Mindful Practice

By Chris Thurber
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / cannjbdmp88

“Practice makes progress” has replaced the phrase “practice makes perfect” in the lexicon of most teachers, coaches, and camp staff members. Maybe this is a reflection of the 21st-century emphasis on authoritative parenting. Or perhaps youth leaders have become neurotic about not making youngsters themselves neurotic. It’s also possible that we are more informed than ever about what contributes to success. Rather than attaining perfection, we now understand that striving for perfection is the key to meaningful achievement in life.

Take José, for example. He likes soccer, the most popular game in the world. He’s very good at kicking and dribbling with his dominant right foot and leg; he’s not so good with his left. And now José is in your soccer camp. If you want him to be a better player at the end of camp, you need to understand the principles of mindful practice. For his part, José will need to put in the time. Although we can point to a few soccer prodigies, such as Pélé, David Beckham, or Mia Hamm, all virtuoso players have something in common: They have practiced for thousands of hours. Practice is essential, even when raw talent is abundant. (For more on this point, read Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers.)

What is mindful practice?
There are two types of practicing: mindful and mindless. Research by psychologist Ellen Langer has revealed the importance of mindfulness in human thought, behavior, and emotion. By cultivating an awareness of what we are doing and by noticing and trying new things, we enrich our experiences. From the literature on mindfulness (reviewed in Langer’s book, Mindfulness ) come several strategies for enhancing the value of practice.

It might be easier to define mindful practice by first describing mindless practice. Mindless practice is pure repetition without conscious regard for any particular aspect of an action. Players simply step through an assignment or drill from start to finish. Their brains are on autopilot, quite literally.

When is mindlessness actually helpful?
Mindfulness is not always possible, nor is it always the most efficient way to complete tasks. To test this, read this sentence out loud, as quickly as you can: Prcticing sccer one hor each day wll dfinitely mak yu a mor tlented plyer.

It’s fascinating how even when a 14-word sentence contains only four complete English words, most people can read it perfectly. Our minds fill in the missing letters automatically. In this case, the automaticity—the mindlessness—of our reading ability serves us well. We’re not tripped up by typos. They may have slowed you down a little in the test sentence above, but you did read it and understood it rather well. Mindless reading helps us read faster, but it also makes it difficult to detect typos, especially in our own writing. In fact, reading is one of those automatic—or fluent—skills that we can’t easily turn off. When you see a stop sign, for example, you can’t help but read it.

Athletic performance is an interesting combination of attentive and automatic cognition. Like a chess master who simultaneously considers individual moves within the context of a hypothetical sequence of moves, as well as the entire board, an athlete stepping through a familiar drill attends to individual steps within the context of a play and the entire game. Then, some of what happens in an actual game is automatic and efficient, like fluent reading. Practice, however, is different from performance. An essential goal of athletic practice is improvement. That requires a special type of mindfulness. (Note that the strategies below apply equally well to a camper playing an instrument at music camp or painting a picture at art camp or writing a piece of software at computer camp.)

Strategies Of Mindful Practice
1.) Begin with a growth mindset. In her book Mindset , psychologist Carol Dweck describes the difference between a fixed mindset (where people believe they either have a talent or don’t) and a growth mindset (where people believe that effortful practice increases talent). Dweck’s research shows that students who adopt a growth mindset cope with failure better and persist with an activity longer than those who adopt a fixed mindset. Believing that effort leads to improvement turns out to be essential for improvement itself.

How you, as a youth leader, encourage José during soccer practice will help to shape his mindset. Imagine that he whiffs a left-footed kick. The comment, “Tough break, dude. Some kids have the touch; others don’t,” suggests a fixed mindset. José is likely to believe that he lacks what it takes to kick lefty. He’s likely to give up trying. By contrast, the comment, “That’s a good start. You came in with your left foot at about the right time. Keep it low next time and keep trying to hit the ball with your instep,” suggests a growth mindset. José is likely to believe that continued effort will pay off. Even though he missed this particular kick, he will feel motivated to keep trying. Remember that no matter how poorly a camper performs a skill, you can always praise the effort and state the positive, alternate behavior.

