Practice and Performance

The summer I turned 12, I got interested in the competitive side of swimming. I set high expectations for myself and diligently made every swim team practice, without fail. I swam in as many events as the rules would allow, and won many of my races. The capstone event of the summer was the citywide competition. I was ready. I swam my heart out for every event. And to my great surprise, I qualified for none of them. I was embarrassed and confused.

It wasn’t long before my 12-year-old self wanted an explanation. Especially because I had believed the adults who told me, “If you go to practice, you’ll get better.”

I found my coach, showed her my times, and asked, “How is this possible? I came to every practice!” Again, I was caught off guard because she was not surprised. She looked at me and gently said, “Shannon if you don’t put yourself into practice, you can’t expect to get better.”

I looked down. I saw the Band-Aids on my toe pad sores from walking the last part of laps during practice. In that moment, I knew she was right. I had become masterful at being at practice and actively avoiding it at the same time. I knew just when to take a bathroom break to miss a heavy drill, and just what questions to ask to get the coach talking more and me swimming less.

The lesson for me was that all practice isn’t created equally. Just showing up isn’t enough. I had wasted hours of poolside opportunity, and had no one to blame but myself.

Great performance takes great practice.

This may seem obvious, but it falls into the category of common wisdom that isn’t common. Most people can’t imagine going to a concert or a professional sporting event with musicians or athletes who never practiced. But most leaders expect extraordinary performance from themselves and others with little-to-no skill drills or practice.

If you want better results with less effort, you have to practice. I know. It sounds horribly inconvenient, even impractical, because there is no more time and exhaustion is the near enemy. But it is the only way. Great performance in any endeavor, including leadership, requires great practice.  So if you decide to take the leap, here are some tips:

Embrace your inner beginner.

Relax the need to be stellar at something right out of the gate. This is as important as it is rare. There is risk involved in practicing something new, and the “error” half of trial-and-error immediately takes over our thoughts and keeps us stuck. So practice new skills in low-risk places. Create an atmosphere of amusement, as you might with a child learning to walk or a puppy learning a new trick. Yes, the stakes feel higher, but that’s all the more reason to hold practice seriously and your errors lightly.

Be obsessive about getting feedback.

If you want to improve quickly, find ways to get clear, objective and regular measurement about how you’re progressing. Many of us like to avoid the current reality of our skillfulness in areas we want to improve. It’s risky. Eventually, the courage it takes to ask for feedback pays off. People begin to believe that you’re serious about the challenge, and end up supporting you in ways that often you can barely imagine.

Remember that all practice is not created equally.

Borrow the lesson from my 12-year-old self and catch yourself just showing up instead of putting your heart into the practice. Going through the motions takes time and effort, and ultimately the energy you’re wasting is your own.


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