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According to Mirriam-Webster’s dictionary, the word practice means “to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient”, which according to the same, means “well advanced in an art, occupation, or branch of knowledge”. Sometimes, it’s easy to get hung up on the word perfect, but according to Webster, perfect means “proficient, or having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience”. When the phrase “Practice Makes Perfect” is stated, the expectation is not flawless, being without fault or defect…or is it?

My granddaughter is 13, and loves to dance. She spends ten hours a week at the dance studio practicing her skills. Every year in May, we buy tickets to see her perform in the annual recital. From my seat, the dances appear to be flawless. But, if you asked any of those dancers as they exited the stage, they would quickly inform you, in great detail, where mistakes were made. Does this mean that nine months of practice was pointless? Of course not, but it is possible that the dancers’ expectations were blurred by the word “perfect”. Is it possible to gain a clear understanding of perfection that comes as a result of practice? Can we learn to practice smarter, so that we achieve better results? I believe to both questions is a definitive “Yes”.

First, developing a clear expectation of the desired result of practice is essential. As parents, teachers, and coaches, we can help the person engaged in practice by aiding them in setting expectations not clouded by a misinterpretation of perfection. Perfection might equal flawless in diamonds, but not when practicing a skill. Le Bron James is a great basketball player but he’s not without fault or defect every second he’s on the court. My granddaughter is a beautiful dancer, but those helping her to perfect her dancing skills should also help her to develop a clear expectation of what the result of years of practice will mean.

Secondly, as parents, teachers and coaches, we can help those engaged in practice to practice smarter, rather than longer. I’ve recently heard the quote “Practice Makes Perfect” said “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect” instead. In the Time Magazine article “The Myth of Practice Makes Perfect”, Annie Murphy Paul quotes from a groundbreaking article by Anders Ericsson in which Ericsson distinguishes between practicing and practicing deliberately. Ericsson states, “Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Ericsson reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. He also firmly believes that results must be carefully monitored with the help of a coach or teacher. In fact, what distinguishes the “good” from the “great” when learning a skill, may not be related to how much one practices, but how one’s mistakes are handled when practicing. If one only “practices” those skills that can be done consistently without mistakes, growth will not occur. But, if one only practices skills that are too difficult, the desired result will not be achieved. Daniel Babekuhl, a piano teacher at Shine Music School, tells his students “Perfect practice is about standing on the edge of your comfort zone and pushing it outward, not about sitting complacently in the middle of it, or diving in far outside it and hoping it somehow follows you”.
In conclusion, practice is vital to become proficient, or perfect, at any skill. Setting realistic expectations in the desired result of practice is essential so that we can clearly gauge our progress in acquiring the skill. Finally, practicing smarter will produce better results than practicing longer.

Randel Goad – Mandt Faculty