2.) Focus on a single element. A soccer player can be encouraged to look and get a feel for ball speed, foot position, leg angle, balance, follow-through or some other single aspect of a kick, juggling move, or play. (Or, in music, one can listen and feel for tone, pitch, volume, color, contour, speed, vibrato, attack, rhythm, tempo, harmonics, resonance, release, articulation, or some other single aspect of a measure, section, or entire piece.) By helping campers narrow their focus on a single element, you will help them increase their awareness of that element. In turn, this focus will help them discern what they want to preserve about an action and what they want to change. Your job as José’s coach is to provide instruction or devise a drill that narrows his focus.

3.) See the activity in a new light. Langer’s research points to several strategies coaches can use to keep any experience fresh for practicing players and artists. You might help a camper apply these strategies in the following ways:

  • Radically slow the tempo. Challenge youngsters to play extremely slowly—much more than they would during a normal game or practice—and ask them how it changes their perception of the activity. What do they notice? What movements or techniques are parts of the action that they hadn’t realized before, moving at full speed?
  • Insert a surprise. Return to a drill or component of play you haven’t used in a while. This can help players and students re-discover aspects of the game or activity. They may have gone through the motions many times, but when they compete or attempt the real thing—whatever that is—their actions must be fresh, alive, and vibrant. Revisiting an old drill or activity adds novelty to otherwise routine actions.
  • Begin with a brief explanation. Have campers say out loud what their current practice goal is. Will they be trying to kick or dribble faster or softer, more controlled or more powerfully? Articulating that micro-goal, especially when there is someone around to hear it (namely, you) increases the likelihood that the player or musician will achieve that goal. Athletes, artists, musicians and students at any level need to be held accountable for their practice goals by someone they trust.
  • Meditate or imagine practice. Have campers or students put balls, equipment, or instruments down for 20 minutes and ask them to close their eyes. Encourage them to concentrate on their breathing or on a pleasant word or phrase (i.e., mindful meditation), or see themselves executing a particular move or play perfectly (i.e., imagined practice). Using meditation to clear their mind or using their imagination to focus on an ideal outcome is powerful in harnessing concentration and improving performance in a real game or activity.
  • Play one-handed or one-footed. If possible, coach campers to use only one hand or one foot or only one part of their visual field. For example, challenge basketball players to stand at half-court, look at the net, and dribble with their non-dominant hand. Or, ask José to dribble up and down the field using only his non-dominant foot. The point is to get kids to focus all of their attention on one part of the body, a part that normally shares attention with another part.

4.) Keep practice positive. All students have a teacher, and most have a practice partner—a coach, parent, or camp counselor—when they are young. The role of these youth leaders is to challenge students and also keep motivation high. Here are several ways to accomplish these complementary goals with campers this summer:

  • Balance task difficulty and skill level. Drills and activities that are too easy are boring; those that are too difficult are discouraging. Find the sweet spot—or “flow” zone—that keeps things interesting. For more on flow, read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow.
  • State the desired behavior using only positive statements. Negative statements, such as “That sounded flat” or “Stop swinging so hard” or “Don’t turn that way” or “Don’t forget to” are less effective than positive statements that describe the desired behavior. “Give it more energy” or “Use a softer touch” or “Let me see you turn in the other direction” or “Remember to” are far superior forms of verbal coaching. It will take some practice to coach with positive statements, but it works.
  • Add humor. Practice is hard work but necessary for improvement. But peppering practice with smiles, goofy remarks, playful hyperbole, and laughter makes it more fun. Fun is motivating. And camp, thank goodness, is uniquely suited to provide a fun context in which plenty of improvement—athletic, social, and artistic—can blossom.
  • Use free play. Let campers’ creative juices flow by allowing them to make up whatever game they want from time to time. Or, offer them a 5-minute break when they least expect it. When I teach swim lessons, I insert a quick game just when I see campers’ attention and effort beginning to fade. This type of preemptive pause helps keep energy and enthusiasm high. It can also keep imaginations alive and injuries low.

Taken together and applied thoughtfully, these mindful practice techniques will help José and all of your other campers make unexpectedly strong improvements. That feels good, to both leader and child. Some kids will continue to play the games, sports, and instruments in which you’ve coached them; some will use the skills and techniques you’ve taught them; others will not. But all will have learned the value of practice. And knowing that mindful practice leads to improvement is a life skill that is as valuable in the boardroom, the stage, and the laboratory as it is on the soccer field. Now … how much progress have you made toward your thousands of hours?

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit CampSpirit.com.