Picture the following scene. Your child is practicing a new song on the piano. If you didn’t already know what the song was, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it because your child pauses after every couple of notes. After playing one small section of the song, he goes back, replays those same notes, fixing errors he made the first time he tried it. At times, he’s not even playing: he just sits there staring intently at the sheet music.
If that scene seems unfamiliar, imagine this one. Your child is standing in the driveway: she has marked a line with chalk, several feet from the basketball net, and she stands there, practicing her free throws. Shot after shot: some springing off the rim, flying to the left or right, and others swooshing through the net. If you watch closely, after every shot, your child is slightly adjusting her posture: adding more bend in her knees, pulling in her wrist, extending her forearm to follow-through with her shot.
Lessons on Deep Practice from The Talent Code
“Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.”
That’s the subtitle of Daniel Coyle’s bestselling book The Talent Code. In his book Coyle, an award-winning journalist, sets out to answer a series of three questions:
‣ How does a penniless Russian tennis club with one indoor court create more top-twenty women players than the entire United States?
‣ How does a humble storefront music school in Dallas, Texas, produce Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, and a succession of pop music phenoms?
‣ How does a poor, scantily educated British family in a remote village turn out three world-class writers?
The short answer to those questions is that these exceptional people learned a particular approach to their practice, an approach also evidenced by the pianist and basketball player in the examples above.
Coyle explains that “they have tapped into a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted pattern build skill.” In one sense, this insight is the simple adage that “practice makes perfect” but now we have the science available to show us both why and how this is true.
Coyle highlights myelin, a neural insulator that neurologists recognize as essential to skill-building:
Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse…myelin vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster…[and so when we practice in the right way]…our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed.
The key, of course, is learning how to practice in the right way.
Deep practice is characterized by “slow, fiftful struggle” where people purposely operate “at the edges of their ability” with full recognition that this means failing more often than succeeding. Coyle explains this paradox, noting that “experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it” The key is to “choose a goal just beyond your present abilities” because “thrashingly blindly doesn’t help” but “reaching does.”
3 Rules for Deep Practice
Coyle gives us three rules for deep practice.
1) Break Skills Into Smaller Components
Break skills into smaller and smaller components and build sequentially. For example, rather than trying to play through a whole song at once, practice each stanza, or even just a series of notes, and then slowly build up mastery of the piece.
2) Repeat and Repeat and Repeat Again
As a general rule of thumb, world-class skill requires approximately 10,000 hours of practice. The more time spent in deep practice, and the more skills are repeated, the greater the amount of growth.
3) Learn to Feel It
As you practice, your instincts are being formed. You can start to lean on them. Experienced soccer players, for example, have a strong sense of the field: they are instinctively aware of patterns, and can see various angles on the field that suggest passing lanes through which to move the ball. Those players have learned to feel the game and are able to anticipate movement and respond quickly and strategically.
Lessons on Effective Coaching from The Talent Code
Earlier in this post I explored insights on skill-building through deep practice. I shared about recent neuroscience that highlights the vital role that myelin plays in wrapping nerve fibers which allows our brain circuitry to operate more efficiently, allowing us to build skill and speed. I highlighted the importance of operating at the edge of our ability, breaking larger skills into smaller chunks to tackle, and pinpointing errors and repeating skills until we eliminate those errors. Now I want to explore Coyle’s insights on how to teach and coach in a way that unlocks deep practice for our students.
When most of us imagine a world-class coach, we tend to picture a larger-than-life figure: a ship’s captain or military general. In our mind’s eyes, these coaches give rousing speeches that inspire great action. But the world-class coaches that Daniel Coyle introduces us to in The Talent Code don’t necessarily fit this stereotype.
Instead, Coyle writes that these coaches were “quiet, even reserved” and that they “listened far more than they talked.” Rather than giving inspirational speeches, these coaches “spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments.” These coaches had “an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality.” Daniel Coyle calls these coaches “talent whispers.”
In studying the method of legendary basketball coach John Wooden, Coyle noticed that Wooden gave short, pinpoint advice, tailored to particular players such as “do some dribbling between shots” and “crisp passes, really snap them.” Coyle describes Wooden’s coaching as being “error-centered, well-planned, information-rich.” This approach to teaching might seem cold and overly critical, but it needn’t be.
Coyle describes a piano teacher who operates with a similar model to Wooden’s but ties it to an emotionally-rich and loving style. “Each interaction vibrates with Miss Mary’s interest and emotion. To have better hand position is to earn a thrilling jolt of praise. To play something incorrectly brings a regretful ‘I’m sorry’ and a request to please play it again. (And again. And perhaps again.) To play something properly brings a warm gust of joy.”
Coyle explains why this is so effective: coaches like this are “creating and sustaining motivation; they are teaching love.” Of course, this style of coaching doesn’t lend itself to formulas or one-size-fits-all approaches. Instead, teaching “exists in the space between two people, in the warm, messy game of language, gesture, and expression.”
4 Virtues of Master Coaches
1) A Matrix of Skills
Master coaches have a combination of “technical knowledge, strategy, experience, and practiced instinct” which they bring to bear on their instruction. Coaches aren’t built with this knowledge-matrix: they grow it through practice in both what they are teaching and in the teaching process itself.
The best coaches are attentive to their students. Coyle found that “on the micro level, they constantly monitored the student’s reaction to their coaching, checking whether their message was being absorbed.”
3) GPS Reflex
Coyle writes that coaches have a GPS reflex that produces “a linked series of vivid, just-in-time directives that zap the student’s skill circuit, guiding it in the right direction.” A recurring phrase that Coyle noticed from these coaches was: “Good. Okay, now do __.” As soon as a student mastered one thing, it was on to the next, slightly more difficult, skill.
4) Theatrical Honesty
Rhetorical devices and theatrical expressions can be a useful tool for helping students learn and providing them with a fun experience while learning. One of my employees shared an experience he had with a college professor whose signature phrase is “let me misunderstand,” a phrase that let the professor pretend he didn’t get it while forcing the students to identify the error in thought and correct it.