.
When I was in 8th grade, I wanted to be a great basketball player. My goal was to be very good at shooting the basketball, so I worked on my shooting skills. Almost every day I was out on the court or in the driveway, working on accuracy and a quick release. Coaches and teachers told me that “practice makes perfect,” so I kept shooting and shooting. As a result, I was pretty good at getting the ball in the hoop on my middle school basketball team.
There was a problem, however. When I moved to the high school level, I noticed during my first basketball practice that a couple of the varsity coaches were grimacing. What made the situation worse was that they were looking at me. After the first practice, I was informed by one of them that they liked my ball handling skills and defense, but he then said, “your shooting form needs a whole lot of work. He then asked me, “Who taught you how to shoot the ball one-handed? Who coached you to do that?” I was speechless. How do you answer a question like that when you’ve been shooting like that for years?
Certainly I had a handful of coaches during my middle school years. None of them had told me that I shot the ball with bad form, or had taken any time to work with me to shoot the ball properly. It wasn’t because I wasn’t willing to listen – it was because they figured that I would eventually correct it in time. Certainly their prognosis was correct, but it sure worked against me. I had spent literally hundreds of hours incorrectly shooting the basketball. All I could think about after being confronted was this: how could someone let me do the wrong thing for years?
As a result, I worked on correcting my basketball shooting form, but the damage had been done. My high school coaches looked at me with a suspicious eye. They were concerned that there were other parts of my game that were not “fundamental.”
Worse yet, they thought they couldn’t change it. Within a year, I was shooting with proper form – but with a lot of suspicions on my part that I wasn’t being told the truth about my performance and skills. More importantly, I started to look at practice a whole lot differently. It was with an emphasis on improving my knowledge and then practicing with those skills and techniques in mind.
Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers football coach, correctly stated it when he said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” Although his statement is simple, it’s important not to overlook its significance. If you are consciously looking to be perfect in your execution, you are more likely to achieve a level of perfection than if you perform something without any understanding of how to do it correctly.
Lombardi also used a great strategy. He determined that a player who is highly skilled within a simple system executes better than a player who is working within a complex system. He used to say that he had no “secret” game plans. It was up to his opponent to stop what his team was going to do with better techniques. The Packers didn’t run any complicated plays. They simply ran plays that were precise and highly effective. Lombardi’s strategies proved to be effective as his Packers won multiple championships with him at the helm.
If you are “practicing” anything that is not as effective, efficient, or “perfect” as it needs to be, do yourself a profound favor. Stop doing it. Find the best way to do it and then practice that skill, technique, or strategy with a goal of perfect practice. Find those experts who are willing to show you how to do it right and listen to them. Do what they tell you to do, and stay committed to practicing what they tell you to do.
More importantly, always be looking for perfect practice in those critical areas which will determine your success. Regardless of whatever affects your life, find the perfect practice for your success. Additionally, don’t let anyone around you stay silent about how you can be better. Ask for honest feedback and criticism that will make you better.
Later in life, I attended a “Father-Son” basketball camp with my sons at my college alma mater. During the camp, one of the coaches taught both the fathers and the sons how to shoot the basketball more accurately. Russ Pennell made it incredibly simple for all of us as he showed us the basics of how to shoot the ball. I was finally able to shoot the ball really well. The reason was because I was able to gain insights from a very good coach – and so did my boys.
Another coach, John Wooden, used to say: “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” Coach Wooden couldn’t state the concept any better. Be about achieving your best every day.